How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2020-2021
In this article, we will introduce you to a relatively new admissions platform, the Coalition Application. Then, we will offer some suggestions about how to approach its 2020-2021 essay prompts. By the end of this article, you will be ready to start writing, and you’ll be equipped with some admissions essay advice that will be useful no matter which application platform you end up using.
What is the Coalition Application?
The Coalition Application was created by a group of college administrators as an alternative to the more-widely used Common Application. The 2020-2021 application cycle is the fourth full cycle in which the Coalition Application is available. A complete list of over 100 schools that accept the Coalition Application can be found here.
Many colleges ask their applicants for the same basic information: your name and address, the classes you took in high school, your GPA, and your test score. The Coalition Application, like the Common Application, offers you the chance to enter all that information into a single platform without having to re-enter it for each new school that you apply for.
One of the unique features of the Coalition Application is its Locker system. The Locker is an online storage space that allows you to collect and organize your application materials. These materials might include traditional essays and letters of recommendation, but they also might include audio files where you show off your saxophone playing skills or a high-resolution image of your latest experiment in watercolor portraiture.
This aspect of the Coalition Application is especially useful for students applying to majors in art or music because these programs often want to see and hear what their applicants have already done. Also, some colleges are starting to experiment with alternatives to the traditional “admissions essay.” Instead of 400-word responses essay prompts, some schools will allow you to submit a photo essay or a short video clip. Note that when you store something in your Locker, the schools that you are applying for will only see it if you specifically give them permission.
More information about the Coalition Application, including tutorial videos that tell you how to navigate its interface, can be found on their website.
Strategizing Your Essay Responses
Before digging into the Coalition Application’s individual essay prompts, we would like to take a step back and talk about the role your Coalition essays will play in your application as a whole.
Before you sit down to start writing your essays, it is a good idea to look at the essay requirements for all of the schools on your school list together. Some of your target schools might just want you to respond to one of the prompts from the Coalition Application. Other schools might want you to write an additional essay that is specific to that school. And still other schools might be using the Common Application instead of the Coalition Application.
After you figure out which schools require which essays, you can settle on the exact number of original essays that you will actually need to write. An essay that you’ve written for the Common Application might work perfectly well as a response to one of the Coalition Application’s prompts. A supplementary essay that you’ve written for one school might also be a suitable response to another school’s supplementary essay prompts. With some careful planning, you can minimize the number of essays you will need to write and give yourself more time to produce high-quality work.
After you have looked at all the essays that you need to write for all your target schools, you should start looking at the collection of essays that you will need to write for each individual school. Between the Coalition and the supplementary essays, some schools might want two, or three, or even four essays from their applications. Ideally, each essay will help the admissions committee learn something new about you that they would not be able to get from looking at your test scores and grades.
For example, you might have one essay where you discuss your work in the Model United Nations club. In another essay you might shift the focus from your interest in international relations to your own personal history: Maybe you grew up in Brazil and you want to write about a quiet moment when your father first taught you how to make abará (a popular dish).
A common theme holds these essays together (your interest in and connection to cultures that reach across national boundaries), but the focus of each essay is distinct. You don’t want to just write two or three essays all on the topic of your work with Model UN. The trick is to think about your essays as complementing each other to build a multi-dimensional picture of you. Of course, no set of 400-word essays will ever be enough to communicate the whole of your personality. The challenge is to pick and choose the collection of anecdotes and experiences that will make an admissions committee want to invite you to their campus so that they can learn more.
One last note on word count: The Coalition Application suggests that your responses be between 300 and 400 words. However, some individual schools have specific word count limits that are higher or lower. Before you start writing your essays, you’ll want to check the length requirements on the essays for all of your target schools. Want to know your chances at hundreds of different schools? Calculate your chances for free right now.
Coalition Application Essay Prompts
The first thing to notice about this prompt is how it encourages you to do something that you should be doing in all your essays. By asking you to tell a story that “demonstrates your character,” this prompt is, in effect, asking you to “show” rather than “tell.” When writing personal essays, it is easy to slip into a mode in which you simply list and describe your own qualities.
In writing your first draft, you might find yourself saying something like “I always work well with others” or “Family is really important to me.” But most people are inclined to be a little bit skeptical when someone simply claims they “work well with others” or have “good family values.” These are qualities that we generally believe people have only after we have observed their actions. The admissions committee, however, cannot see how you interact with your friends, family and co-workers, so the best you can do is give them a story that helps them imagine what kind of person you are.
