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From stadiums to galleries, the new frontier for today’s mega pop star is high art. Mass popularity has its charms – sales, world tours, legions of followers – but the legacy-conferring power of art is now the ultimate sign of one’s status within Western culture.

The rallying cry of “witness me, the artist” is the new mantra of pop royalty – from Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Lady Gaga to Kanye, and even Rihanna. Still, is this embrace of high art a phenomenon worth celebrating? Or, might it be seen more cynically, as a case of superstars using art to bestow credibility on their work in defiance of their own mass appeal?

Admittedly, there has never been a clear, dividing line between the pop and art world – and why should there be? Some of the most creative musicians in recent memory – David Bowie, Keith Richards, David Byrne, Brian Eno to name a few – began to study or pursued training in the visual arts.

In Australia, members of the 80’s band Mental as Anything met at art school in Sydney and Nick Cave studied painting before pursuing his music. More recently, Sia, the daughter of Adelaide artist and art lecturer, Leone Furler, has become recognisable for the giant wigs that cover her face, her remarkable voice and her artful music videos featuring various dance collaborations.

Nor can we overlook the phenomenon of art rock that emerged in the sixties. Some of the most remarkable turning points in music history have been credited to the artistic turn in the work of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and The Velvet Underground & Nico’s eponymous (1967) album under the influence of Andy Warhol’s New York Factory scene.

While the emergence of the concept album took hold in the 70s, the pioneers of the music video age – Madonna, Michael Jackson and even Prince – understood the visual possibilities of the pop song better than many of their contemporaries. Their work endures for its blend of powerful music and evocative storytelling through videos such as Like a Prayer, Thriller, and When Doves Cry.

But today, the story is different. A song, mostly, is not enough. This is not to say that image is everything, but rather that one’s stake in the pop world depends on musical and visual novelty. For today’s pop leaders, this increasingly means sidestepping the boardrooms of marketing professionals in search of the artistic underground.

Making art out of Lemonade

Beyoncé’s high-concept visual album Lemonade, for instance, takes listeners on a bold new form of musical storytelling in the style of Prince’s Purple Rain (1984), Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1988) or, perhaps more recently Kanye West’s 35 minute film Runaway (2010) and Lana Del Rey’s Tropico (2013).

For years, Beyoncé has been consciously attempting to shed herself of her Destiny’s Child/Top 40 persona. Lemonade accomplishes that. Equal parts high-art and high-profile, it tackles the personal and the political, solitude and sisterhood and the emotional wounds of infidelity against the backdrop of race in America today.

A tapestry of song, visuals and locales, Beyoncé plays the survivor, a women-in-healing, trying to come to terms with the emotional aftermath of a love gone wrong. With cinematic grandeur, the album swims in evocative visuals of nature’s mysterious powers (which have drawn comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick), and spoken word narratives, including the poetry of London-based, Kenya-born Somali writer Warsan Shire.

References to high art abound. Beyoncé infamous baseball bat wielding sequence in the song Hold Up pays homage to the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, whose 1997 video installation Ever is Over All featured a woman walking down a street smashing car windows. Some have accused Beyoncé of appropriation rather than homage.

Last year, such concerns were expressed about Drake’s video for Hotline Bling which was strikingly similar to the light installation pieces of American artist, James Turell.

Beyoncé also collaborated with Nigerian visual artist Laolu Senbanjo, whose sacred body painting features in the film.

Observant Instagram followers of Queen Bey, meanwhile, will have noticed signs earlier this year of her increasing contact with the high art world. In collaboration with Swiss-born, New York-based Urs Fischer and Garage magazine (Spring/Summer 2016 edition), Beyoncé offered her thoughts on art via the magazine’s app. On its cover, she was photographed with cornrows, amidst a thick swirl of pastels painted by Fischer. In the interview, she discussed Andy Warhol and her interest in modern art, name-dropping some of her favourite artists (Tracey Emin, Kara Walker, Aaron Young and Donald Judd).

What’s interesting about this new period of Beyoncé’s work is that she has reinvented herself as the Benjamin Button of the pop world – apparently becoming younger, less bourgeois and more defiant with age.

While most have certainly embraced her newly, empowered voice, other fans, however, wonder if the less complicated, radio-friendly Beyoncé will ever return.

Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner

In his own plea for artistic cred on his 2013 album, Magna Carta, Holy Grail, Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z’s hyper-capitalist dreams come to the fore. In the song Picasso Baby, Jay name-drops icons of the art world (Rothko, Bacon, Basquiat etc).

In homage to the reigning queen of performance art herself, Marina Abramovic, Jay adapted her (2010) MoMA installation, The Artist is Present – in which she sat six days a week, seven hours a day in a chair for a “silent opera”.

Jay did a six-hour performance of his Picasso Baby at at Pace Gallery in NYC. In the video of this, directed by Mark Romanek (who also did his “99 Problems” video and is one of the directors of Beyoncé’s Lemonade), Jay raps to a room full of carefully selected artistic and cultural leaders ranging from actor/director Judd Apatow to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to artist Andreas Serrano to Abramovic herself.

Both Jay-Z and Abramovic were on good terms, until in an interview with Spike magazine, she accused Jay of not meeting his end of the business deal – namely, a sizable donation to her new Marina Abramovic institute of performance art in upstate New York. The mutually-contrived deal turned into an awkward PR debacle for both camps. (Jay-Z’s people later confirmed that a donation had, in fact, been made and Abramovic apologized for the oversight.)

What’s unique (but slightly predictable) about Jay’s celebration of the art world is how he fantasies about it. Picasso Baby is less homage to great art for art’s sake, more reverence of the reckless spoils of the “good” life. Art is worshipped as a sign of cultural power and extreme wealth:

Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner
Go ahead lean on that shit Blue, you own it.

While some might argue that Picasso Baby is a “gateway hit” that opens younger fans up to the history of art, ultimately, the song never really embraces it as anything other than “art consumed by consumerism,” as one NPR commenter suggested.

We are not far away here from 19th century British cultural critic Matthew Arnold’s observations about the elitism of high culture. It is valued, he wrote, out of,

sheer vanity or else as an engine of social or class distinction separating its holder like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it.

From Queen Bey to Rhi Rhi

Recently, Barbadian bad-girl Rihanna has also thrown herself into the art game. On her latest effort, Anti (2016), the art partnerships are numerous: Israeli-born artist Roy Nachum and poet Chloe Mitchell worked on the liner notes, and there were enough producers and writers to staff their own soccer team.

The lead single, Work, was highly anticipated and ultimately a head scratcher. Her canoodling with Drake in the song’s video was predictably sexy but missed the feverish mystery suggested by the very powerful Antigone/Oedipal hallucination of the cover art. (On the album, a young Rihanna – eyes covered by a crown too big for her head – holds a balloon and is smothered by a blood red stain that she cannot see).

With songs like Woo and Work there’s a blatant disconnect between the music and imagery. Arguably, Rhianna appears to be swimming in artistic waters well over her head and not satisfying her Top 40 fan base either.

Still, the recently released video for Needed Me, (directed by indie art renegade Harmony Korine) has a Springbreakers meets Scarface meets Viceland in Miami documentary feel to it, making Korine the perfect accomplice to Rihanna’s nihilistic turn. With a simple, yet devilishly dark storyline, Rihanna plays the elegant, savage murderess, taking care of business the only way she knows how.

Pablo does Picasso

Then there’s Kanye. The insufferable “think” pieces on his latest album, The Life of Pablo (2016), the Twitter meltdowns and ego-mania have reached peak decibel level, but it should be noted that as a former art school student, Kanye embodies the “child-like curiosity” that German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche discusses so fondly in many of his aphorisms on art and creation.

In interviews, it would appear that he can’t get his dreams on paper – or into the factory – fast enough. He has also suggested that the paintings of Picasso, Matisse have inspired his work. In a 2013 interview Behind Kanye’s Mask with The New York Times, discussing his recent love for the history of architecture, he refers to himself as “a minimalist in a rapper’s body.”

West’s art idols are a unique blend of European and American artists/innovators (Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, George Condo, Pablo Picasso, Marco Brambilla, Vanessa Beecroft, just to name a few – and let’s not forget his collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami during his Graduation period either).

For a recent collaboration with filmmaker Steve McQueen, West opened up about having his work seen primarily as art, adding:

I would trade all my Grammys – or, maybe, two Grammys – to be able to be in an art context.

For his new album, he collaborated with relatively unknown Belgian artist Peter de Potter for the cover art. West’s artistic influences, fashion tastes (Givenchy, Balmain, Raf Simons) and interests in design, (The UK’s Daily Mail caught him returning from a meeting with IKEA in Sweden earlier this month), suggest an explorer’s spirit and a sense of genuine creative experimentation.

