2018-2019 applicants to NYU’s class of 2023 have a variety of prompts to choose from for their Common Application Personal Essay, which has a 650-word limit. This is fitting, since NYU itself sits squarely in the middle of bustling lower Manhattan, but also has degree-granting campuses in the Middle East and Asia (Abu Dhabi and Shanghai) as well as satellite campuses across the world (London, Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Sydney, and more) that give NYU students the chance to choose broadly where and what they want to study during college. In keeping with past years, the Common Application will ask applicants to choose a single prompt to address.
When sitting down to write your NYU Personal Essay, you may find it difficult to choose which prompt to answer. Choice tends to be a good thing, but it can also be overwhelming! How can you best demonstrate to NYU Admissions you possess the unique traits they seek in prospective students? Regardless which prompt you select, Accepted has tips for tackling it. Below you will find strategies to best address each prompt and build the strongest Personal Essay possible.
Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Perhaps more than any other university in the US, NYU seeks to admit a truly global freshman class that reflects not only regional and cultural diversity in the US but the world as a whole. Your first instinct may be to assume, point-blank, “I’m just like everyone else. There’s nothing special about me.” However, that is unlikely to be the case.
Did you grow up in an atypical setting that helped shape who you are (e.g., hopping from military base to military base abroad if you’re a US citizen who is also a military child)? Do you practice your religious belief or unbelief in a specific way that shapes how you move through the world on a daily basis? Are you fascinated by a particular topic that seems mundane to you but might pique the curiosity of another prospective student (e.g., artificial intelligence)? Were you that black sheep at your high school who insisted on unicycling everywhere you went? If so, don’t be afraid to go for it in this essay and speak openly and concretely about your passion.
At the same time, don’t write yourself off as “uninteresting” if nothing singular immediately jumps to mind. If you find yourself aligning with this thinking, chances are you haven’t taken the time yet to sit down and map out your passions and how they add up to the idiosyncratic individual you’ve become. Don’t forget to have conversations with close family and friends, guidance counselors, and teachers you respect to get their takes on your unique qualities. Sometimes the best mirror to use is other people. When NYU is building its incoming class, it wants to fill it with as much idiosyncrasy as possible. And in a university as large and as truly global as NYU has become, be confident there is a place for you and what makes you unique if you take enough time to identify it.
Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
New York City, while one of the most dynamic and fascinating cities on earth, is not necessarily the easiest place to spend your college years. Centralized around Washington Square Park, NYU’s campus lacks the rolling hills and quad of the prototypical American university. The frenetic pace of the surrounding city can be exhausting, and your sense of personal space will be challenged on a daily basis walking Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and other busy streets. If you’re from a rural area, you’ll likely find yourself riding public transit for the first time (and subsequently not understanding what an “express” train is until it’s too late). You and your fellow students will likely be hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, and while you might not get homesick that first semester, chances are you’ll feel those pangs at some point during your student experience.
As a consequence of these factors, the NYU Admissions team wants to admit students prepared to handle difficult situations who can approach failure opportunistically—applicants who possess the emotional maturity and resolve to get through a tough time and come out the other side an improved person. When thinking about an example you might draw on for this essay, consider that the topic you explore may be used by NYU Admissions as a measuring stick to determine whether or not you can handle the emotional and physical challenges of life in New York City over an exciting but challenging four years. This essay is therefore perhaps best addressed by discussing a time you felt overwhelmed by a place or situation and how you dealt with it.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
As NYU students will tell you, constructive debate of ideas is integral to life on campus and something that is emphasized in the required coursework students are asked to complete. The reading- and writing-intensive College Core Curriculum maintained by the College of Arts & Science, for example, includes mandatory courses such as Texts and Ideas and Writing the Essay, which ask students to take positions on a variety of sociopolitical issues. Applicants tend to assume that a focus in business or engineering might allow them to waive this emphasis on rhetoric and strong writing skills in college, but in NYU’s case this assumption proves incorrect. Engineering and business students must also complete Writing the Essay as a core requirement.
Your high school coursework may not have required you to challenge a belief or idea through a formal written assignment yet, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t wrestled with a timely question and been transformed as a result. Maybe your research into animal cruelty and farming practices for a biology project led you to become a vegetarian. Perhaps after a heated verbal exchange with a street preacher you took the time to buy him a bite to eat to unpack his rhetoric and try to understand his divisive position. No matter the example you draw on, know that NYU prides itself on selecting students who can stand up for themselves and their ideas both orally and in writing. The belief or idea discussed is less important than the passion an applicant brings to it from an admissions committee perspective. This prompt is exciting to tackle because it tends to work well when applicants emphasize an emotionally charged scene / setting. Think of yourself as the director of a feature film. Set the scene for us. Identify and clarify your passion regarding an idea and tell us about how the journey of taking a strong position changed you.
