When you think about your “world,” any number of things might come to mind: your friends, your favorite TV show, your dog’s poop, the petrochemicals in your plastic water bottle, the bacteria in your gut — the list goes on. With an open-ended topic like this, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and slip into clichés. You might be tempted to start an essay saying, “My world was turned upside down when my grandmother died…” A good essay about the death of one’s grandmother can, of course, be written. But what you’ll want to do is focus on a more specific aspect of your world, that will be far less common, to share with your readers.
One way of approaching this essay is to ask how your own position in the world might help you see it differently. The trick is to take a step back and ask, what is distinctive about my world?
For example, maybe there’s a specific street corner where you play the violin for a few dollars on weekends. What’s it like to live alongside pedestrians, not as one body among many moving through the crowd, but rather as an observer and entertainer? What has your time as a street musician taught you about how urban planning succeeds (or fails) at moving bodies from one place to another? How does your position as a street musician help change the way you see the city? Maybe buildings are not just places of commerce, but rather part of a lively acoustic ecosystem.
Though you are supposed to talk about your “characteristics, beliefs, and values,” the story you tell need not include a sentence where you say, “I believe x, I exhibit characteristic y, and I value z.” Instead, by sharing a story about your own personal experience you should help your readers see how and why you see the world the way you do.
One particularly effective way of introducing your readers to your own distinctive self is to share something from your “Locker.” The Coalition App’s Locker system allows you to store different multimedia art projects in your application.
If you are a painter or a musician or a spoken-word poet or a video artist, this is your moment to shine. No matter what your intended major is, Pomona says that it is looking for students who have “an appreciation for the visual and/or the performing arts.” If you are majoring in engineering, maybe you can share something that shows how your interest in art and science are two halves of the same coin. Maybe you have a short video showcasing a marble machine that you’ve made?
No matter what innovative or strange project you share, you should include a short artist’s statement that shares with the admissions committee “what you hope they will learn from this submission.”
Ideally, this statement should not be more than 200 words. It can be as simple as telling the committee what inspired you to take up this project. The role of this statement should not just be to explain the work itself but to explain how the work says something about you and your values and experiences. In the marble machine example above, maybe it was playing miniature golf with your dad that first got you interested in mathematics and physics, and you thought this machine would be a fitting tribute to the role he played in your intellectual formation.
What if you cannot think of anything particularly distinctive about your life? What if you are not a particularly talented multi-media artist? Another tactic is to try writing an essay that helps us see a banal aspect of your life in a new way. Remember when I mentioned dog poop a few paragraphs ago? There might be a good essay in that. What do you learn by picking up your dog’s poop every day? How does that small ritual of care structure the rest of your day? There can be something deeply meditative about tending to an animal. When we care for our fellow creatures (be they human or animal) that means dealing, perhaps lovingly, with their filth.
The “dog poop” essay probably pushes the limits of acceptability. You should avoid being vulgar and provocative just for the sake of being vulgar and provocative. But Pomona’s website says the college is looking for students who are “risk-takers.” One way to demonstrate that is to take risks in your writing. In the stack of essays about dying grandmothers, a thoughtful essay on dog poop (or a similarly peculiar topic) can stand out.
If you’re working on your application, make sure you review Ashley Pallie’s top five application tips … including her bonus tip at the end!
1. Tell your truth. As you’ve all probably heard many, many times, the QuestBridge application is an opportunity for high-achieving, low-income students to apply to some fantastic colleges and universities across the United States. Take a moment to think about the power of this process; some of the best institutions in the country are saying that the unique life experiences you have lived are important to the fabric of their schools. At Pomona, diversity of experiences is at core of our institutional identity. The QuestBridge application gives you the opportunity to talk about who you are, to delve deeper into your background and how you’ve come to be the person you are today, and to tell an admissions officer what excites you intellectually.
Bring us into your world. We want to know you. We want to know your truth.
This doesn’t mean that you have to share everything with us; read the essay prompts and select a focus. Whatever the prompt you choose or what you write, be proud of the application you’ve put together and what you’ve decided to share.
