How to Write the Pomona College Essays 2017-2018
Applying to Pomona College? This guide discusses each of the supplemental essay prompts that Pomona asks its applicants to write. After reading this article you should be able to understand:
- What these essay prompts are really trying to get at when they ask you about “superpowers” and “individual differences”
- How you can write a compelling essay that addresses these prompts and — more importantly — helps you stand out from the other 7,000+ applicants.
Located an hour east of Los Angeles, California, in sunny Claremont, Pomona College is one of the five Claremont Colleges in the Claremont Consortium and is often considered one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. The acceptance rate for Pomona is 9% with a median ACT score of 33 and a median SAT scores of 740 for reading, 740 for math, and 750 for writing. This is a highly competitive application pool, so in order to stand out, you might want to consider taking some risks and trying something a little more experimental in the supplemental essays.
In terms of size, the campus is beautiful and spacious at 140 acres, and massive buildings like the Campus Center and the Rains Center provide ample room for the 1,600 undergraduates. Sagehens have 48 majors to choose from, and access to classes throughout the Consortium provides over 2,000 courses.
The class sizes are generally very small and based around discussion, so as you write your essays you’ll want to present yourself as someone who is open to considering and respecting new ideas. This does not preclude you from having strong ideas of your own, but you’ll want to present the version of yourself who is best able to make a constructive contribution to a conversation.
Which application should I use?
There are three different paths that you can take when writing your way into Pomona: the Coalition Application, the Common Application, and the QuestBridge National College Match Application. Pomona says that it does not have any preference, so it is up to you to decide which application system to use.
First, note that the Questbridge is a special application process that “helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges.” Most students will be choosing between the Common and Coalition Applications. The Common App is used by more schools, but the Coalition App allows you to start building a portfolio early in your high school career.
The major difference between the Common and Coalition Applications at Pomona is that they each ask for a different set of supplemental essays that you will have to write in addition to the essay questions already included in the Common and Coalition Applications. CollegeVine has additional blog posts on how to tackle the Common App and Coalition essays. For Pomona, the Questbridge Application does not require any additional essays.
Common Application, Pomona-Specific Questions
If you are using the Common Application, you only need to answer one of the following three questions. Don’t choose the question that you think you “should” answer. Instead, dare to answer the question that you think you will have the most fun writing about. As you’ll see below, these supplemental questions are a little bit strange because they are designed to shake you out of clichéd responses. Also, while Pomona does not give a specific word limit for these essays, the general rule of thumb is no more than 500 words.
You have been given the option of having one superpower, but, in exchange, you have to give up one of your five senses. If you take this offer, what do you hope to accomplish with your new power, and what would you miss about the sense you’ve given up?
There is a lot going on in this question. This prompt is actually asking two seemingly unrelated questions, and it is up to you to synthesize them. The first question is: What do you want to change about the world with your new power? The second question is: Can you imagine how you would feel if your sense of the world were changed in a fundamental way? A strong response will present an artful way to tie the two halves of this double-faced question together.
Let’s take the “superpower” question first. At first, you might be thinking about traditional superpowers like flight or invincibility or laser-beam eyes, but you’ll probably do better answering this question by thinking less about the power itself and more about how you would like to use that power to change the world.
For example, maybe you live in California’s Central Valley, fertile farmland where persistent droughts have caused aquifer levels to drop to dangerously low. What if your superpower was specifically targeted to that situation, letting you replenish the aquifers? Maybe you are coming to Pomona to study ecology and political science because you know that no magic superpower is going to pull us out of this problem and that you want to explore potential solutions.
Ideally, when you talk about losing a sense in order to gain your superpower, you will not be switching topics completely. To continue with the drought example from above, you might talk about losing your sense of smell. You can stick to the topic of your essay by discussing how you would miss the scent of artichoke freshly pulled up from the earth or maybe even the omnipresent smell of cow that fills up the air around a dairy farm. This way you are talking about something more than the public policy of water conservation, but also your personal connection to that problem.
There are, of course, many other ways to answer this question. The example of central valley water conservation suggests that you don’t need to talk about a global issue of world-historical importance like “all of climate change.” Rather, you can actually use this question to focus on those issues that you know best because of your own particular background. As you work on this question ask yourself: What are the superpowers that would let me talk about what I care about? How can I talk about losing one of my senses in a way that will let me stay on the topic of my essay?
Maybe the above approach sounds a little too goody two-shoes for your tastes. What if the “superpower” you would gain opens up some difficult moral questions? Maybe your “power” is a destructive one like the ability to create fire blasts with your hands. Could such a power ever be useful? Which of your senses would you most need to keep in order to avoid becoming a moral monstrosity? An essay that focuses on the more problematic aspects of the “superpower” fantasy might demonstrate a capacity to think critically and creatively about a strange question.
