Hello from Cram Crew’s College Readiness team! We recently heard some exciting news about the ApplyTexas application – all THREE prompts on the freshman application have changed!
The new prompts:
Essay A: What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.
Essay B: Some students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. If you are one of these students, then tell us about yourself.
Essay C: You’ve got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?
We had grown quite comfortable and accustomed to the old prompts, since they’ve been around for some time, so we wanted to challenge ourselves to think about how we would answer these new prompts if we were still in high school. But first, a glimpse of our high school selves so you can get a sense of what we would have been working with (and also because we think it’s hilarious).
Kate in high school: I attended Memorial High School in Houston where I was a devoted member of the Memorial Markettes drill team and a hard core choir nerd. My hair was insanely frizzy until I discovered the flat-iron and its magical powers. My family immigrated to Houston from London (by way of Dubai) which I literally talked about all the time and probably still do. I grew up playing ice hockey, a rarity when you live in Houston, which I also talked about all the time. I once had mono for 5 months, but I didn’t write a special circumstances essay about it because Cram Crew College Readiness didn’t exist yet to tell me that Essay S was a thing. Though many of my friends at the time didn’t know he existed, I have a twin brother who attended HSPVA and habitually antagonized me by eating my Guadalajara fajitas leftovers after school while I was still at Markette practice.
Eriel in high school: I was homeschooled for a solid eight years before transferring into Northland Christian School for my junior and senior years. While homeschooled, I participated in theater and private singing lessons, where I sang a lot of Heart, Pat Benatar, and Led Zeppelin covers. At Northland, I was a member of the International Thespian Society and Queen of the Breakfast Club (i.e. detention) because I often forgot to tuck my shirt in or refused to remove my non-Northland hoodie (and paying $74.99 for one of theirs was absurd) or told my chemistry teacher I’d stop eating in class when she did (#BlameItOnBeingHomeschooled). Theater was the core of my high school experience. I enrolled in an acting course, which came with a two performance requirement – a Christmas play and a children’s play. The children’s play casted me in the lead role of Dino Rap – an accidental science experiment that turned a chemist’s son into a rapping dinosaur. And boy, did I spit some mad rhymes in that dino suit (there is no video evidence, so don’t you dare try to find it). I participated in several plays and skits after completing the course, including major stage productions and competitive duets and solos at TAPPS and TCSIT. My greatest high school moment? Being cast as Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The costume designer for the play teased my hair to the max, bathed me in glitter, and glued leaves and twigs to my costume – and I never looked better. From a rapping dinosaur to Shakespeare, I had become the real McCoy.
Alex in high school: Unlike Eriel, I did my time in a private elementary school and was then homeschooled from 6th through 12th grade. (I like to confuse people by telling them I went to Kolbe Academy, a day-school out in California whose classical curriculum was what I used for high school.) I spent most of my non-studying time practicing the piano, drawing on my aunt’s “borrowed” Wacom tablet, and brushing up on my film and television history and trivia. I also participated in activities like Girl Scouts, which included earning my Gold Award during my senior year, and a modest amount of children’s theater with the Fort Bend Theater and the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (landing the role of Danny Zuko in Grease due to a distinct lack of eligible males remains the highlight of my theatrical career). I was on a recreational summer swim team my freshman and sophomore year (Go Marlins!), and started singing in my church’s Saturday night Vigil Mass choir when I was fifteen. My studies took a hit when I experienced a massive uveitis flare in my sophomore year that lasted for the remainder of my high school career, so I was no stranger to alternative study methods and would have greatly benefited from Cram Crew’s expert guidance on all matters Essay S. Despite one chronically dilated pupil (which earned me the incredibly flattering moniker of “Ziggy”), I persevered in my studies and managed to graduate on time, even managing to get my driver’s license two months before my eighteenth birthday.
Essay A:What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.
Kate: This essay could go a few ways.
