As a high school senior applying to colleges, most of the work is already behind you. Your transcript, extracurricular activities, and teacher recommendations are falling into place. You’re on the home stretch. There’s just one task left for you: college application essays. Sometimes, the essays are fairly straightforward. But other times you stumble upon a prompt that reads something like this: “In 500 words or less, tell us something about you that we don’t already know.” When I applied to college, these prompts would send my mind into overdrive: what could the admissions office possibly not already know? How could I make myself stand out with this essay? But have no fear! This article covers some tips on how to tackle these dreaded open-ended prompts.
1. Think about what you haven’t already covered in your other essays.
This is the simplest option. Let’s say you spent your entire Common App essay elaborating on your love for baseball. But let’s also say that you spend a significant amount of your time writing your own music and performing it for your friends. This kind of unofficial activity might not shine through on the fill-in-the-blank activities section of the Common App, and it would be to your benefit to elaborate on what it means to you and what writing music says about you.
2. Find something quirky that represents you.
It doesn’t have to be anything incredible or even an interest that you spend a large amount of time on; it just has to be able to say something about you. Is there a unique podcast that you listen to? Do you enjoy collecting vintage clothing? Have you always supported a specific sports team?
And of course, what does that quirk say about you? Maybe you really enjoy that architecture podcast because you’ve always loved the idea of creating something beautiful out of nothing. Maybe you collect vintage clothing because you just love old things. Or maybe you’ve always felt a connection with the Irish National Soccer Team, because they just try so hard at something that they love. Especially for your reach schools, it can be best to go out on a limb and really bring something new to the table.
Admissions officers constantly read essays about how being swim team captain made an applicant a better leader, or how choir helped a student come out of her shell. These are both great topics for some people, but think about how pleasantly surprised your reader will be to learn about an applicant who has been reading everything by J.R.R. Tolkien that he could for the past four years. Pick something small about yourself that’s not in extracurricular section of your application, and show the readers what it means to you. Whatever the case, make sure that you can turn around your quirk to make it say something about you.
3. Use the space to talk about some sort of adversity.
Everyone knows that life isn’t perfect. If you want to use the space given to you in your open-ended essay to write about any sort of adversity that you’ve overcome, or even that you’re still overcoming, go for it. Of course, another option is to write about this challenge in the “Additional Information” section of the Common App, but as not every college is on the Common App, this is still a viable choice. Some might even feel that it is better to write about their adversity in the actual essay portion of the application, especially if they have significantly changed because of their specific struggle.
4. Even if all else fails, have fun with it!
For my college, the prompt asked what made me colorful and unique. I had already covered all of my important extracurricular activities and interests on other parts of my application, and I thought that how I wrote my essay would show more about me than the actual content. The essay began with a Forrest Gump quote, and evolved into a first-person narrative featuring an argument between my different pairs of shoes. Of course, I didn’t write the essay just to be funny, as each pair of shoes represented a different facet of my personality or an extracurricular activity. The main point of the essay, however, was to reveal my personality. I decided that it would be best to take a chance and stray from the traditional college essay in order to catch the eye of my college.
Whatever option you choose, just be sure that your essay tells the admissions office something new about you. Be innovative, as sometimes how you write can tell them more about you than your actual essay. But most of all, don’t stress about it too much: anything you choose to write about will help the readers better understand who you are as a person.