One last point: When you talk about “losing one of your senses,” you should remember that many people go through the world who are blind and deaf but also live full and interesting lives. If you’re going to answer this question it might be worth listening to this conversation about disability and contemporary American culture.
One last last point: The more pedantic among us might note that there are not five, but seven senses. The writers of this prompt seem to have forgotten about the proprioception and vestibular senses.
For Pomona students, the College’s location in Southern California is integral in shaping their experience. Tell us about a location, real or fictional, that has shaped you in a meaningful way.
This question is more straightforward than the last: write about a location that is meaningful to you. There are a number of different ways to think about what it means for a place to be “meaningful” to you. A place might be meaningful because you discovered your intellectual interests there. Maybe you could write about your backyard where you discovered a love of entomology by looking under rocks. A place might be meaningful because it is tied to a significant life event. Maybe you could write about the hospital waiting room where you experienced that unsettling mixture of boredom and panic while waiting for your sister to get out of the ER.
A place might also be meaningful because it plays an important role in your community. Maybe you want to write about the local taco shack where bands, personal injury lawyers, and contractors advertise their services on a post board? Whatever you choose, remember that this question is ultimately asking you to both take your readers to a place that is important to you and tell them something about how you yourself have grown into the person you are today.
This prompt could be an especially good choice if you are a strong writer: It calls out for good descriptive prose. For bugs in your backyard, maybe contrast the feeling of soft soil with the hard exoskeletons of the insects you pick up. For the hospital ER, maybe consider the smell of stale coffee and the sound of feet scuffling around. For the taco shack you should certainly describe the smells, but don’t leave out the pleasantly sticky floor and the bathroom’s artful graffiti. Carefully written and lively prose can really help you stand out.
Finally, it’s worth saying a few words about writing on a “fictional” place. If you go this route, be sure to steer clear of lengthy plot summaries. You only have 500 words, so you will not be able to introduce your reader to the whole terrain of, say, George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.
The key to the prompt is to tell your readers why this fictional space was important to you. To read an essay that does this particularly well, take a look at Gerry Canavan’s “We Have Never Been Star Trek.” Notice how Canavan moves between his own personal history doing the Vulcan salute and talking about the ideas that made this show so important to him — ideas that matter to those of us who don’t know what the Vulcan salute is.
One last point: The first sentence of this prompt is a distraction. You do not need to incorporate anything about Southern California into your essay unless it fits in the story about your own growth and development that you want to tell. “Sucking up” to Pomona by talking about how you love hiking in the mountains and swimming in the ocean (both of which are within driving distance of Claremont!) is probably not going to get you anywhere.
A recent Critical Inquiry course at Pomona, ‘I Disagree,’ poses these questions: What does it take to be the one juror out of twelve who votes innocent? What are the dangers of living with people who agree with you? How does a scientific or a religious community confront troublesome new ideas? Consider one or more of these questions and address ‘the noble art of disagreement.’
Right off the bat, you should recognize that the question is setting a little bit of a trap when it asks you to “consider one or more of these questions.” To better stay focused, stick to one of the three questions the prompt lists. With only 500 words, you do not have time to range across the ethics of jury deliberation, the challenge that politically homogeneous geographic regions pose for American democracy, and the sociology of religious and scientific communities.
At its heart, this question is asking you to imagine that you are already attending Pomona and taking a class on “disagreement.” The key to answering this question is to avoid spinning your wheels and making generalized proclamations about moral rectitude and human nature. Instead, do what you would do in a seminar and choose a text to respond to. That text can be a movie, novel, or poem, but it can also be a newspaper article, a current event, or even a personal experience. Having a text can focus your response and get you writing as if you were taking part in a conversation.
To take a particularly politically charged example, you might choose a text the documentary Welcome to Leith, a film about how a group of white supremacists moves into a very, very small town in North Dakota with the intent to seize control of local government and create a miniature ethno-state — a “troublesome new idea” to be sure. Can the town’s residents have a “noble” disagreement with these new comers? Are there limits to free speech, and if so what are they?
You should not be afraid to tackle controversial topics in this prompt. After all, many of your discussions in college will touch on such difficult issues, and this admissions committee wants to see if you can engage thoughtfully and respectfully with difficult issues. If you decide you want to write about a controversial topic in your essay, be sure to check out CollegeVine’s blog post on how to talk politics on college applications.