I was born in the United Kingdom, and then my family and I moved to Dubai before we came to Houston. I could write about growing up in different environments and being influenced by different cultures (family/community). Or I think it could be interesting to write about living 5,000 miles away from my entire extended family, and learning the importance of maintaining communication and making the most of our interactions when I do get to see them.
I was also involved in a number of communities (Markettes, choir, and my hockey team come to mind) that I could definitely write about since I spent so much time getting to know those teammates or fellow choir-members.
Tips: I would avoid simply painting a picture of your home, neighborhood, or family structure. While this essay prompt is new, I would imagine that admissions committees will see a lot of generic essays that describe how and where an applicant was raised in a very basic sense. There are definitely ways to be more specific and creative with your response to make it stand out. You could describe just one special member of your family, neighborhood, or community and how your relationship or interactions with them have shaped you. You could write your essay about a specific tradition or event within a community, and why it is important to who you have become. The prompt is asking you to describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, so don’t think that you need to cover all of the bases by describing all four of these.
Also, consider the different communities that you’re a part of – this could include a team, a youth group, your nuclear or extended family, your French class, or your group of friends. Think about a community that is important to you and how you have matured or grown through being a member of that community.
Alex: For me, there are two specific communities that stand out in my mind when I think about myself in high school. I was homeschooled grades 6-12, and lived in a neighborhood that had a fair amount of other homeschooling families, which allowed us to form “school groups” and take field trips during the off-season to places like the many Houston museums or the Texas Renaissance Festival. I was also able to join my church choir, where for many years I was the only member under the age of forty. By the time I was a junior/senior in high school, both of these experiences had made a lasting impression on me, and I can definitely say that they were instrumental in shaping the person I had become by the time I was looking into applying to colleges. If I were to write about either community, I would discuss how being one of the oldest members of a group (homeschooling) helped me to grow by exposing me to caretaking roles that required developing personal responsibility and proactive engagement; or how being the youngest member of a group (choir) allowed me the experience of befriending people from generations outside of my peer group, and developing a valuable connection with people who came from all different places around the globe, and had valuable and unique life experiences to share. Essentially, my essay(s) would be about the uniqueness of my position and how immersing myself in these out-of-the-ordinary social groups and settings has helped shape my life.
Tips: In approaching this essay, think about the person you are and the person that you want to become – think about the values you have (not just religious ones), and why you have them. What is important to you in life? Can you point to specific circumstances or people in your life that have led you to develop this perspective, or have reinforced a perspective you already held? Focusing on a single subject will definitely be the way to go with this essay. You don’t want to get pulled in too many directions, or your essay will feel scattered and be hard to follow! Try to stay away from clinically dissecting your day. Don’t make lists about yourself (I am this race/ethnicity, I live at this address in this part of Houston, my neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. Person, I go to this church, I attend this school, etc. and so on). The key to unlocking this essay is to focus on the back half: how has it shaped you as a person?
Eriel: Though I was born in Houston, a great deal of my upbringing was split between Dallas (where a medley of Colombian and German relatives thrived) and Barrett Station, Texas (a tiny CDP deep in the heart of Crosby, where you would find those French-Cajun-Cuban-Choctaws). Though geographically, these places stitched together my history, overlapping and exchanging on certain holidays, it isn’t the location that makes the community; it’s the food. I hail from a community of chefs and foodies. Our house seal bears the image of two bowls – one full of gumbo, the other of paella. Our motto is to “leaveth no remains on thy plate”. Our mascot is the empanada. We worship the Spork and it’s endless possibilities.
Food has written my life story, and key moments are punctuated by various dishes. My family serves up feasts for every occasion – between gumbo on Christmas, empanadas for celebrations, crawfish for Good Friday, and sopa for funerals – and we have flavored our memories accordingly. Both sides of my family believe in a full body and spirit, and that ideology has created my community. I love preparing meals as much as I love consuming them, and I believe nothing threads people together better than food and the act of sharing a meal. I would most likely start the essay with my relationship to food and how it has built my family’s culture, what certain meals mean and how they are served, and then explain how that has translated into my own culture, personality, and art. This preoccupation with food has fostered some lasting relationships with my peers (whether we’re sharing a meal, making a meal, or begging for a meal at an organizational meeting we have no business being at) and it has fueled my art (the bulk of the stories I have written have some sort of food motif or metaphor within them).
