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ISAAGNY Upper School 2021-22 Common Essay Prompt Guide

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Welcome, one and all, to College Essay Advisors’ ISAAGNY (The Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York) Upper School Common Essay Prompt Guide! The ISAAGNY common essay prompts are meant to provide you with some creative inspiration to help you write about yourself in a meaningful way.
Your main goal in responding to the prompt of your choosing (in 750 words or fewer) should be to reveal more about yourself to admissions officers. This is your opportunity to speak to admissions in your own voice to distinguish yourself from other similarly qualified applicants.  Let’s dive in!
Directions: Choose one of the following topics and write a response that is a maximum of 4500 characters in length. Remember, quality and quantity of words are not interchangeable. What you say is far more important than the length of the response.

ISAAGNY High School Common Writing Topics:

1. Tell us about a time when you were brave.

If you feel yourself drawn to this prompt, odds are a few examples have already popped into your mind. When have you followed your gut instead of the advice of other people? When have you stood up for something you believe in? You don’t have to have started your own animal rescue farm to impress admissions here. It can be just as brave to assert your boundaries with your friends or request discrimination training for teachers at your school after an insensitive remark in class. Ultimately, the key to writing an excellent response to this prompt is in the details. Don’t just tell admissions about something bold or brave you’ve done recently; tell them why you did it and maybe even share how you would like to continue to challenge the status quo in the future. Finally, don’t forget to reflect on how the event in question changed who you are. Admissions loves them some self-reflection!

2. What is your favorite work of art (visual, written, musical, etc.)? Why is it meaningful to you?

With this prompt, admissions is looking for more than just a summary of your favorite book, song, painting, or musical. They want to know why a certain work of art is meaningful to you and how it connects to your identity, background, interests, or values. As with all application essays, your goal should be to use this prompt as an opportunity to tell admissions something new about yourself through your relationship to a particular piece of art. Be careful to avoid self-aggrandizing or pandering choices and, instead, write about works that truly speak to you. And don’t feel like you need to make a trip to the MET in order to answer this prompt. Admissions knows you’re young and they’re not looking for you to dissect Dante’s Inferno. If you connect with an Olivia Rodrigo song or Pixar film, write about it! When you give admissions insight into the art that you feel is representative of your personality, experiences, or background, you will reveal a fascinating, newfound piece of the complex puzzle that is you.

3. Tell us about a time when you experienced or observed racism or bias first-hand. How did you react and why? How do you wish you had reacted?

Schools know racist biases and microaggressions pop up in all kinds of places and they want to accept students who are part of positive change. If you feel yourself drawn to this prompt, we’re willing to bet an example came to your mind immediately. Whether you were the target or an observer of the bias, admissions wants to know how you reacted and how you would like to respond if a situation like this happens again. It can be incredibly impactful to address internalized biases with your relatives, to question the narrative in your history class’s curriculum, or to stand up for yourself when you sense you are being discriminated against. Don’t just tell admissions about the time you experienced or observed racism; tell them how you felt, responded, and reflected. Maybe even share how you would like to continue to challenge racial biases in the future. If social justice is an important part of your life, this prompt is for you.

4. What is a topic/skill that you learned about within the past year that was not assigned to you in school?

The pandemic forced us all to get creative with our free time, so if you feel yourself drawn to this prompt, lean into the inclination and get creative. Maybe you developed an interest in marine life and you’ve been reading up on the most dangerous creatures in the deep dark sea (and their preferred prey, of course). Or maybe you watched a YouTube video about Greek mythology and have been voraciously reading every book you can find on Poseidon and his many adventures ever since. When was the last time you went down an internet rabbit hole researching something? When were you extremely motivated to solve a problem or create something new? What was the last fact or skill you learned outside of school that truly captured your imagination or creativity? The bottom line here is to discuss examples of what truly interests you, while also reflecting on what these examples say about your personality traits, interests, or learning style.

5. Describe one of your favorite family traditions and why it is meaningful to you.

The fun thing about essay prompts like this one (and prompt #2 and #4) is that you get to gush about something that makes you happy. The family tradition you choose to write about can really run the gamut. We recommend getting started by writing down everything that comes to mind—nothing is off-limits during the brainstorming and freewriting phases of the essay writing process. Then, once you have some material to work with, you can start reflecting on what those traditions mean to you. 

Maybe, every year on Halloween, your aunt hosts a costume party with a dance contest that your entire family attends (and that you won two years in a row, nbd). What is it about having the whole family together that feels so blissful? Perhaps, every summer, your family drives to Brooklyn, NY for the West Indian-American Carnival Day to celebrate your Caribbean roots and culture. How does the atmosphere make you feel? Do you look forward to the parade, music, and food every year?

Finally, make sure to answer the second part of the prompt: Why is it meaningful to you? How have your family traditions shaped who you are? How can you lead admissions to a new way of understanding the person you are today?

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