Vanessa Beecroft, one of West’s collaborators for his recent fashion/performance pieces, (the Adidas Yeezus fashion shows, the Yeezus tours, and some Art Basel projects) has spoken positively of the artistic freedom he allows on their projects. Indeed American fashion has been revitalised by his street style alone. Consider the week-long lineup outside any store releasing new editions of his Adidas Yeezus shoes.

West’s tireless quest for artistic perfection and new forms of visual expression is a welcome wake-up call to the increasingly blasé world of both high art and mainstream rap. Even if he raps about anal bleaching and “fame-thirsty” New York models, his obsession with garnering high-art legitimacy has generated some of the most interesting fusions of art, fashion and music in recent years.

When Koons met Gaga met Botticelli

Of course it would be impossible to discuss recent pop/high art collaborations without mentioning Lady Gaga’s undervalued 2013 release ARTPOP. The album’s cover art featured a prominent collaboration with Jeff Koons, with fractured pieces of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1484-6) spliced into the background.

In interviews, Gaga appears to be highly articulate on the subject of artistic processes and influences.

She cites Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as a major source of artistic inspiration and has a quote of his about the necessity of making art tattooed on her upper left forearm. With ARTPOP, her intention was to bridge the world of pop and art in ways that mass culture has never seen before.

Her powerful and unique songs, such as Artpop and Venus realised the goal. However, sales were lacklustre. Critics questioned whether her “art game” was as strong as her marketing prowess, with some all-too-literal songs such as “Donatella” and “Fashion”.

Legacy building

Artistic legacy is clearly pop’s new watchword. Still, today’s pop stars might want to pay heed to Aristotle, whose observations about the process of artistic creation still ring true. “The aim of art,” he wrote, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”.

History teaches us that many artistic experiments flourish and fade. The true artists of our day (regardless of the medium) create works that connect with the complexities of the human soul in ways that crass materialism and persona-mongering cannot.

No amount of artistic referencing or posturing will take the place of original, inspired and soul-searching work.

Mechanics

What are best proofreading practices?

What grammar essentials should I keep in mind?

What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

Which cliches should I avoid?

Structure

What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

How many paragraphs should I use?

How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

How can I identify and avoid tangents?

Content

How can I make a good first impression?

What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?

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What are best proofreading practices?

There are three essential elements to proofreading:

  1. Revise, revise, revise. You should plan on going through many drafts. You shouldn't be afraid to completely start from scratch, or change the primary point of your essay. Avoid refusing to change your primary content/topic as you edit; you might find later on that you have a more compelling story to tell than what you began with.
  2. Read your essay out loud. Slowly, backward, sentence by sentence, in as many ways as possible. This will help you catch errors that your eyes gloss over when reading. 
  3. Ask as many people for help as you can. Remember to ask them in person if they are able to help you before sending your essay along and give them several weeks to review your essay. The more tips you can get, the better. You don't have to take all the advice they give you — go with what you think will be most helpful. 

For more proofreading advice, we suggest the How to Proofread guide and the Editing Checklist of twelve common errors from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

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What grammar essentials should I keep in mind

Correct grammar and writing mechanics, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, allow readers to easily navigate your essay and clearly understand the message that you want to convey. An essay with major errors or even consistent minor mistakes will make it difficult for readers to focus on the story you are trying to tell them about yourself. Instead, they may become distracted by these mistakes and struggle to process the meaning of individual sentences.

Consider the difference correct grammar can make between these two sentences.

  1. Incorrect grammar: This is the first time, I had ben told I was special; I wasnt about to let this opportunity slip away as i watched.
  2. Correct grammar: This was the first time I had been told I was special and I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away as I watched.

Carefully proofreading your essay for errors is a critical step in polishing your essay. 

Below are three areas students consistently struggle with:

Spelling: The spell check feature in your word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) is your first defense. Keep in mind that a misspelled word may itself be the correct spelling of a completely different word — your spell check may not catch these types of errors. A good resource is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Than/then, we're/were, there/their and effect/affect are all examples of common misspellings. 

Punctuation: The Grammarly Handbook includes separate tutorials on individual punctuation marks. Be particularly mindful of how you use commas, semicolons, and dashes, and be careful not to overuse the latter two.

Verb tenses: Verb tenses provide information to the reader about what point in time an action takes place. There are six basic tenses in the English language, three simple (past, present, and future) and three perfect (past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect). You might use only one tense in your essay, but it’s more likely that you will need to use different tenses in different sections of your essay, or even within the same sentence (e.g., "In elementary school, I hoped to be an astronaut when I grew up, but now I plan to become a medical researcher").