Tips: This is a situation where you don’t want to provide a very literal interpretation of the prompt. That is, you shouldn’t dedicate 600 words to detailing the name of the street you grew up on, the name of your neighbors (and your neighbors’ neighbors), that goldfish you had for a day and then didn’t have because “reasons” (#WhatDoesntKillAGoldfish), the composition of your clique, the names in your Burn Book, et cetera, et cetera. It is important to keep the essay highly focused and to make sure that focus unveils something significant about you, your background, and/or personality. The most important piece to this entire prompt is the last bit: how has this shaped you as a person. This is the meat of your essay, so don’t devote too much real estate to detailing every nook and cranny in your background. This is your opportunity to show the readers some self-awareness, and that you are able to take a step out of yourself to analyze your values, and how those values have built the person you are today and how they will continue to mold the person you are into the person you want to become.
In order to write this essay, it is helpful to take a step back from the sometimes panic-inducing task of focusing on your college applications and instead look around. As you go about your day, maintain awareness of things that ordinarily seem insignificant, to the point that you may be taking them for granted.
For instance, remind yourself of the neighborhood you wake up in every day, the foods available to you for breakfast, and how you feel as you pass through your community on your commute to school. Reflect upon the impact your surroundings have on your day-to-day life and the ways in which they have fostered your personal development. You are probably familiar with your surroundings, to the point where they don’t seem particularly remarkable to you, but you are trying to introduce yourself to an admissions committee that probably knows very little about your hometown.
After reflecting on this exercise, you might realize that your work ethic stems from your gratefulness for the sacrifices your immigrant parents have made in order to give you a chance to succeed, or it could take the shape of your precocious desire to study geriatric medicine and hearing-loss pathologies because you have grown up in a town where the majority of your community is of advanced age.
This thought experiment is the perfect way to start dissecting what it is about your surroundings that has shaped you into the person you are today. Most importantly, it will show your essay reader that you have matured enough to be able to speak about yourself in a frank and vulnerable way. As long as you speak your truth, there is no wrong answer.
That being said, as you tell your story, you will want to avoid clichés and stay true to the complexity of your experience. If you have struggled to overcome obstacles, you don’t need to present yourself as a heroic individual that has achieved success because of your own grit and determination. You can acknowledge the bonds of friendship or family that helped you hold yourself together during tough times. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and indeed having the courage to reach out and the humility to acknowledge your support network is one way to demonstrate maturity.
If you needed to watch after your father while he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, you might talk about how you had to work with your sister to watch him in the evening, and how sometimes you needed to get out of the house and play soccer with your friends in order to be able to come back inside and commit yourself to the work of care all over again. Maybe that experience is part of what made you want to get into nursing, not only to help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, but also to encourage patient’s family members to take care of themselves.
If you describe poignant tales of overcoming hardship and obstacles in your response, that is fine, as long as it is the truth. Some applicants might think that exaggerating their tales will score with admissions officers, but admissions officers are not judging your essay based on the level of hardship you have overcome. Rather, the question they will ask is what you’ve learned from your experiences and what kind of person you will be when you join the Texas A&M community.
One last word: As we’re revising this guide for the 2017 application season, the rains have only just barely stopped falling after Hurricane Harvey. The environmental, economic, and political dynamics of this disaster will be thought about and debated in the coming years as people try to rebuild more resilient cities in a changing climate. The students, faculty, and staff at Texas A&M will be taking part in this conversation.
If you were affected and feel so moved, you can certainly talk about your experience of the storm in your essay, even if you think that a lot of other applicants will also be talking about the storm as well. A major disaster contains a multitude of narratives, and if you focus on the particularities of your experience — what you lost, what you saw, how you imagine going forward — you will be making a contribution to a conversation about Harvey that will continue for years to come.