Prompt #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
While NYU typically gets the most attention for its prestigious Tisch School of the Arts and outstanding film program, it is first and foremost a research university (the largest private research university in the US, in fact), so if you’ve spent high school shuffling beakers in the chemistry lab or tackling how to combat the division of cancer cells with some extracurricular research at a local hospital or university, this might be the right essay for you. It’s often helpful to ground a problem you want to solve with a topic you’ve studied in detail already—as that context will provide a solid point of departure for this essay. Don’t assume this prompt needs to be science-specific, however. To the contrary, you may have spent your high school years thinking about a social issue like healthcare coverage in America and how coverage gaps for millions of Americans negatively affect the nation’s economy and social fabric.
This doesn’t tend to be an essay prompt you can easily respond to out of thin air, so if you haven’t had a key problem on your mind in advance of reading the prompt, perhaps try your hand at one of the other six. But if you do have a problem on your mind, clearly identify what it is early in your response, then link it back to your own personal experiences. Finally, do some research before closing your essay with a discussion of the possible steps you can take to solve the problem.
Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This essay invites you to think about your recent life and any transitions in it that proved particularly formative. In some cases you may instantly know the topic you’ll choose. You may have survived a debilitating illness or helped support a loved one through an illness and had to grow up in the process. Perhaps you ran for elected office at school or in your community despite not being initially popular and won by a landslide. Keep in mind that what seems culturally obvious and uninteresting to you might end up fascinating the NYU admissions team and be something singular about yourself that could help make your application stand out. Perhaps you grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and would bring all the rich cultural traditions associated with that identity with you as an NYU freshman. There is no hard and fast rule for what accomplishment or event you discuss in this prompt.
In our experience, applicants sometimes default to a subject that is less complicated or emotionally difficult to make the essay writing process less challenging—which, frankly, is a mistake. This essay asks you to really look inward and be honest with yourself, so do not be afraid to do so. Know that NYU in particular is a university that truly values all difference and actively seeks to support students of all identities. If the story you want to tell is of owning your sexual identity, for example, and coming out to parents and classmates and facing the aftermath of that choice, it might be difficult to get down on paper in that first, messy, emotionally-charged draft. Remember that you will have plenty of time to revise it before you click “submit,” however, and that you will likely gain valuable insights about yourself through the process of writing it.
Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Similarly to Prompt #4, this question asks you to unpack the way you tackle a problem, so if you have a researcher’s passion for seeking out new knowledge, you might be drawn to select this prompt. At a school like NYU, you will be exposed to a seemingly infinite number of intellectual and emotional inputs from day one. Just walking down the street on your way to Union Square can be overwhelming! As a university with research in its DNA, NYU seeks out students that have the ability to hone individual interests and follow lines of inquiry through from hypothesis to experimentation and conclusion without getting distracted along the way. This doesn’t mean the topic, idea, or concept you discuss must be scientific however. You might be a math whiz who gets lost in elaborate classical proofs, but a strong emotional connection to the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa (a prominent NYU creative writing faculty member) would be equally legitimate to explore and explain in this essay.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to completely answer this multi-stage question. It’s easy to get lost in addressing the “What captivates you?” portion and not address why it captivates you and who and what you have consulted to learn more about it. NYU, like other universities, wants to admit students who are comfortable showing up to professors’ office hours and taking the life of the mind seriously. Will you be an intellectual asset on campus and actively engaged in the intellectual pursuits? This essay asks you to prove it with a specific example.
Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
This last Common Application Personal Essay prompt is certainly the most laissez-faire. If you do end up selecting it, be sure to run the choice by your high school’s guidance counselor as well as trusted teachers and friends to make sure it is appropriate to the college selection process. Oftentimes the piece of writing you are most proud of may not be appropriate for audiences outside the context in which you wrote it. If you published an op-ed for your high school newspaper that drew on your personal experience with grief (e.g., losing a parent) to talk about how counseling services at the high school could be improved to better support students, you might be able to move NYU’s Admissions Committee as well as other universities’ by giving them a solid impression of who you are and what you’re about as a person.
A piece of writing for your school paper about your favorite band, in contrast, might not give an admissions team enough background into who you are and the distinct value you’d add to the class to warrant using as a first impression. Remember that ultimately that’s what the Common Application Personal Statement is: a succinct introduction to all-things-you. By the time they finish reading it, you want Admissions Committees at NYU and elsewhere to come away thinking, “This sounds like someone I truly want to get to know more.” Selecting and executing the essay prompt that best fits your passions and experiences is the first step toward achieving that outcome.
If you’re applying to NYU, you already know you’re up against tight competition. Don’t be overwhelmed. Get the guidance of an experienced admissions specialist who will help you stand out from the highly competitive applicant pool so you can apply with confidence, and get accepted! Click here to get started!
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