For example, perhaps you use past tense when relating a specific experience, and then shift back to present tense later in the essay when describing who you are now. Be careful to be consistent with your tenses, especially when making lots of revisions (don’t switch back and forth between present and past in the same story). It can be easy to accidentally shift tenses when making lots of edits, so proofread carefully. Here's an example of what a sentence with improper tense use can look like, and how to solve it.

  1. Improper mixed tenses: As my dad was opening the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.
  2. Resolved (past tense): As my dad opened the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes would have on me.
  3. Resolved (present tense): As my dad opens the door my heart is racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.

For more grammar help, two good resources are the Grammarly Handbook and the Grammar, Punctuation, and Style section in Haverford College’s Resources for Writers. 

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What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

Run-on sentences are two or more sentences joined incorrectly or even just unwisely. Complex sentences, when used carefully, make your writing more sophisticated. However, these sentences still must be grammatically correct and should not be so long that they make it difficult for the reader to follow your thoughts. There are a few different mistakes to avoid:

Fused sentences: A fused sentence is two separate independent clauses (complete sentences on their own) joined without punctuation or conjunctions (and, but, or, however, therefore, etc.).

  1. Bad example: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  2. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us, and I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  3. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us. I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.

Comma splices: A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) or with a word that is not one of these conjunctions.

  1. Bad example: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  2. How it can be improved: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, but even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  3. Bad example: I always thought I would attend my local community college, however, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.
  4. How it can be improved: I always thought I would attend my local community college. However, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.

Sentences that are too long: A complex sentence that is grammatically correct can still, if not constructed carefully and thoughtfully, be unnecessary and hard for readers to understand. Try reading your essay out loud to find any run-on sentences in this category, and then break them into smaller sentences.

  1. Bad example: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand, because I knew we could only get through this together.
  2. How it can be improved: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand. I knew we could only get through this together.

Please keep in mind that there is always more than one way to correct any run-on sentence; the above examples do not represent all possibilities.

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When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

A sentence fragment is a group of words that cannot grammatically stand alone as a sentence — it is missing a subject and/or a verb or is a dependent clause. For a good explanation of sentence fragments and how to correct them, please see Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

While most sentence fragments should be corrected, thoughtfully and creatively using them for special purposes can strengthen your essay. Specific instances where it's okay to use a sentence fragment include when it:

  • Is used for emphasis
  • Answers a question
  • Functions as a transition
  • Is an exclamation

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Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

A well-written essay will use varied vocabulary that is not overly simplistic, and making good use of a thesaurus can strengthen your essay. However, in an effort to sound more sophisticated, be careful not to rely so much on a thesaurus that your language sounds unnatural and perhaps includes words that even the reader doesn't understand. Your essay should still be in your voice, and should not simply include the biggest words you can find. When the reader can tell that a thesaurus was overused, it may become difficult to focus on your message instead of simply the large words that you use. Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

  • Unnatural: I invariably find myself ambushed beneath copious volumes of course-work, laboring to inhale air.
  • Natural: I always seem to be trapped beneath copious amounts of homework, struggling to grab a breath of air.

You'll notice that the second sentence still contains with word "copious", which is generally not be used in everyday conversation. It works well in this case, because the sentence is not full of words that appear to be pulled from a thesaurus. Furthermore, the word itself enhances the image the author is trying to convey without being so obscure that the reader has to look up the definition.

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Which cliches should I avoid?

Certain common phrases become cliche when they are overused and portray a lack of original thought. College admissions officers read dozens, often hundreds, of essays — you want your essay to stand out, not blend in with the crowd. One way to do that is to avoid these types of phrases, and instead find a way to creatively convey your thoughts in your own original words. Below are some examples of these types of phrases:

  • In today’s society…
  • At the end of the day…
  • Live life to the fullest…
  • All walks of life…
  • Survival of the fittest…

For more on cliches, including additional examples and strategies to avoid them, see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center.

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What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

"Flow" is often used to describe the way that the essay moves from point to point. It can refer to each paragraph or how the paragraphs are connected to one another. An essay that flows well does not include choppy sentences, illogical structure, or paragraphs that are out of sequence. An essay that flows well includes transitions and transitional devices. 

Your essay should also have a common thread that connects each paragraph logically. 

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How many paragraphs should I use?

Essays of this length generally work best with more than one paragraph. These paragraphs can simply follow a typical essay layout: introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion.

