In recent years, there has been debate about how the commitment to diversity on university campuses intersects with the issues of free speech, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. One way to answer this prompt is to tackle those issues head-on. Some useful context and a few perspectives on these issues can be found here.
If you take this approach to the prompt, you should avoid making generalized statements about whether or not you think “safe spaces” are good or bad. A better approach would be to write a response to a specific quote from someone else. For example, in the series of radio interviews I’ve linked to above, Cameron Okeke discusses the role that safe spaces played in his education. In a piece that he wrote for Vox, he says:
If you want the perspective of someone with PTSD, then you better be prepared to do the work to make them comfortable enough to speak up in class, and that means giving them a heads up when discussing potentially triggering topics.
Do you agree or disagree? What kinds of institutional support beyond trigger warnings might be needed to make people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) comfortable enough to speak up? When you pick out a specific claim and respond to it, you are not only giving your essay a clear focus but also demonstrating that you can participate in a thoughtful discussion of texts — something that you will be doing no matter what university you end up at or what you decide to major in.
Another way to respond to this prompt is to begin with a story from your own personal experience and then discuss how that experience shaped your ideas about what an “inclusive environment” looks like. For example, maybe you went to the county courthouse with your mother and saw a statue of a Confederate soldier outside the courthouse door. How did seeing that statue make you feel? Can an inclusive environment “include” such monuments? Creating a welcoming space might be more than just a matter of welcoming people from a variety of different backgrounds into that space; it might also have something to do with the plaques, memorials, and architecture of the space itself.
A third way of approaching this topic might be to talk about an environment that you felt did a particularly good job of welcoming diverse perspectives and ideas. Maybe you had a high school English teacher who always seemed like she was able to get a good, respectful discussion going. How did she accomplish that? Maybe instead of just tossing out an “open-ended” question and letting the loudest students in the classroom talk, the teacher asked everyone to write down a response first and then had you form smaller discussion groups — giving those who might be more shy an avenue to start speaking.
On its face, this teaching technique might not seem directly related to welcoming people from diverse backgrounds to share their perspectives. But on closer examination, the link might be clear.
If a classroom only has one student from India, and the text for discussion on that particular day happens to be Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, it is very easy for that student to feel the pressure of somehow serving as the “example” of all of Indian culture to the class as a whole. Some students might welcome that role, but for many that can be an uncomfortable position.
Perhaps the small group discussion technique lets students address each other as individuals and sustain a more dynamic conversation that does not put one particular student “on the spot.” If you are interested, USC’s Rossier School of Education has assembled an online library of resources for building an inclusive classroom that you can investigate.
Whatever approach you take, I would encourage you to focus in on something specific: a specific quote from someone, a specific personal experience, or a specific form of institutional support that you encountered. This prompt runs the risk of inviting vague pontificating, but a thoughtful discussion usually begins with an analysis of a specific text or situation from which more general conclusions are later developed.
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US university application essays are much more personal than UCAS statements. Strong essays can set you apart from other applicants, bring your application to life and showcase who you really are as a person.
As well as the Common App essay (if applicable), universities might ask you to write two or three supplemental essays.
Although some universities vary, the essays are typically 500-750 words long, and universities usually ask questions covering similar themes, such as your:
- Personal identity
- Academic interests
- Extracurricular activities
Some real examples of essay questions include:
- "What makes you happy?"
- "Which aspect of our curriculum or undergraduate experience prompted your application?"
- "How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics linguistics and philosophy."
- "Write about something you love to do."
Because the questions can vary so much, you shouldn't try to force a prepared answer. Respond organically to the question.
But remember your are preparing a well-rounded application package. There should be lots of things you want to highlight across elements of your application, and personal essays are an excellent opportunity to do so. Below are some things to think about, which might also inform how you choose your essays from the prompts given by a university:
- Connect the dots between your extracurricular activities and your school work
- How will you contribute to the student life or campus diversity?
- How are you unique?
- Describe your academic fit at that particular university
- Give specific reasons for choosing that university
- Are you excited about a particular subject concentration or studying under a specific faculty member?
- What are your short or long-term goals?
- How does this university fit into your further plans and career goals?
- What does it really mean to be you?
Essay writing tips
- Stop and think. Have you done enough research into choosing this university to fully convince them you are a good fit? Do you have a list of all your extracurricular activities and most important experiences?
- Brainstorm your research. Think about your essay as a marketing tool - how do your experiences match up to the personal and academic fit of the university? Note these links down. Remember that some of these can be highlighted in your reference letters, so try to avoid writing about areas you want your referees to talk about.
- Think creatively. You don't need to constantly use metaphors and other figurative devices if that's not your personal writing style, but you should have an essay structured with a coherent and interesting theme or narrative.
- Write an introduction. This should be your hook, and should pique the reader's interest. It can be as simple as an anecdote or a quote that illustrates your main point.
- Answer the question. Use your brainstormed links and arrange them into two to three well-connected paragraphs that adhere to your central theme.
- Conclude the essay. What is the reader meant to take away? How will they remember this essay in particular? Try to connect this back to the theme you introduced at the beginning and end on a powerful, impactful note that highlights what unique personal trait you are bringing to their campus.
Other important things to keep in mind:
- Address the essay question fully
- Use clear, concise language - say what you mean
- Avoid vague or empty statements (eg "I love America"), clichés and cultural references unfamiliar to US audiences
- Make sure all references to university names are correct, especially if you re-use essays across your applications
- Proofread extensively, read it out loud and ask several people to read it for you
- Avoid repeating too much information mentioned elsewhere in your application
- Address any obvious gaps or weaknesses in your application, perhaps turning them into a positive
Here are some successful personal essays, for inspiration: