Here are the supplemental prompts for the Pomona College application this year:
- Most Pomona students enter the College undecided about a major, or they change their minds about their prospective major by the time they graduate. Certainly we aren’t going to hold you to any of the choices you’ve made above. But please do tell us why you’ve chosen the major or majors (or Undecided!) that you have (in no more than 250 words).
- Please respond to one of the following three prompts:
Option A: Each year, the Pomona Student Union hosts a “Great Debate.” Thought leaders with opposing views on a certain issue are invited to make their case in front of the student body. What is an issue that you think has two or more sides and what views would be important to capture in order to understand the nuances of the debate? Why do you think it would be important for the Pomona student body to be exposed to this debate?
Option B: Tell us about a subject that you couldn’t stop exploring, a book you couldn’t put down, or a Wikipedia rabbit hole you dove into. Why did it fascinate you?
Option C: Pomona has a long history of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds who want to push intellectual limits and who want to engage in a community that values difference. Write about a time when you were aware of your difference. How did it change you and what did you learn from the experience?
Back when I was in admissions, I had the privilege of traveling with two different admissions representatives from Pomona, a Dean and an Associate Dean, and the way they described their application evaluation process, it’s easy to see how they will use the information they are gathering from answers to these essay prompts.
In my view, the common thread throughout these questions is intellectual vitality. Pomona isn’t looking for the kids we often deem as “smart”—the straight-A kid who can regurgitate tons of facts, but can’t write very well, or gets lost in a debate about what those facts mean. Instead, Pomona is looking for signals in these essays that the student is interested in really understanding issues from multiple viewpoints. They want students that are actually interested in investigating their blind side. What don’t they know about an issue? How might their views be unsupported, or perhaps even wrong? It seems to me that Pomona is actively looking for students who are interested in tackling these tough questions.
The first question gets into this answer from the perspective of a potential major. What subjects pique your interest and why? What fascinates you about the field? Why can you read about topics in this field for hours and only get more excited and curious vs getting bored?
The second question then gives a student a variety of ways to demonstrate his or her intellectual vitality—pick the one that best demonstrates your curiosity and verve.
Option A gets at this question from the perspective of a national debate that you think is important for people to better understand. Trickle-down economics, Syria, Citizen’s United—what are the topics you think are important to get opposing views on so you can be as informed as possible about the many facets of the issue?
Option B has a similar goal, but looks at the answer from the perspective of your natural curiosity. What captivates you? I often think about this in terms of “flow.” I explain the idea of flow like this: What is it that you are looking into when, no matter how many times your mom calls you to dinner, you simply don’t hear? Or two hours goes by like two minutes and you have to be pulled out of your concentration to do something else? That’s “flow.” If you think back to the last few times you have been in this state of mind, what was it that took you there? Most likely this is going to be the thing you want to write about—that is, as long as it has intellectual depth and isn’t about bingeing a television show.
Option C reminds me of something those admissions counselors often talk about which was a student body that came from all walks of life to a single place in time. We can’t see how others think unless we have the opportunity to meet them and be in a safe environment where we can talk about issues. When were you the “other?” I think this essay wants you to write about a time when your way of thinking wasn’t the prevailing view and what you learned from that experience? How did that help you gain insight? How did the experience challenge you and why was that important?
No matter what you choose to write about, these are some of the things to think about as you select your topics for the Pomona College application supplement.
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.