One last note: The question “What does it take to be the one juror out of twelve who votes innocent?” is so obviously pulled from the plot of Twelve Angry Men (a text commonly assigned in high school literature classes) that you should probably not write about that particular play in your response. By the end of application season, Pomona’s admissions officers will be very tired of Twelve Angry Men.
Coalition Application, Pomona-Specific Questions
If you apply using the Coalition App, you’ll need to write two supplemental essays: First, you’ll write an essay or offer a multi-media project that addresses the “Who” prompt, and then you’ll write an essay that responds to one of the three “How” prompts.
Ideally, the two essays should offer a coherent picture that lets the admissions committee know who you are and how you interact with the world around you. Good responses to these questions will address a little bit of “who” and a little bit of “how” in both essays. Finally, though the instructions say your response must be “at least 400 words,” none of your essays should be longer than 500 words.
Part I: Who
Environments and experiences shape people in different ways. What is your world like? As a result, what characteristics, beliefs, or values will you bring with you when you begin college, and how does this help us understand who you are?
You can respond to this prompt with an essay of at least 400 words, a collection of photos, a video response (up to 90 seconds long), or something else from your Locker. If you choose to submit a collection of photos or if your video response does not include narration, please also include a short statement telling us what you hope we will learn from your submission.
When you think about your “world,” any number of things might come to mind: your friends, your favorite TV show, your dog’s poop, the petrochemicals in your plastic water bottle, the bacteria in your gut — the list goes on. With an open-ended topic like this, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and slip into clichés. You might be tempted to start an essay saying, “My world was turned upside down when my grandmother died…” A good essay about the death of one’s grandmother can, of course, be written. But what you’ll want to do is focus on a more specific aspect of your world, that will be far less common, to share with your readers.
One way of approaching this essay is to ask how your own position in the world might help you see it differently. The trick is to take a step back and ask, what is distinctive about my world?
For example, maybe there’s a specific street corner where you play the violin for a few dollars on weekends. What’s it like to live alongside pedestrians, not as one body among many moving through the crowd, but rather as an observer and entertainer? What has your time as a street musician taught you about how urban planning succeeds (or fails) at moving bodies from one place to another? How does your position as a street musician help change the way you see the city? Maybe buildings are not just places of commerce, but rather part of a lively acoustic ecosystem.
Though you are supposed to talk about your “characteristics, beliefs, and values,” the story you tell need not include a sentence where you say, “I believe x, I exhibit characteristic y, and I value z.” Instead, by sharing a story about your own personal experience you should help your readers see how and why you see the world the way you do.
One particularly effective way of introducing your readers to your own distinctive self is to share something from your “Locker.” The Coalition App’s Locker system allows you to store different multimedia art projects in your application.
If you are a painter or a musician or a spoken-word poet or a video artist, this is your moment to shine. No matter what your intended major is, Pomona says that it is looking for students who have “an appreciation for the visual and/or the performing arts.” If you are majoring in engineering, maybe you can share something that shows how your interest in art and science are two halves of the same coin. Maybe you have a short video showcasing a marble machine that you’ve made?
No matter what innovative or strange project you share, you should include a short artist’s statement that shares with the admissions committee “what you hope they will learn from this submission.”
Ideally, this statement should not be more than 200 words. It can be as simple as telling the committee what inspired you to take up this project. The role of this statement should not just be to explain the work itself but to explain how the work says something about you and your values and experiences. In the marble machine example above, maybe it was playing miniature golf with your dad that first got you interested in mathematics and physics, and you thought this machine would be a fitting tribute to the role he played in your intellectual formation.
What if you cannot think of anything particularly distinctive about your life? What if you are not a particularly talented multi-media artist? Another tactic is to try writing an essay that helps us see a banal aspect of your life in a new way. Remember when I mentioned dog poop a few paragraphs ago? There might be a good essay in that. What do you learn by picking up your dog’s poop every day? How does that small ritual of care structure the rest of your day? There can be something deeply meditative about tending to an animal. When we care for our fellow creatures (be they human or animal) that means dealing, perhaps lovingly, with their filth.
The “dog poop” essay probably pushes the limits of acceptability. You should avoid being vulgar and provocative just for the sake of being vulgar and provocative. But Pomona’s website says the college is looking for students who are “risk-takers.” One way to demonstrate that is to take risks in your writing. In the stack of essays about dying grandmothers, a thoughtful essay on dog poop (or a similarly peculiar topic) can stand out.
Part II: How
Please respond to one of the following three prompts with a written response of at least 400 words.
How do you interact with those around you? Tell us about a group you’re comfortable with and how you act or behave when you’re with them. This could be your family, a team, a class, a club, etc.