For example, if you want the admissions committee to know that you are exceptional at thinking quickly to solve problems, you should share a story about a time where you actually did that. Maybe you were trying to hold a car wash fundraiser for the chorus in front of your school, but the water happened to be cut off that day, so you had to think quickly and convince the restaurant across the street to let you hold the car wash in their parking lot.
If you tell this story well, you will not need to arrogantly say, “I can always find solutions to problems.” Instead you can actually give some details about how you search out solutions, not just by relying on your own quick wits, but also by collaborating with others. Maybe you were able to convince the restaurant manager that a car wash might attract business, and you can talk about how the other members of your chorus helped you make a plan for effectively managing traffic. A good personal essay is not just about “you”– it shows how you interact with the world.
Now you might very well say: “You’ve said we should ‘show’ and not ‘tell,’ but isn’t a story just another kind of telling? How does the admissions committee know that I’m not just making it all up? After all, you seem to have fabricated the example about the car wash out of thin air.”
This is where it becomes especially important to offer specific details to make your story come alive, the kind of details that only someone who was really there could speak to. In the car wash example, you might mention how satisfying it was to see the soapy water evaporating in the hot sun, or how you were glad someone brought waterproof sunblock to share. At the end of the day, the admissions committee is not going to subject your story to cross-examination: More than just telling a story, you are also trying to demonstrate with your writing that you are a thoughtful and observant person who sees the world in a distinctive way.
Finally, you should also note that this is one of the more flexible essay prompts, and a good response might also fit with a number of different prompts from the Common Application like the prompt that asks, “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?” and the prompt that asks “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.”
This prompt offers you a way to address a common suspicion among admissions officers: the ever-growing activity lists that students use to pad resumes in an increasingly competitive college admissions game. If you can write a compelling essay about your sincere passion for the volunteer and service work you’ve done, this essay can go a long way in convincing admissions officers to take your activity list seriously.
As with the prompt above, you’ll want to offer a specific story with carefully chosen details. But there is an added challenge with this prompt. If you are going to write about volunteer work you’ve done in disadvantaged communities, you don’t want to sound like you have beneficently descended from the mountains of power and privilege to offer the less fortunate the gifts of your time, energy, and knowledge. You want to speak with humility and maturity about the extent of your contributions and the challenges you encountered.
There is a huge difference between saying, “I organized a food drive where we brought canned goods to the needy!” and actually going out into your community to work with existing organizations to identify real needs. A canned food drive may be a perfectly fine thing to do, but there are shades of distinction between doing charity work that makes the givers feel good (as they add a line on their CV) and entering into the sustained local partnerships that make meaningful contributions to the common good.
Whether working in your own community or traveling abroad, don’t be a “voluntourist” — someone who has air-dropped in, snapped a few Instagrammable moments, and then left after passing out some bread and giving a few high-fives.
If you have a sincere and long-standing commitment to service, write about the people you worked with, what you’ve learned about logistics and organizing, and how your education might help you continue doing that work. If you worked with your local food bank, you might write about how you started helping unload bread deliveries from a bakery, and about how you learned to repair one of the freezers when it broke down.
Though the prompt asks you to talk about “challenges,” you don’t need to tell a story about having single-handedly defeated the scourge of hunger in your community. If you are involved with an organization that is working for the greater good, the challenges you are collaborating to face are probably long standing. There are certainly small victories that you might eek out. Maybe you played a role in convincing a new grocery store to contribute more fresh produce during the winter. A “meaningful” contribution need not be of earth-shaking consequence.
Finally, maybe you have not done a significant amount of traditional service work. That does not mean you cannot offer a good answer to this question. Contributions to the “greater good” come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you have spent a lot of time providing care for a sick relative, or you quit the high school soccer team because you needed to babysit your little brother when your mom had to take an evening shift. Whatever you decide to write about, remember that you need to “show” and not just “tell.”
Given the current, politically-charged atmosphere in the United States, this prompt has the potential to elicit the most controversial — but also the most interesting — response.
Widely-publicized research in social psychology has suggested that people do not actually change their “long-cherished or accepted beliefs” all that often.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered something that they called the “the backfire effect,” which suggests that when people receive evidence that contradicts their beliefs, they react by doubting the evidence and then asserting the truth of their original beliefs more strongly than before. The use of evidence to persuade “backfires.” This is a troubling finding for many educators because it suggests that our beliefs cannot be changed by reasoned debate and that when confronted with different perspectives, we retreat to our own tribal perspectives. The researchers who first discovered the “backfire effect” have more recently started to question their initial findings, but it does raise the question: Can long-cherished beliefs really change? This essay gives you a chance to explore that problem.
