Dear person(s) who wrote University of California Personal Statement Prompt #1:
I love you.
By inviting students to dig deep into their personal histories and to make important connections, you have enriched both their lives and mine. Responding to the prompt has helped more than a few of my students discover important truths about themselves.
There was my student who grew up as an introvert, with parents who worked late. Because he was so often alone, he “retreated to fantasy books,” he wrote in his essay, “filling the void of loneliness with spaceships exploring distant galaxies, enchanted forests of knights and dragons.” During a family trip to Hawaii he looked out a submarine porthole to “the vast blue canvas of the sea” and saw the turtles and sharks as “life processes” and became convinced that “one could only come closer to understanding the world at the intersection between the real and the imaginary: only when one had feet planted in both worlds could one fully appreciate the ordered beauty of nature and life” and he ultimately realized that Biology offered “objectivity and a science with which [he] could apply [his] imagination to real world mechanics.”
And then there was my student whose interest in the human body was sparked when, at six, she inadvertently opened up an adult film on her computer. She was confused at first, then curious, then ashamed, when her parents walked in and told her what she was looking at was wrong. As she grew up she worked through the shame, the curiosity stayed, and she ended up wanting to become a doctor.
Could these students have discovered these things on their own? Perhaps. But I remember being present for the lightbulb moments in which they made these connections. And I can’t but think the prompt helped.
My wife is a wonderful Asker of Questions. Her questions turn me inward, inviting me to discover my own truths, and I’ve always thought of her questions as gifts. This prompt is no different. And it’s such a simple, eloquent little thing:
I love how open the word “world” is. But it’s not open in an impossible, abstract way. It conjures images, colors and differences. And it actually affirms that students come from a “world” that is different from other students’ worlds–something that many students don’t consider until they begin to write for this prompt. Then it invites the writer to describe those differences. Not explain or itemize, but describe. What a simple, beautiful request: describe your world.
The second part invites students to not only describe their dreams and aspirations, but to make connections between how who they’ve been will inform who they will become. Granted, many students don’t at 17 years old know what career they want to pursue or (like me) will change their major in college, perhaps more than once. “Dreams and aspirations” is open enough to allow for a variety of answers.
And here’s my favorite thing about it: by asking the student to make connections, to search for causes and effects, the prompt invites a meaning-making process that can at its best be therapeutic.
Can writing provide therapeutic benefits? Absolutely. Can college essay writing? You tell me. Try writing this prompt for yourself, whether you’re a student, parent or not. See what happens.
Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.