In the introduction, grab the reader’s attention and clearly explain the subject of the essay. Avoid repeating the essay prompt so your introduction stands out. Make sure your body paragraphs are in logical order and develop your primary point(s). There is no set number of body paragraphs for an essay and a good paragraph has one central point. In the conclusion, you can summarize your main points and leave your readers with an impactful final sentence.

Remember, you should feel free to use paragraphs in whichever way fits your essay. It's perfectly fine to leave a quote or short phrase as a separate paragraph, just be sure to have someone else make sure your essay reads easily.

Tip: it's easiest to read essays with a line break between each paragraph!

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How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

Transitions can be a few words or even a few sentences. They connect your ideas and views throughout the essay. A list of transitional devices can be found here.

When writing your college admissions essay, it can be easy to jump from one idea to another, as you might want to talk about many different things. First and foremost, we suggest narrowing your focus to a few key ideas or topics. Then, make sure that every sentence and paragraph leads to each other. You don't want to leave the reader behind as you quickly move from one idea to the next.

Here is an example of a how a transition can improve the flow within a paragraph. (Source here.)

  1. Before transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. There are other things to note about Tan as well. Amy Tan also participates in the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders with Stephen King and Dave Barry.
  2. With transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. Though her fiction is well known, her work with the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders receives far less publicity.

Similarly, you should make sure that the reader can understand why one paragraph follows the other. You want your ideas to build off of each other throughout the essay, instead of being fragmented. Use transitions to achieve that goal.

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What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

An effective essay is one that successfully concludes all the ideas it has carried throughout. This is done most effectively when there is a common thread that is concluded at the end of your essay. 

For example, a student might write about three different ideas in their essay:

  1. How their family has taught them to be grateful.
  2. How they have grown into a leader during high school.
  3. Their desire to give back to their community after college.

To come "full circle" they will need to touch on each of these points near the end of their essay. Doing so will tie the ideas together more cohesively in the readers mind and help them follow the structure of the essay. Similarly, a student might write about just one primary point (for example, how they have grown into a leader during high school). They should still include a summative statements and/or a paragraph near the end that wrap up their thoughts on this matter. Bringing you essay full circle will allow you to emphasize your primary point(s) and leave a lasting impression.

It can also be effective to refer back to your introduction in your final sentences. In this sample essay, you can see how the author mirrored the same sentence type at the end (with the student calling and speaking to someone on the phone). In doing so, the difference between those two phone calls, and thus the personal growth of the author, is emphasized. This neatly brings the essay and the points therein full circle. 

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How can I identify and avoid tangents?

When you are writing about something that is personal to you or that you are passionate about, you can easily go off on a tangent. When this happens, you lose sight of the point you are trying to make and lead the reader to a completely different topic. The best way to avoid tangents is to ask someone to proofread your essay for you. Sometimes you may not know that you have strayed off topic.

If you are not comfortable with asking someone to read your essay, read your essay carefully. If each paragraph and sentence supports the main point of your essay, you have successfully avoided unnecessary tangents.

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How can I make a good first impression?

The reader's first impression of your essay isn’t limited to what you write in your first sentence — the entire first paragraph is filled with opportunity to leave a good first impression. The beginning of your essay is also a space for you to introduce the themes you will use throughout your essay. Remember, you don’t have to start with a conversation, event, or other creative piece of writing, although that is one strategy.

Admissions officers read hundreds of college applications and essays. It takes effort to stand out from the crowd and make them want to thoughtfully read your essay, instead of just skim it. A great first impression will give your essay (and thus, your entire application) a head start.

Sometimes it’s easiest to write your introduction after you’ve written the rest of your essay. You might find that there’s a quote, or some symbolism, or other detail you want to start with at the beginning and carry throughout the rest of your essay. If you find yourself spending too much time on the introduction, write other parts of the essay and come back to it later!

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What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

There are many ways to begin an essay, and some are more common than others. Contrary to what you might have been taught in school, you should avoid repeating the essay prompt to make your introduction stand out.

For example, the QuestBridge National College Match biographical essay topic has historically asked students to: “describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations."

Accordingly, many essays begin with some variation of the following: “There have been many factors and challenges that have shaped my life and aspirations.

Avoid falling into the “cliche introduction” trap by never repeating the prompt verbatim. Using a few words from the prompt is acceptable, but often there are more interesting and captivating ways to begin your essay.

