Common App Essay Prompt #1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
“Whom do you look more like – your mother or your father?” Many people who meet me ask that question, yet I had never given it much thought. It ended up becoming an inside joke with my dad that I was lucky I hadn’t inherited his large nose.
I understood why people were curious about what happens when very different people like my parents come together. My grandparents emigrated from Spain to raise my mom in Venezuela, and my dad is Norwegian, making me half Venezuelan and half Norwegian with a dual Spanish citizenship in the mix. I thought that was all there was to my background. Simple enough.
Things got complicated during high school. When asked about race on set after set of standardized tests, I filled only the Hispanic circle, because I’d always felt a pull towards the rich culture and language on my mom’s side. I grew up greedily listening in on my grandma’s phone calls to my mother in their rapid-fire Spanish and gorging myself on her paella during visits to Spain.
Yet when various affinity groups at Andover warmly invited me to their discussions on ethnicity, I let the emails sit at the bottom of my inbox with a pang of guilt. I imagined a sea of faces staring at me in those meetings, wondering what a girl with blonde Norwegian hair could possibly know about being Hispanic.
Then, I took a class in my junior year about Latin-American immigration. I’d never viewed my mother as an immigrant, except for her trademark accent that I’ve always prided myself on imitating. When I interviewed her for a paper, however, hearing her feelings forced me to reconsider my identity and the responsibilities it holds. All it took was one sentence: “What I regret most about being an immigrant is not doing a better job teaching my daughter my language and culture.”
The guilt I once felt about being a Hispanic impostor was replaced with guilt for never considering the duty I owed my parents as a first-generation American to honor their sacrifices. I took for granted my materialization in the United States, giving no thought to the struggle my parents endured and the feelings of displacement they still feel.
I don’t yet fully understand what being first-generation means. Maybe it’s watching my parents’ eyes light up as they connect to their families in Norwegian and Spanish. It’s receiving photo albums from my grandparents’ weathered hands that are portals to a very different life. It’s unwrapping a thick Norwegian sweater for Christmas and wearing it as I drag my cross-country skis up the hill behind my dad, imagining the 18 words to describe snow in Norwegian. It’s dancing merengue next to my mom and slipping into Spanglish mid-conversation.
It also has a deeper significance. Certainly my love for singing in the shower, venturing onstage in coffeehouses, and always being the first on the dance floor comes from my Norwegian aunt who can play any song that’s requested on the piano. I owe my passion for tennis to my grandmother, who still sends me animated text messages when Nadal wins a match. Seeing my grandfather and my mother start companies in foreign countries sparked my own entrepreneurial spirit, inspiring me to start a nonprofit to help abused children I met in Costa Rica. My sociable personality must come from knowing firsthand that people who seem outwardly different can share many things in common. I attribute my newfound love of history to my interest in piecing together my family’s legacy.
This legacy gives me immense purpose to work my hardest while carrying on the cultures and values that have been cultivated inside our home. So with this, I’ll seek out the immigration stories of those around me, I’ll delve deeper into Spanish and maybe even Norwegian, and on the next standardized test, I’ll fill in two circles. I will do it proudly.
Common App Essay Prompt #2
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
The most rewarding experience of my life has likewise been the most frustrating one. It’s the one where I failed the most, cried the most, laughed the most, and questioned the most. It all began with three words uttered on a neglected, dusty road of Costa Rica – “amigas por siempre?”
As part of an 8th grade trip, I visited a safehouse in Limon where abused children are placed by the government. The kids flooded me with their stories: one 14 year old was pregnant from her uncle, a little boy was covered in scars from beatings. Their warm smiles and trusting hands masked their traumatic pasts. I promised one new friend, Idania, that I would return vowing that, yes, we would be “amigas por siempre.” Three summers and three visits later, after we had raised $30,000 that went towards constructing a learning center equipped with a bilingual library, educational games, and a computer lab, three more words stopped me in my tracks: “she can’t read.” I was talking to our Costa Rican tour guide about Idania, stumbling over my words in Spanish as I laid out what this bilingual library would do for the kids. I expressed how it would give them hope for the future and how my friend, Idania, could become a doctor like she dreams – even though she currently can’t read. I was shocked and dismayed when the tour guide informed me that Idania’s severe dyslexia had forced her to drop out of school.
I had believed I could save the children from a future of poverty, crime, and drugs. I thought that by building a gleaming learning center, the kids’ futures would be as bright as the pink butterflies we painted on the walls. The harsh reality was that I had failed not only the kids and the donors, but also the group of 30 people I brought down with my idealized dreams. That night, I curled up in my mattress shrouded by a mosquito net and cried. For the next few days, I was really bitter. I was bitter towards the people in my group who smiled and high-fived each other for “making a difference.” I was bitter towards another looming school year that would wedge thousands of miles and hours between the children and me. I was bitter that Idania would soon age out of the home with nowhere to go. On our last day together, we read for two hours, her fingers tracing each word as she read with increasing confidence. Turning the last page with a sigh of accomplishment, she hugged me, her eyes shining with tears. That was the last time I saw her, finding out in an email months later that she had run away.
