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College Essay Significant Challenge

MIT Requirements: 2 short essays of 100 words each; 3 longer essays of 200-250 words each.

Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Community

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations

There’s an old cheesy joke that goes like this: A college student is standing in the “10 items or less” checkout lane at a grocery store in Boston. When she finally gets to the register, it turns out she has 12 items. The cashier rolls her eyes and says, “Okay, so either you’re from Harvard and you can’t count, or you’re from MIT and you can’t read.” (badum-chhh) Sadly, you will be expected to read and write in college – even at MIT! In fact, MIT admissions cares so much about your writing that they’ve concocted their own separate application with five required essays. Don’t worry, though, you’ll also get to show off your counting skills because each essay has a pretty tight word count; even the longest ones top out at 250 words. So the real challenge of this application is crafting tight, incisive essays that tell focused stories about your life. Got it? Okay!

Rather than asking you to write one long essay, the MIT application consists of several short response questions and essays designed to help us get to know you. Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice—who you are, what drives you, what’s important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be authentic—this is your opportunity to connect with us.

Alright, now let’s dig in!

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)

Think of this prompt as a continuation of the introduction. MIT is explicitly asking you to back away from the resume, and forget your structured activities. It’s not about proving what you can do, but revealing what you love to do. Put another way, this prompt is about self-care: What always, without fail, brings a smile to your face? What helps you recharge your batteries? What do you do and where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you start to think of things that feel a little silly or personal, you’re heading in the right direction. The activity you choose should be informal and unique to you.

Although MIT invites you to be honest, we also suggest you balance your honesty with specific details and storytelling. You might want to try to come up with something a little more original than sleep, read, or hang out with friends, but if these are your options, then you have to commit. If you like to spend time with your friends, what sorts of things do you do together? If you like to sleep, have you perfected the art of the power nap? What are your favorite things to read and how do you organize your personal library? Let your personality and tastes shine through! And before you start to say, “But I really do love volunteering at the soup kitchen during my spare time,” don’t worry. There’s a community service essay a little later in this supplement.

Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)

Believe it or not, this is MIT’s version of a classic Why essay, wrapped in an academic disguise. It’s not really about your academic interests and achievements (which can be gleaned elsewhere on your application); it’s about the kind of student you hope to be. If you can build a bridge between your own interests and the resources available at MIT, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating your fit. So set aside a few hours and commit to some hardcore research on the MIT website (sorry, there’s no way around this, folks!). Beyond the basic departmental listings, look up information about news and research coming out of your department, the kinds of courses available, and the opportunities that other undergrads have had studying in your area of choice. Even if you have a wide array of interests, consider explaining how two to three departments might complement each other or foster your interest in a larger idea or theme. Your ultimate goal is to show that your interest in MIT (just like your intellectual curiosity) runs deep!

At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

We recommend working your way backwards through this prompt because the last sentence really says it all! Your community can be any size or scale, from your family to your town. You likely already have a specific community service experience in mind, but before you dive in, we encourage you to take a moment and brainstorm some smaller, more informal options. You’ll also want to keep in mind how your work relates to “the world’s biggest challenges,” but starting small could lead you to a more unique and thoughtful essay. Think of a moment where you felt like you made a change in your local community. It can be something small; it does not have to be monumental, but it should mean a great deal to you. Maybe you babysit for your mom while she’s at work, and this has led you to think more seriously about the childcare challenges single parents face. Or perhaps, in helping your teacher grade papers, you feel you are taking some pressure off of an already overwhelming workload.

If you choose to write about a more formal experience, here’s another backwards piece of advice: When writing about community service, you should always start with yourself. It’s the only way to avoid platitudes and clichés. You need to ground your writing in the specificity of your life. Don’t start with the action and end with what you learned. Instead, dig into your motivations. If you spend weeks petitioning your school community to raise the hourly wage for custodial staff, what prompted you to act? What assumptions did you have about income inequality and what did you learn about your community in the process? No matter what, make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you.

Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)

If you were torn about what to write in your community service essay, you’re in luck! MIT has gifted you a second chance to sound off about a community that matters to you. But while the earlier prompt asked about your impact on a community, this one is all about your community’s influence on you. The fun thing about community essays like this one is that the word “community” can mean anything. It could be something traditional like your church or extended family, but it could also be any other group you consider yourself a part of. Maybe you found an important group of friends and mentors once you got into breakdancing. Or perhaps there’s an online community of writers that you rely on for honest feedback. If you’re drawing a blank, try to list out a few individual people who have impacted your life for the better. Then try to fit them into a larger community. If you picked your grandpa, think about how your extended family has shaped who you are today. How have your family traditions or fishing trips given you a lens through which to see the world? How can you lead admissions to a new way of understanding the person you are today?

Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)

You can check out our guide to Common App Prompt #2 for a full rundown on how to tackle this kind of prompt, but in summary we’ll say this: a question about failure or struggle is really a question about resilience and success! Also, if you chose to write about prompt #2 for your Common App personal statement, we’ve got some extra good news for you: MIT isn’t on the Common App! You’ll need to cut your essay down to size, but other than that, you’re home free on this prompt. Good for you!

University of California Personal Insight Question 5:
Your Chance to Get Real and Personal

If You Have Faced Hardships, Share Them!

 

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?

If you are a high school student who has had to deal with some tough issues in your life or background, you should seriously consider writing about at least one of them in UC Essay Prompt 5 (also known as Personal Insight Question 5)

This is not whining or complaining.

In fact, students who have had to overcome or deal with obstacles in their life and managed to succeed in school despite those issues are highly desirable to almost all college and universities. And the UCs are no exception.

The beauty of having to write four shorter essays for the UC application is that you can share an intense personal issue in one of them (This one!), and still have three other essays where you can write about other more uplifting parts of your life, including your academic goals, your passions and other experiences.

Do not be ashamed if your family is poor, or is from a different culture, or has endured personal challenges, such as death, illness or disability.

There’s a strong chance that these very issues have helped shape and define who you are—in a positive way.

Sharing one of these personal challenges in this UC Essay Prompt 5 is your opportunity to showcase how you handled or managed it, and how it shaped or changed you somehow.

When you describe the challenge you faced, it might feel like a downer.

But don’t hold back. We need to understand what it was like for you to face that challenge, and feel what you felt even at your lowest point.

The key to writing about an intense, personal challenge is to describe it at the start of your essay, and then quickly shift into the steps you took to deal with it, how you felt, what you thought about it, and what your learned in the process—about yourself and life in general.

 

 

For those of you who come from relatively “average” or even privileged socio economic backgrounds, I know that you also can have faced intense, personal issues in as well.

Money often doesn’t shield us from challenges at home, at school, with friends or family. Sometimes, it can even make things worse.

You could have a mom addicted to painkillers, or a sibling who was autistic, or a stepfather who was abusive.

These can all be very real challenges in your life, and you could write about any of them for UC essay prompt 5.

I believe it’s important to share these stories with colleges and universities when possible so they can understand what you have been up against to get to where you are now: A young student with lots of real-life experience and grit (raw determination.)

Writing about a challenge from your background or family life also allows you to open up and share some of your feelings.

I believe this type of personal expression is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader, and in this case, those making the admissions decisions at the UC.

Since these UC essays are relatively short—under 350 words each—it’s critical to leave room for the positive side of whatever challenge you write about.

Note that this prompt asks for two things: to describe the challenge AND to explain how it “affected you academic achievement.”

Your challenge may have hurt your academic achievement at first, but there’s a good chance you used what you learned by dealing with that issue actually ended up helping your academic achievement somehow. If this is the case, include that!

Here’s a Sample Outline for UC Essay Prompt 5

  1. Describe the challenge. Ideally, start with a specific example of that issue so the reader can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be you. Give background on the challenge—briefly explain how it started, what it was, how you felt about it. (One to two paragraphs)
  2. Explain the steps you took to deal with it, and include how you thought about it. Share what you learned about yourself and the world in dealing with this challenge. Describe how this challenge affected your schoolwork and academic performance and goals. End with how you plan to use what you learned about yourself—a personal quality or core value—to help you in your future goals. (One to two paragraphs)

Red Flag for UC Essay Prompt 5: When you start describing the challenge, it’s easy to get caught up in describing everything about it and use all your space on that story. Make sure that at least half of your essay is about what you learned about that story! Otherwise, it’s just a story with no meaning.

When you are brainstorming your past to see what challenges you have faced, here are some other words for a challenge.

It doesn’t always have to be dramatic, tragic or sensational to be interesting enough to write about.

Types of challenges for UC Essay Prompt 5:

An obstacle: Something got in the way of something you wanted or a goal. It could an outside issue or influence, or something within you, such as a hang-up, flaw, disorder, disability, phobia, etc.

A life change: Something changed in your life, whether it was physical, such as a move from another country, or a change in your family life or structure, or an internal shift or change within yourself.

A hardship: Something in your background that made it difficult to feel “normal,” such as financial hardship, or physical or psychological security. A dad loses a job, a sibling has mental illness, or you experienced something that tried to hold you back.

To me, a challenge is anything that tried to make it harder for you to do what you wanted or needed.

Remember, you don’t need to have solved it or overcome it completely to write about.

It’s all about what you did to handle it.

And how you grew up a little in the process.

Here are some additional suggestions that the UC shared along with this UC Essay Prompt 5:

A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

The UC admissions office also shared this advice to help students brainstorm for UC Essay Prompt 5 in its Personal Insight Questions Guide for Freshman Applicants:

Have you had a difficult experience in your life? How did you get through it? What did you learn going through this experience? If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

 

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