Eight Tips for New UT-Austin Apply Texas Essay A Prompt "Tell us your story"

Atop Tiger Island, Honduras, on the border with Nicaragua and El Salvador

Atop Tiger Island, Honduras, on the border with Nicaragua and El Salvador

Apply Texas announces its new Essay A prompt starting with Spring 2020. All students are required to answer in 500-700 words:

Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

Following a policy of “if it ain’t broke let’s break it,” UT and Apply Texas have thrown out the perfectly reasonable prompt in Apply Texas Essay A “describe the environment in which you were raised” for something more vague and non-specific. Broad prompts have the advantage that you can discuss just about anything, but some students may feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

UT will need to wait to receive submissions in August before training their staff. I anticipate that there will be delays with the admissions process next year as they integrate these institutional changes.

Similar to Apply Texas Essay C “you have a ticket in your hand,” which no Apply Texas university requires, I think there will be a much wider range of submissions from very bad to exceptional with the typical essay stumbling through easily correctable pitfalls. That means you have a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

Most college essays are painfully boring and poorly written. Be a little bit interesting, and you’ll be rewarded.

UT has yet to officially update their admissions site as of early April, but I’ve confirmed this is the new Essay A prompt. They also anticipate changing all or some of the three short answer prompts. It’s almost certain that they will keep some variation of the “diversity” short answer that they introduced and almost immediately retracted in early August 2018. I have a feeling they will throw out the Academics short answer since there would be a lot of overlap with this new prompt.

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I think this topic will be ripe with misunderstandings and misconceptions. Consider these tips for reframing, rewording, addressing, approaching, and telling your Essay A story.

Reframe the prompt

I often see students getting caught up in the exact language of a prompt, viewing it as a box within which they cannot deviate. College essays are an invitation to write. View them broadly.

Consider the first line “tell us your story.” I have a feeling many students will get caught up on “your.” Instead, let’s reword to “tell us a story” or “tell us any story” and see if that makes the prompt a little bit less intimidating. Reframing as “a story” takes the perceived pressure off writing your autobiography in two pages.

Like with the old Essay A discussing your home environment, there wasn’t a single student who wasn’t able to share at least one or two interesting or insightful things about their family or home life when at first glance they didn’t feel they had anything to share. I anticipate that this essay will require a little bit of digging, but surely you can come up with at least one anecdote that’s happened over the past seventeen or eighteen years.

Redefine “unique opportunities”

If you’re not feeling the language of opportunities, let’s look at a few alternatives. You may have an experience that is special, entertaining, bizarre, uncommon, interesting, surprising, incomparable, paradoxical, uncanny, or different. Whatever you write about, try not to be boring or banal.

I can visualize the first impressions of many students, “I don’t have anything unique or interesting to share.” Remember, you need to be interesting or unique for only a few hundred words. Try not to get overwhelmed with wanting to share everything and instead choose one or two themes and develop them fully.

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Don’t stumble over “challenges”

Many students will reflexively think “but I don’t have any challenges.” There are two possibilities: either you have lived a relatively comfortable and carefree life (great!), or you have encountered a challenge or setback you haven’t fully considered.

There is a bit of a misconception that “sob stories” get students into college. Some students with legitimate and serious challenges shy away from sharing about obstacles and barriers they confront in their lives. Others understandably yet perversely think that they are at a college admissions disadvantage if they haven’t experienced hardship.

I presume most disadvantaged students who come from single-parent families, poverty, or a resource-poor environment would almost certainly prefer both parents at home, consistent access to food and shelter, and a full offering of AP courses and student organizations to any perceived admissions advantages.

If you have encountered a challenge that affects your health or academic performance that is critical for your reviewers to know, please don’t hesitate to share. If you don’t have a serious obstacle to discuss, there isn’t a need to exaggerate or embellish a relatively minor setback to try and tug at your reviewer’s heartstrings. They will probably see through it considering they will review at least some essays that present significant trauma or substantial setbacks.

Regardless, since the prompt allows a discussion of either a unique opportunity or a challenge, don’t feel forced to discuss both a unique opportunity and a challenge. It is your choice. I encourage you to pick just one or the other unless your opportunity and challenge directly relate to one another.

Broaden “high school career”

I imagine the tendency here is for students to think about their career narrowly, most likely as confined to the classroom. I think it is appropriate if necessary to expand the parameters of “career” to include extracurricular activities, community involvement, research, independent projects/studies, and internships. Don’t feel pressure to discuss exclusively academic subjects, group projects, or an influential teacher. There are a lot of possibilities with this prompt.