It was hard to return last summer and muster up the same enthusiasm. I experienced a feeling of dismay as I searched the many unfamiliar faces as we pulled up to the safehouse, knowing I wouldn’t be greeted by Idania’s bright almond eyes. Yet I found comfort in the glistening eyes of the other kids, their arms reaching up for hugs, their quiet smiles expressing gratitude. I knew I had to redirect my vision. I found and hired tutors and workshop leaders to work in the learning center, teaching vocational skills like jewelry making and nail painting, and educational courses including Rosetta Stone. Now, we employ three tutors and workshop leaders to give the kids the personal attention they deserve. Hopefully, these adults will become a lifeline for the children.
On the last day of our trip last summer, we visited a woman who runs an independent home in Costa Rica’s capital and had singlehandedly raised 80 children over the past 20 years. As she told me how desperately she needed a space where she could help the kids do their homework and read, my heart filled with a longing to help. After returning back to the United States, I was able to secure a sizable grant to replicate the learning center in this stable home with an enthusiastic adult who yearned to see these children thrive. I never would have had the chance to do this if I had not pushed past the disappointment of failure in order to return.
As I learn more and more about these children and how to best support them, I appreciate the importance and permanence of every moment, every interaction: sitting and listening to their stories as they braid my hair and fix their eyes on the ground, telling a mute twelve year old she’s beautiful and strong and important and really believing it, promising to return and keeping that promise, and truly meaning it when I say “amigas por siempre.”
Common App Prompt #5
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Exhilarating wind breaks against my six-year-old smile. The whole world hears my proud shout: “I’M SKATING!” Yet pride fades quickly to fear when I realize I don’t know how to stop.
Life is like that. I spent my early childhood years exploring, learning how to be a human and learning what being human meant. Once I learned, I started skating. I breezed through life without struggle. At first, this rush was intoxicating. Then I couldn’t stop. I blinked and found myself skating through life a decade later, burying grandparents and kissing girlfriends. I wanted to slow down—to go back even—but I didn’t know how. I sped toward adulthood, panic-stricken.
Removing my rollerblades would require a second grader’s hand and a trip back to the skating rink. I chanced upon this renaissance while working as a volunteer for a youth enrichment program. Seven-year-olds filed into our summer classroom—wasn’t I their age just yesterday? Among the crowd was Cameryn, a bouncy, giggling girl no different from her peers. Only a disability set her apart: Cameryn Cantrell was blind.
Immediately I became her guide. Together we made crafts, drew pictures, and laughed with the rest of the group. I wish I could say that her overarching normality inspired me instantly, but it did not. After my years of service to special needs children, this was nothing new. I was skating.
My automatonic procession stopped the day we went to Hot Wheels. As Cameryn chatted the bus ride away, I worried how we would pass our two hours at the skating arcade. My concerns were answered upon arrival when she declared her shoe size to the skate stocker. Fearless little Cameryn was about to brave the rink. I tied the wheels to her feet, took a breath, and led her into the arena.
Air tickled our faces as we picked up speed. Cameryn squeezed my hand tighter. “I’ve never gone this fast before!” Her voice betrayed no trace of fear; instead, she—in her omnipresent darkness—beamed a smile that radiated irresistible zeal. Butterflies rippled through my stomach. In that magical instant, my skates came off. Time regained its viscosity, and I felt alive again.
We traveled around the rink for another ninety minutes, but I don’t remember it this way. I remember that we skate hand-in-hand, forever. Our infinity marked a watershed in my growth; for although supervisors hailed me as a role model, I felt like Cameryn’s pupil. She had awakened me to the world as she saw it: through a lens of adventure.
With my new sight, ignored caves look like invitations, and forgotten forests have become my playgrounds. I’ve zip-lined through jungle canopies under the crackle of lightning and awed at nesting sea turtles on midnight trips to the beach. At school, I jumped into a theater class to live the fantasies of a dozen characters.
Such rediscovery is the hallmark of adulthood. Growing up means redefining our personhood and relearning our place in the world. Skating with Cameryn kindled within me a flame for new exploration that I strive to stoke each day. As long as that fire remains aglow, I can call myself an adult.
Common App Prompt #3
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the coutcome?
“...without courage, compassion falters, and without compassion, courage has no direction.”
― Eric Greitens, The Heart and the Fist
I thought justice was as simple as two ends of a table. I planned to administer justice as I sat in a somber room with walls covered by oak bookshelves, rows of yearbooks and anthologies bearing the weight of the past, air conditioning chilling my sweat, and an aura of gravity filling the air. The massive oak table with its long, coursing grain, lit on two ends by weighty chandeliers, dominated my vision. A high school freshman, I took the last seat on the far end of the table with the other members for my first hearing of the Discipline Council—four teachers and six students selected by the administration to recommend penalties for serious offenses.