When responding to this question, one thing that you should recognize is that you do not have to be telling a story about how you suddenly changed your mind about an issue you care about. Even in the space of 400 words, you can talk with nuance about how you moved from one side of an issue to another, weaving back and forth as you accumulate new perspectives.
For example, maybe you’re a Muslim woman who grew up in Iran. Since hijabs are required in public for all women, you saw the veil as a symbol of oppression and suppression of women’s rights. It was only when you moved to the US that you realized that some women want and choose to wear a hijab. You became friends with someone who proudly wore one as a symbol of their religious identity, and to distance herself from toxic beauty standards. After learning about the banning of the veil in some European countries, you also realize that the hijab can be a symbol of religious freedom.
We offer the above example in order to suggest that it is actually okay to take on difficult issues in your admissions essays. What matters is not that you end up on the “liberal” or “conservative” side of a given issue so much as that you show you are able to write carefully and thoughtfully. When you go to college, you will be exploring difficult questions all the time. Demonstrating the capacity to explore complex issues in a mature and respectful manner can help strengthen your admissions profile.
Keep your audience in mind, however. If you’re applying to a socially conservative school like Liberty University, maybe don’t write your essay on transgender rights. Likewise, if you’re applying to the liberal Oberlin College, don’t write your essay in support of ICE.
Furthermore, try to avoid extremely polarizing and broad topics that may alienate admissions officers, like abortion. The point of every college essay is to share more about who you are, and these broad topics usually don’t allow you to do that. The best topics are deeply-personal and allow you to share your own experiences.
If you do decide to talk about a controversial topic, it might be worth checking out CollegeVine’s blog post Can I talk About Politics on my College application?
At first glance, it may seem like this question is asking you to talk about the minutia of your life as a “teenager” in a way that might sound a little bit condescending. Many students applying for colleges think of themselves as young adults, growing out of “teenage” years and headed on to something bigger than pin-balling hormones and a lack of disposable income.
One way to open up this question is to focus on the key word “now” — as in, what is hard about being a teenager in this particular historical moment?
Read with an emphasis on “now,” you can see how the prompt is actually asking you to participate in a larger discussion about social and cultural currents. What are the things that make being a teenager “now” different from being a teenager ten or twenty years ago? You might talk about how issues that affect many different populations affect teenagers in particular.
For example, what effect is the opioid epidemic having on your high school? On another, more positive note, maybe there is something that is particularly great about being a teenager now. Maybe you’d like to write an essay about how those who were born after 2001 may face a frightening world, but at least the new Star Wars movies offer a vision of the world where people from minority backgrounds can envision themselves as heroes.
One of the particular challenges of this prompt is that it seems to be asking three separate questions at once: the hardest thing about being a teenager, the best thing about being a teenager, and advice you would give to a younger person. To write a coherent response, you will need to make the three parts of this essay work together.
For example, let’s look at writing a coherent response that includes a discussion of how mobile technologies create both new challenges and new possibilities. In addition to the problems that image picture-sharing platforms might create, maybe they also offer young people new ways to find friends in far-flung places. The social media sites that open up new potentials for bullying might also allow young LGBTQ to connect with each other and find support communities that might otherwise have been beyond their reach. In reflecting on the challenges and possibilities that new communication technologies afford, you can move to offering some advice to your younger cousin about how to navigate these spaces safely and thoughtfully.
One final note: Maybe you are a non-traditional student who is, in fact, not a teenager when you are applying to college. Indeed, maybe you are in your 30s and already have a child who is on their way to becoming a teenager. You can still answer this question because you might actually have some interesting thoughts about what is the most difficult thing about being a teenager “now.”
The Common Application also gives you the option to “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 is the wildcard option, and you can use it in several different ways.
First, maybe the school you are applying for only uses the Coalition Application, but you really like the essay that you wrote for the Common Application’s prompt “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.” It is perfectly acceptable to simply submit that essay with a few minor tweaks. For strategies about how to write the Common App, check out CollegeVine’s Common App guide!
But the possibilities for this essay are truly endless. Many colleges claim that they are looking for “risk takers” on websites that, paradoxically, look like they were all made by the same PR firm. For those of you who feel compelled to really take some risks in order to stand out from the crowd, we’d like to close this article by offer the following suggestions with the caveat that results may vary:
While these suggestions may not apply to your interests, you should consider employing a similar level of creativity. If you’re really stuck trying to come up with an essay, it might help to take a walk on the wild side before returning to your “normal” work with a fresh pair of eyes. And, who knows, maybe you’ll stumble over something interesting in the process. Good luck!
View the essay prompts for hundreds of schools in our Essay Prompts Database.
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