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What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

The term "common thread" refers to an idea, topic, or theme that is carried throughout your essay. It doesn’t have to be explicit — you don’t have to explain how every paragraph relates to the common thread. However, it should be prevalent enough to ensure your essay is united. It can be particularly difficult to use common threads in biographical essays, but that is where they are most important. Unfortunately, there will never be enough space to tell your complete story. Instead, you should use a common thread to convey the primary point you want admissions officers to understand about yourself. When they finish your essay, what is the one thing you want them to remember about you?

In this sample essay, the student’s common thread is the process of growing from a follower into a leader. This character growth and maturity are the one thing the student wants to stand out above all else. You can see how this thread is weaved subtly into the essay — it’s present, but not overwhelming.

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How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

With thousands of students writing essays in response to the same prompts, certain topics quickly become overused. To avoid these, take time to think about what makes you unique. Here are a few ways you can get started in this brainstorm process:

  • List adjectives that describe you.
  • Make a timeline of your life.
  • Reflect on a memorable event.

There are several cliche college essay topics that you should be aware of: 

  • The Big Issue: I believe that world peace is the most important…
  • Tales of My Successes: I’m student body president and…
  • The Jock Essay: Football taught me the importance of teamwork…
  • The Autobiography: I was born on February 22, 1996…
  • The Significant Relationship: My mom/dad/boyfriend changed my life…
  • Moving: I attended three different middle schools…
  • The Trip: I had to adjust to a different culture in my trip to…
  • The Academic Risk: I took all APs and risked not getting a 4.0…

(Adapted from Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay)

While you are welcome to write about any of these topics, please know that many students do write about them. You should be convinced that you have a unique spin on that particular topic that will really make your essay memorable. Also, remember that a topic does not have to be particularly thrilling to be unique. It’s possible to write a compelling essay about something as mundane as working at a fast food restaurant! What really matters is the time and effort you put into writing your essay.

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Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

The college admissions essay isn’t just a place to demonstrate your writing skills, it’s also the place where the reader should learn more about you. Many college essays are well written, but miss the target because they focus on someone or something besides the student. A perfect example of this is an essay that primarily tells the story of a student’s mother. While it’s entirely possible that the student’s mother is an inspiring person, the college is deciding whether or not to admit the student, not the mother. An essay that doesn’t give the admissions officers more insight into yourself doesn’t pull it’s weight in your application.

At the same time, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about people in your life who are important to your development and story. Just be sure to do so in a way that emphasizes the person’s impact on your life and your own personal development. In this sample essay, some details about the student’s parents are included but the primary focus is on the student.

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How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

Your college essay is a perfect place to add in the interesting, descriptive details you might leave out of academic papers. By "details" we mean a few different things:

Adjectives and adverbs — use these to help your story come to life for your reader. In the following examples, the writer is saying essentially the same thing, but by using more descriptive writing, the second example is far more engaging and interesting to read.

  • Little detail: I walked into my first high school class, feeling nervous.
  • More detail: On September 2nd, at 7:58 a.m., I walked into the first class of my high school career. My stomach churned as my nerves overwhelmed my emotions.

Describing a setting, situation, or event with concrete examples to back up your description. In the following example, the writer talks about his/her hometown in two very different ways.

  • Little detail: My hometown is a small town in a very rural area. It is very isolated from the more urban areas of New York.
  • More detail: My hometown, located along the rural stretches of the Columbia River, has a population of 523. 

Speak of broad topics, such as a personal character quality, while offering evidence in support of it. In the following examples, the writer claims to have a strong work ethic, but only in the second example does the writer illustrate this.

  • Little detail: Throughout my life I have developed a strong work ethic. There have been many things that have taught me the value of hard work. My parents in particular made sure I developed a strong work ethic as I grew up. Although I used to have little self-discipline, I am now driven by my strong work ethic.
  • More detail: Beginning in middle school, I was expected to work at my parent’s store during the summer. I stocked shelves, assisted customers, and swept the floor as a full time employee. Those long summer days allowed me to recognize the value of hard work, and gain respect for my parents’ self-discipline. My strong work ethic can be directly credited to those working summers.

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How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?

Students from low-income backgrounds may have encountered many challenges in life. While those challenges and obstacles are worthy of mention, it's important to focus on how they were overcome. The ability to reach high achievement levels in the face of these obstacles is noteworthy, and admissions officers want to hear more about that. They don't, however, want to read an entire essay that is excessively negative — where it seems the writer hasn't learned anything from the challenges he or she has faced.

Avoid listing the challenges you have faced. Instead, mention them but then shift to explaining what you learned as a result, how you were inspired, etc. In doing so, you will show great character development and a maturity that admissions officers are looking for.

 

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