Dear Author(s) of the (now extinct) University of California Personal Statement Prompt #1:
In March 2016, you released eight new essay prompts, effectively eliminating one of my favorite essay prompts:
Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
I have many fond memories of working with many students on this fine prompt and, as I say good-bye to this dear friend, I wanted to say two things:
1. I love you.
2. Thank 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 was no different. And it was such a simple, eloquent little thing:
I love the openness of the word “world”--as in "Describe the world you come from..." But I didn't find it to be open in an impossible, abstract way. It helped my students conjure images, colors and differences. And it actually affirmed that students came from a “world” that was different from other students’ worlds-–something that many students hadn't considered until they began to write for this prompt. Then it invited the writer to describe those differences. Not explain or itemize, but to describe. What a simple, beautiful request: describe your world.
The second part invited students to not only describe their dreams and aspirations, but to make connections between how who they'd been would inform who they would 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. But “dreams and aspirations” was open enough to allow for a variety of answers.
I also loved that, by asking students to make connections, to search for causes and effects, the prompt invited a meaning-making process that was, 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.
You know what, though? In Faulkner's words:
The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.
That's true here too.
Because the former UC1 prompt still works as a replacement for several other prompts. Take, for example, the Common App prompt #1:
(Former) UC Prompt #1: Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
(Current) 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.
I find the former UC prompt to be more dynamic, and more specific. So in the past I've had students write their essays with this prompt in mind, then use the resulting essay as their Common App Essay.
And look how neatly the former UC1 prompt could (still) be used in place of several of the new UC prompts:
1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?
Why use the old prompt, you ask? Why not let it go? Because it's a beautiful little thing. And because I've seen it do things that other prompts simply can't do.
So guess what? I'll continue to use the former UC1 prompt with my students. And, as long as my students' essays answer the question they're being asked, no one will be the wiser.
My favorite prompt is dead.
Long live my favorite prompt.