How To Write the Common App Essay: Prompt 6, 2018-2019

Whew! We’ve been running through all seven Common App essay prompts to provide you with the information you need to pick the one that is right for you and to answer it as well as possible. Now we’re at #6 out of 7, so we’re almost done!

We risk sounding like a broken record player, but in each of these posts we’ve reiterated that we do not use the essay prompts. They are limiting, they can drum up bad writing behavior and habits, and we like rejecting the system wherever possible. It’s what gets our kids into their dream schools, and it’s what keeps us from going bonkers.

However, we do respect the role essay prompts can play for applicants who don’t have access to hands-on private college counseling. Maybe your college advisor has 200 kids and no time to meet. Maybe your English teacher is only able to dedicate one class to essay work. Maybe your parents aren’t confident writers or, even worse, they are, and they’re trying to push you in a direction you aren’t comfortable with.

When you’re going it alone, essay prompts provide structure. They are not a guide to be followed blindly, though, which is why we’re writing up these posts to give you the information you need to use them to your advantage.

Without further ado, here is prompt #6:

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

The people at College Board really do have a thing for stringing together a series of questions in a way that can result in bad writing. We’re going to break this one down sentence by sentence, but remember that the essay is about building a story that weaves together all of the themes presented in the prompt. Do not, do not, go point-by-point.

Sentence 1:
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.

Ok. So this is the litmus test for this question. A litmus test is, outside of science, a question that is clearly and decidedly indicative. If you answer A a certain way, it says something unquestionably conclusive about B. If you (A) see the first sentence of this prompt and are not immediately overcome by a wave of excitement just considering the opportunity to share something you are obsessed with, then (B) this prompt isn’t for you. If you do feel that wave of excitement, this question may be the perfect fit.

The point is, you can’t grab for something. If you’re going to answer this prompt, it has to come naturally. You have to be genuinely passionate, even obsessive. We don’t care if you play the accordion or study the history of nail art or taught yourself how to rebuild vintage pinball machines in your basement. In fact, the weirder, the better. Whatever it is, though, you need to be in love with it.

Sentence 2:
Why does it captivate you?

The greatest risk these multi-part questions pose is that students are drawn to answering them formulaically. They respond to sentence one, then sentence two, then end the piece with sentence three. That is completely and utterly incorrect. Why something captivates you shouldn’t be spelled out; it should be told through story and woven into the fabric of your lived experiences. Focus on a precise moment, and allow yourself to go deep into it by exposing your psyche through detailed narrative storytelling.

Sentence 3:
What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Warning! Warning! This is not, we repeat, not, an invitation to include a source list or bibliography. Repeat after me: “I shalt not include URLs. I shalt not make a list. And I most certainly shalt not try to make myself sound sophisticated beyond reason.” We highly doubt that you read medical journals in your spare time just to find out more about freckles. But if you go to the library, frame your essay in a library. If you shadow someone, tell that story. If you learn by tinkering, put the tools in the readers’ hands.

In the end, this essay is best written by those who are best suited to write it — people with passion, enthusiasm, and obsession. For those who fit this bill, let your freak flag fly.

If you could use some help corralling your passion into the essay form, send us a note. We’re good at this.