I would place boundaries around discussing only things that have occurred within the past few years and only dip into the elementary or middle school years if you have been cultivating specific interests and participating in the same activities for a long time. The most likely suspects are music, science fairs, or athletics.

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Questions that can guide your Essay A story

A general approach to addressing any college essay is to ask related questions and answer those rather than getting overwhelmed with often broad topics. If you’re having a hard time coming up with anything interesting to share, let these questions guide your story.

  • What is your favorite subject and why?

  • Have you made, written, organized, or produced anything that fills you with pride?

  • Is there a topic or idea that makes you lose track of time?

  • Have you had a teacher that has challenged your beliefs or encouraged you to see a different point of view?

  • Does your school have any interesting electives or subjects that are uncommon or may not be offered elsewhere?

  • Do you have a deep involvement in an extracurricular or community activity that shapes your future goals?

  • Did you have a tough semester or year? If so, how did you address your setbacks? Did you alter time management or study habits?

  • Is there a health condition or family issue that affects your performance in the classroom or ability to participate in extracurricular activities?

  • If you could go back and change anything about your high school career, what might you have done differently?

  • Can you think of a time you that were sure you knew something when it turned out to not be true?

  • Have you conducted research, independent studies, or pursued an internship that allows you to explore your interests?

  • Did you walk away from one activity or class to free up time for something else?

  • Did you promote yourself to an AP or IB course in a weaker subject that pushed you to become a better student?

  • Have you taken any summer school or college courses beyond high school requirements?

  • Do you have a friend or a classmate that influences you in critical ways?

  • Was there a particular moment that sparked a period of growth or development?

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Tie your Essay A into your first-choice major

Regardless of whatever prompts or requirements of a given university, they want to hear why you feel that you deserve a seat in their classrooms. UT is no exception, and they want students to demonstrate their fit for their first-choice major by citing specific experiences that inform their future goals.

I think the most effective way to deploy Essay A is to illustrate how a story regarding your high school career and development prepares you for future studies. Depending on UT’s new short answers, your entire application needs to make the argument that UT should invest time and resources in you as a future Longhorn.

Provide context to your expanded resume

One advantage this Essay A has on the “environment in which you were raised” prompt is that it is more broadly worded. “Tell us your story” is whatever you want to make it rather than feeling confined to discussing your home or academic environment.

Students should fill out as thoroughly as possible the Apply Texas resume sections. It’s highly recommended that you submit an expanded/paper copy of your resume. (Consider these posts for additional resume help)

With the old prompt, it was hard to connect a discussion of home life with your resume. Students commonly leave a lot of runners in scoring position and striking out when they have exceptional resumes demonstrating deep commitments yet failing to discuss any of it in their essays. Failing to elaborate and expand upon your resume beyond the bullet points or hours per week/weeks per year is a surefire way to make you less competitive.

College admissions is more than just a tally of activities, volunteer hours, and leadership positions. If you have a significant commitment or substantial achievement, spend a paragraph or two illustrating to your reader why it is meaningful to you.

Ideally, applications tell a coherent story that constructs a narrative across the long essay, short answers, expanded resume, transcript, and optional recommendation letters. An easy and effective technique is to elaborate on one or two of your most impressive accomplishments and tell an interesting or entertaining story about how you started in the activity or a setback you encountered along the way.

Conclude with a discussion concerning your identity or interests

To recap, it’s important that you share a story about either a unique opportunity or a challenge regarding your high school career. There is a critical phrase in the end that I strongly encourage you to answer directly.

…have shaped who you are today

Similar to Apply Texas Essay B requiring you to discuss your identity. It will be important that after sharing your interesting story or somewhere in your narrative to make explicit how your opportunity or setback influences your beliefs, behaviors, and sense of self.

You don’t need to offer any grand gestures about solving climate change or eliminating global poverty. It’s okay to use language like “I think a little bit different about…” or “I feel more compassionate towards…” rather than “I’m a totally different person!” or “My life can’t ever be the same!”

One convenient and effective way to approach how you were shaped is to utilize the language of virtue or themes of character development: grit, curiosity, zest, independent thinking, internal motivation, sacrifice, wit, courage, empathy, reciprocity, cooperation, prudence, conscientiousness, compassion, honesty, charity, decency, resilience, tranquility, balance, equanimity, or nuanced thinking.

I look forward to seeing what students come up with to answer the prompt. Interested in receiving help on your college applications? Complete my questionnaire for a free and honest consultation.

Kevin MartinEssays