If you’re not careful, this question can mislead you into offering a milquetoast response where you write about how you are a little bit awkward and nervous in new situations but your sense of humor really shines when you are with your friends. The difficulty of this essay is that most people are pretty similar when they are “comfortable.”
One way to craft a more lively response to this question is to think about this question as asking you to share something about what you’re like when you are in your element, pursuing something that you are passionate about. As I’ve suggested above, the trick here is to show rather than tell. It can sound awkward and braggadocios to simply assert, “I have personality traits x, y, and z.” You want to tell a story that lets your reader get a sense of you as a person that goes deeper than any common adjective.
Maybe you are writing an essay about how you are most at home when you are volunteering at the local aquarium. Instead of saying, “When I’m in my element, I am a calm person,” you can talk about how your pulse evens out when you pass by a tank of drifting jellyfish. Instead of saying, “When I’m in my element, I get excited,” you can talk about how your eyes light up when telling visitors near the octopus tank about the scandal of the cephalopods.
Another challenge in this essay is that it asks you to describe a situation where you are “comfortable,” but sometimes a good essay needs a bit of a plotline, a little bit of conflict. Where’s the suspense in a description of a “comfortable” situation? One way to overcome this is by talking about how you became comfortable in a given place in a group over time. In the aquarium example above, you might have always loved sea creatures, but maybe large crowds make you nervous. How did you overcome that social anxiety, and how do you continue to manage it as you go about doing the work that you really do love?
2. How do you approach learning? Tell us about an experience with a learning process. This can be a description of a personal or academic project and the stages it involved. What did you discover?
In this question, the admissions committee wants to see how you live your passions beyond the classroom. You can do better than talking about how you wanted to get an “A” on your calculus midterm, studied really hard, and then got that “A.”
If you are focusing on an “academic project,” it is fine if it started at school, but ideally, you are talking about something that took on a life of its own. For example, maybe in your statistics AP class, you started doing a project building linear regression models to predict the walk-to-strikeout ratio for different pitchers. But after doing that project, you got more deeply involved in an online community dedicated to sabermetrics — the application of statistical analyses to baseball records.
When the prompt asks, “What did you discover?” they are not necessarily after the results of your experiment or project so much as they are asking about what you’ve learned about yourself or even what you’ve learned about the process of learning itself.
In our example about “sabermetrics,” the important thing is not the precise set of statistics that you think best model an individual pitchers performance. More important is how you learned to test your analysis by getting into impassioned (but respectful) discussions with people from all over the world. This process, in all its messiness, actually resembles the chaotic process of scientific research where people are constantly testing and debating the claims and methods of other researchers.
One last note: As you introduce your readers to your particular intellectual passion, you want to avoid burying them in jargon. Whenever possible, use laymen’s terms or offer a quick definition.
3. Our individual differences are what make us unique and can sometimes make us stand out. Write about a time when you were aware of your difference. How did it impact you, and what did you learn from the experience?
This prompt is best for you if a specific experience with difference played a formative and consistent role in your life. You might be writing about a difference in race, gender identity, religious belief, or bodily ability. But you might also be writing about how your skill level in a sport, or your facility with a language, or your family’s economic means makes you different.
Whatever it is, avoid broad clichés and generalizations that will weaken your overall message. Avoid saying something along the lines of “I overcame that difference and won” or “I put aside that difference immediately and was able to work things out.” It’s okay to be vulnerable here and establish how you changed as a person by reckoning with a difference that might still pose a very real challenge.
One way to approach this essay is to move from your own personal experience of “difference” to the larger historical, social, and political context that gives weight to that experience. For example, what did it mean to you when you went to the county courthouse for the first time and saw a monument to Confederate soldiers outside its door? As the events of this last summer suggest, these monuments have a contentious history, rooted not just in the history of the Civil War itself but also in how different groups have interpreted and remembered that war in the early and mid-twentieth centuries.
You might also consider how “difference” has played a role, not just in your life but also in the lives of those you are closest to. For example, if your mother uses a wheelchair to get around, what have you learned about the way your community facilitates access for people with disabilities by going out to lunch at restaurants with her?
Finally, if you have a unique background, it does not mean that you need to commit to answering the “diversity question.” For example, if you’d like to talk about your family history, and if you’ve been interviewing your aunts and uncles about their experience of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, then you can talk about that in your response to the “Who” essay or in a response to question two that focuses on your passion for family history.
Good luck with your essays, and go Sagehens!
Check out the CollegeVine list of all 2017-2018 essay prompts for colleges and universities.
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