The Common Application Prompts: Numbers 3 and 4

By Ryan Hickey + updated on December 3rd, 2009

The Thanksgiving leftovers are finally gone, holiday decorations are everywhere, and admissions deadlines are closer than ever. If you’re applying to college this year, you probably have less than a month (at most) to get your applications finished. Never fear, however – we’re here to help, even if your essay is currently nothing more than a blinking cursor in a blank word processing document.

Today, we’re going to look at two more Common App prompts, numbers 3 and 4. If you plan to write on either of the first two, check out our posts from last week. Now, take a look at today’s two prompts and see if you can guess why I’ve decided to combine them into one post:

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

I’m lumping these two prompts together because they are, in many ways, identical. The only difference is that the first asks about a real person, while the second focuses on someone or something that can be historical, fictional, or creative. The overall instructions are the same, though: describe and explain a person/character/creative work that has impacted your life.

These could be confusing for some, however; what if you plan to write about Teddy Roosevelt and how his example led you to develop a passion for conservation? Which prompt are you writing on? After all, Teddy Roosevelt is both a person and a historical figure, so technically such an essay could apply to either prompt.

Here’s my suggestion: use prompt three if you are writing about an individual with whom you have had direct contact of some sort. Use prompt four if you are writing about a person you’ve never directly encountered, or about someone fictional or something creative.

With that said, let’s consider possible topics for prompt three. Based on experience, I can tell you the two categories of people most often featured in this prompt:

  1. Family
  2. Teachers

This isn’t surprising, considering that most applicants have spent a huge proportion of their lives in the company of a relative or teacher. Even though these topics are common, you can still write an extremely strong, unique response talking about an individual in either of these categories. Just make sure that you clearly describe their influence on you. The most common mistake made when responding to this prompt is to spend the bulk of the essay describing the person rather than connecting that person to you. While Grandpa Larry may have led an unbelievable life and Mrs. Jones may be an exceptional teacher, you should focus on how those people have impacted you rather than focusing on the individuals themselves.

If you want to try something different, consider writing about an individual who is not a teacher or family member. Many applicants overlook the impact of their friends, when those relationships are some of the most influential in their lives. If you have a particularly close friend or can point to a peer who has definitely impacted your life, you may be able to write an extremely effective essay about your relationship with that individual.

Another point to consider is that “influence” does not necessarily mean “positive influence.” Most students who choose this prompt talk about an individual who has positively impacted their life. This does not need to be the case. Sometimes, you can write an even more compelling essay about an individual who has negatively impacted your life in some way.

For students responding to prompt four, there are also a few general themes/topics that pop up frequently. They are:

  1. A musical piece/performer that inspired a love of music
  2. An artist/work of art that inspired a love of art
  3. Ghandi/Mother Teresa
  4. Characters from a novel that was read for an AP English class

Now, even though the first two of these general essay themes are fairly common, an essay written on one of them will not automatically be unoriginal. So long as you focus on tying the topic to yourself, highlighting that personal connection, and describing why it’s been influential, your essay will still be strong.

The second two, on the other hand, are examples of topics you probably want to avoid. Many students think that writing about an impressive/revered figure will reflect well on them. To the contrary, it often leads to an essay that sounds hackneyed and forced. Similarly, if you want to write about a literary figure, you don’t have to choose one based on how critically acclaimed the book is. In fact, you’d probably be better off writing about a character from your favorite guilty-pleasure romance or science fiction novels. Overall, my message is simple. Don’t write about what you think will sound impressive; write about something that is actually important to you.

If you’re motivated to try something different, consider the following ideas:

  1. Rather than write about something that made you like something, write about something that led you to discover a dislike (for example, a piece of art that you genuinely hated). If you do this, though, make sure you still explain why that negative influence is something worth writing about.
  2. Don’t focus solely on things that are obviously your passions and strengths. If you’re a musician and have already covered that part of yourself in other areas of your application, don’t write about a musical piece again in this essay. Instead, highlight something beyond music that has also influenced you.
  3. The influence you describe doesn’t have to be grandiose. A more intimate experience can be just as effective.

Whatever you decide to write about, remember to keep it personal and make sure your writing is technically flawless. EssayEdge can help with the technical side of your writing – our Opinion Service provides a comprehensive proofread that ensures your essay is 100% free of spelling, grammatical, and other technical writing miscues.

http://www.essayedge.com/college/editing/opinion

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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