When a college asks for an essay about what gives you hope in the future, what are good/not good things to say?
Elon University's essay prompt is "As you look in your future, what gives you hope?" I am just not sure what they want me to say, and I don't want to be generic. What are ways can I stand out when answering this prompt?
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Unless you have a special story or unique anecdote, I wouldn't focus on COVID-19 (not because it's a bad topic, just because admissions officers will probably see many of these kinds of essays.) If you have something that relates to an extracurricular activity or a field of study you hope to go into, I would recommend focusing on that, as it will allow you connect personal experience to the essay. Colleges tend to value authenticity over anything fabricated to make you stand out - that said, if you have a unique idea, go for it! Picking something unusual to find hope in would be a great way to do this, but don't sacrifice the quality of your essay just to pick something you think the admission officers would find weird.
Best of luck!
I agree with @gsielin here that it's probably best not to write about COVID-19 but I would argue it's probably not even a good idea to write about even if you have a special story or unique antidote. COVID has been a global experience which the entire world is facing together. The unfortunate reality is that there is a very small chance you would have a unique enough story to tell because of how many people this has affected. And, on the small chance you do have something incredibly unique to write about on COVID I bet more often than not there's a way you could write it without mentioning the pandemic.
I got sidetracked though so let me get to your main question. I don't intend for this to sound rude but I don't think you're approaching this question with the right mindset. You said in your post "I am just not sure what they want me to say" like you are looking for/hoping there is some answer you can have to this question where an admissions officer will think "Yes! This is it, this is what I wanted to read". That's just not going to be the case. @gsielin said it perfectly, colleges are looking for authenticity. They don't want an answer that is forced because it's what you think they want. They want a genuine answer so they can get to know more about you.
Here's an activity which I think might help you or others who stumble upon this question. Find some time where you can be alone and in a quiet place. Get away from your phone, computer, tv, etc. Maybe put on some calming music if that's something that helps you relax but whatever you do make sure you're comfortable. Now, take 10-15 minutes or more if you need, dig deep, imagine the future, and truly think of how you would answer this question. Make a list and jot down whatever comes to your mind that gives you hope even if it seems small or silly. Keep jotting down ideas until you can't think of anything else. Once you're done take some time to think about WHY you wrote those answers down because there is definitely a reason even if you are unsure what it is. If you know why you wrote it, put the reasoning next to the item on the list. Now, take a look at what you wrote for what gives you hope and what you wrote for your reasoning. I bet you there are connections you can make between what gives you hope, why it gives you hope, and who you are as person. I would also bet many of these things are (hopefully!) present in other areas of your application. Pick whichever one you feel most confident about or where you think you can relate to more throughout your entire application. The more you can connect your answer to who you are as a person and what your goals are for college/the future the easier it will be to write about. Don't worry about if it's "generic" because a lot of people are hopeful for similar things. The important thing is that you give an authentic answer that is genuine to who you are and one you can, ideally, tie into other aspects of your application. If you can do that you don't need to worry about "standing out" because your answer is going to be unique to who you are and that's going more important to an AO.
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