2. Proofread, proofread, then proofread again. Don’t skip past this bullet point. Writing is a large part of college; we hope you will graduate with the ability to think critically and to articulate yourself well. As such, every part of the application is an opportunity to showcase your writing abilities. Please don’t forget to capitalize classes on the course list, and don’t write like you’re instragramming for the short answers. Treat your application like your college application and spend time re-reading the things you’ve written. If you need help, QuestBridge has published two enormously helpful essay guides: the first is a Detailed FAQ on essay writing mechanics. The second is a QuestCast of college admissions officers, a current QuestBridge Scholar, and some QuestBridge staff discussing “What Makes a College Essay Stand Out?” You can see a list of questions asked and get some advice from some of the people who will actually be reading your essays. Also, it’s immensely helpful to have a second reader, maybe a trusted teacher or mentor.
3. Believe in yourself and hit submit. This one comes from personal experience and from my many years in the field. When I was a senior in high school, I had a dream school that I really, really wanted to attend (fun fact: it was a QuestBridge Partner College!). I told everyone from my teachers to my grandmother that I wanted to go to this school. However, a couple of days before the application deadline, I started to get cold feet. “What if they don’t let me in? Everyone will know that I failed and I couldn’t live with that.” So I decided not to apply. Better to never apply than to be denied, right?
Luckily, one of my teachers stopped me in the hall the day the application was due to ask if I’d submitted it yet. When I explained why I wasn’t going to apply, she pulled me into the college counseling office and sat with me while I hit submit right in front of her. For some of you, admission to this group of colleges may sound too good to be true and you may get cold feet on September 27th. I encourage you to push through your fears and hit submit.
4. Everything counts. I realize this may sound overwhelming, but holistic admissions means that we read your entire application closely – the whole thing. Every essay, short answer, and check mark.
I have traveled all across the country for Pomona and I am often asked, “What part of my application is most important?” It’s a fair question, but the answer truly is – all of it. We care about your transcript – what classes were offered in your high school, which classes did you decide to take, and what grades did you earn in those classes? We care about what you do outside of school, including babysitting for siblings, a part-time job, volunteering at your church/temple/mosque, playing on a sports team, or writing code on weekends. We care about your letters of recommendation because we want to hear teachers describe who you are in the classroom and what intellectually excites you. And yes, unless we are a testing optional school, we will look at your test scores. Everything in the app is important, which leads me to my final point…
5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This one comes straight from the Director of Admissions at Pomona. He was recently traveling throughout the South meeting with prospective students. A family he met asked what Pomona students eat when they are on-campus. The family did not understand that room and board meant a bedroom and food. That is such a fair question! Why do colleges call meal plans “board?” For many students, there will be times throughout this process when you run into something you don’t quite understand or that confuses you, and I am letting you know now that you are not alone. When I was applying to college (and to be honest, even when I was in college), there was so much I wasn’t sure about. I didn’t even know the questions to ask half the time! How could I? I’d never applied to college before, and I assume you haven’t either. Trust me when I tell you that the reason these 36 colleges are QuestBridge Partner Schools is because we are committed to seeing more high-achieving, low-income students earn a college degree. That’s it. So send us an email. Pick up the phone and give us a call. You won’t be the first to have a question, and you definitely won’t be the last.
Bonus tip: My final piece of advice is less about college admissions and more about life: you may not be low-income for the rest of your life, but if you’re first-generation, that never goes away. I grew up both low-income and first-gen; the heritage of my family is deeply ingrained in the person I have become and I am immensely proud of that fact. However, after graduating, I was surprised to realize being first-generation to college also meant that everything post-college was also going to be new territory. This meant that applying for jobs, choosing a career, deciding on which graduate school to attend, or building a robust retirement plan would also be new experiences for me, and I had to continue to utilize my network of mentors after college. I will always be first-gen, and that’s a pretty powerful thing. Embrace it, see your first-gen status as a strength, and know that your unique perspective on the world has a place in higher education.
Develop a strong support system, build mentorships with faculty and staff on-campus, and continually remind yourself that you can and will be extraordinarily successful in your future endeavors. I wish you all the best.
– Ashley Pallie, Associate Dean of Admissions, Pomona College