I looked out across a yawning gap of empty chairs separating me from the defendant seated on the opposite end, proud to represent the honor of my school and the courage to hold my peers accountable. I wanted to reach down and raise up my offending classmate by allowing the school justice system to do its work. I pulled out my notepad as my classmate began to tell his side of the story.
Stone-faced and jotting down notes, I listened as the defendant narrated his account of a relatively cut-and-dry plagiarism case. As he finished, he did something that shocked me, conflicting with the stoic culture of an all-boys’ school: he cried. While stories of boys crying to escape punishment abound, his tears rang true, running with sincerity and anguish, tugging my heart so hard that I toppled off my moral high ground. He was no longer the offender, but Jim (name changed) who I worked with in English and Biology classes. Compassion and empathy ripped apart my once scientific approach to justice.
Disconcerted, I wondered how I could ever pass a judgment on Jim’s case as he left the room and deliberations began. Jim’s tears had disabused me of my black and white view of the Discipline Council. I no longer sat on the side of the right, judging the side of the wrong. I had tumbled into the ambiguous chasm between the two, torn between the unrelenting forces of courage to fulfill my duty as a Discipline Council member and compassion for Jim. On the verge of tears, I sat pitifully while the other members discussed mitigating and aggravating factors, wondering why I had originally felt so honored.
I finally worked up enough courage to suggest that Jim’s clear penitence merited a reduced penalty. I expected to be shot down, but instead saw nodding heads. I turned to Dr. Stegomoeller, the faculty sponsor of the Discipline Council, and saw emotion in his eyes, realizing that he not only thought about justice, but he also felt compassion. A glance around at the other faculty members and upperclassmen revealed that they too were conflicted. The deliberations were a collective effort to resolve that conflict, to find the balance between compassion and courageous duty. As we unanimously agreed on our recommended penalty, a two day suspension, the mood in the room felt like that of the swim team after a draining practice; the last hour was tiring but worth it. Forging through that inner struggle made me certain that I had made the right decision about the penalty.
The light bulb finally clicked. The conflict between compassion and the courage to hold my peers accountable was tortuous and tangled, but essential, because without that struggle neither virtue would have direction, and I would be truly lost. That afternoon in the Discipline Council taught me that as much as I wish for simple black and white choices, most decisions take place in the murky zone between virtue and vice as I am tugged in every direction by conflicting values and emotions. I embrace that uncertainty, however, knowing that I will find a balance far more beautiful than any two-dimensional choice could possibly offer.
Common App Prompt #1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Nobody cares down here. The asphyxiating world above soars from view as I descend below into the water. Distinctions and inequalities wither away as the gorgonian sea fans grow denser, limiting the streaks of sunlight that still manage to penetrate this deep. Marine colours fade, along with human discrimination. It is still possible to discern the surface – the silhouette above of a green sea turtle navigating the waves – but nobody bothers to look up, to look back. Eighty feet from a dependable source of oxygen we are each other’s lifelines, and all we have to communicate with is our hands. No words are uttered – no words can be uttered. The sound of my regulator hissing and gurgling fades to a gentle murmur, then nothing. There’s absolute silence. What initially seems terrifying, what seems absurd, could not have been more beautifully engineered. Scuba diving is a refuge from the culture clash that shadows me: down here I am the same as everybody else.
But when I surface, I am a riddle no one can solve. I am neither British nor American but an amalgam of the two. The last eight years of my life have been spent in Massachusetts, yet when I open my mouth I am indistinguishable from any British teenager.
Every day without exception my nationality is acknowledged. A boy who has held a mere four conversations with me since freshman year, all of which were compulsory in one way or another, asks me if I woke up at 4 o’clock this morning to catch the Royal Wedding; my sophomore year World History teacher glances in my direction, requesting a tacit confirmation of the accuracy of her details regarding the religious beliefs of Mary I and Edward VI; my reaction of “Ouch! That really hurt” to a friend who parks her chair leg on my foot in the library three years ago results in a tableful of laughing girls, mesmerized by my unintentional rendition of the YouTube sensation “Charlie bit my finger.” I hesitate, perplexed as to why I’ve been singled out. Now, a little wiser, I pause in frustration, hoping for this attention to be some type of joke. It never is.
Most revel in my English accent. Sooner than later I assume the disguise of a magician, my trick being effortlessly simple, yet consistently engaging. In my repertoire: ‘dodgy’, ‘wonky’, ‘bloody hell’, ‘loo’, ‘rubbish’ – just to name a few. I once naively exposed the act to a nagging friend and now it’s a full-time show. I am a full-time show.
I am not a proficient riddle-teller. I don’t even know the solution to my own riddle. I am divided between two linguistic cultures, waiting for time to tell me which one to call home. Underwater I can escape: I can be myself without managing to perplex others. The silence of the deep lures me while I wait.
Susan Alaimo holds a Master's Degree from Columbia University and has helped hundreds of students to gain acceptance to the most prestigious colleges and universities.
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