Choosing a Topic

While it may be tempting to pick something that sounds impressive, if you don’t have strong feelings about it, this could limit your ability to demonstrate the types of perspectives you’ll bring to the UVA classroom. The real opportunity to impress with this prompt is not by showing off what you have read or seen, but by demonstrating the kind of reader and viewer you are. 

Choosing a work of art music, science, mathematics, literature for this is tricky, but here are a couple of questions you can ask to help you get there:

  1. Is there a work I thought I was going to hate, but ended up loving? 

  2. Is there a work that marked the beginning of my interest in a certain genre, author, or movement? 

  3. Is there a work I experienced that led to a particularly vibrant conversation with friends or family? A hotly contested debate in class?

You could also just pick something you have a million things to say about—odds are high that it has in some way surprised, unsettled, or challenged you. 

Let’s take a look at a couple strong student examples:

Example 1: Mrs. Dalloway 

My first instinct is to find meaning in any text, but Mrs. Dalloway was different.  The first page immediately left me befuddled; the narrative volleyed between characters and time periods.  Although I am accustomed to characters reminiscing, the book’s structure thwarted my comprehension.  Mrs. Dalloway’s unique perspective on time enthralled me, so I—determined to decode its meaning—analyzed the author’s diaries during my spare time.  On the third pass, I experienced an epiphany: Mrs. Dalloway was not just literature but an interdisciplinary commentary on the nature of time itself. It echoed Einstein’s theory of relativity, which stated that time is relative to the observer. His theory challenged the Newtonian convention of time—the idea that “clock time” was the only time that existed — and I identified this perspective in Mrs. Dalloway.  

As “clock time” advances, and I approach the end of my high school career, I am confronted with concerns over leaving my life as I’ve come to love it behind. However, I find solace in Mrs. Dalloway; no matter the time of the exterior clock, the way in which I feel and think is my choice: I can be both a child and a grown woman, unafraid of change. Despite the inevitability of time’s passage, Mrs. Dalloway ultimately imparts a reassuring message, communicating that no matter the time of the clock, I can always return to the past through consciousness. 

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Tips + Analysis 

  1. Hook the reader by alluding (maybe in the first sentence) to your growth or change. Notice how this author, for example, begins with “My first instinct is to find meaning in any text, but Mrs. Dalloway was different.” Not only does this clarify her starting state, but this intrigues us. We wonder: How was this book different? What did she learn? The author also does a smart thing by mentioning how she tries to find meaning in all texts—colleges will love that.

  2. Explicitly state the new perspective you walked away with. In the third sentence, the author refers to her new perspective as “an epiphany.” For her, Mrs. Dalloway was a commentary that challenged the very nature of time. We understand the specific way Mrs. Dalloway changed her perspective. More bonus points for connecting this text to another (Einstein’s theory of relativity) that raised similar questions. The student has now answered the essential elements of the prompt, as she has clarified how this work has challenged her.  

  3. Set yourself apart by telling us: Why does this change matter? A new perspective is only as valuable as the ways it changes your actions moving forward. This author describes feeling “confronted with concerns over leaving my life as I’ve come to love it behind.” Not only does this create a feeling of empathy and connection between writer and reader, but it sets the author up to show a specific application of her new perspective, finding “solace” in her memories. 

Doing these three things will demonstrate that you possess the kind of critical mind that will help you get the most out of your academic work at UVA and add value to the academic experiences of your peers. 

Here’s another great example essay, which was written for a different school (so the word count is 390 instead of the 250 required by this prompt), but it also works really well, and follows the tips above: 

Example 2: The Fire Next Time

In history class, the dialogue surrounding the Civil Rights Movement often presents African Americans as a unified group fighting to resist racist policies. But James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, written in 1963, helped me understand that the nuances of African American resistance have often involved strained personal relationships within African American families.

Early in this book, Baldwin retells a childhood experience where his father discouraged him from staying in school because he thought a higher level of education didn’t help African Americans enter the professional sphere. Baldwin recalls encountering “too many college-graduate handymen,” but refuses to drop out of school, mostly as an act of defiance towards his father. 

Baldwin continues to describe experiences that heightened the tension between him and his father–particularly regarding religion, parental control, and life on the streets. 

Although resisting white oppression was difficult for Baldwin, resistance often caused divides in his personal relationships, which was more draining. Before reading this book, it had never occurred to me that overcoming the barriers perpetuated by racism in some cases involved taking a break from one’s traumatized community, which in this case was Baldwin’s own father.

I can relate. My father and I have differing methodologies for informing ourselves of current events and choosing to support a political candidate. My father makes his decision based on the political party, overall impact the candidate will have in the government, and major news headlines, while I believe in learning all the details about the candidate, doing extensive research on their speeches and personal history, looking at which influencers support them, and following their updates on social media. These small differences have caused my father and I to disagree in some political conversations. I used to doubt my own perspective when my father and I discussed politics, but Baldwin’s essay taught me to hold my own ground while also respecting my father’s opinion. It also taught me to critically reflect upon my own values.

Social problems play out in personal ways. The Fire Next Time has helped me find the balance between acknowledging strains in personal relationships while learning how to grow as an activist. Reading about Baldwin’s experience has helped me draw parallels to my personal struggles, and helped me combat my unconscious assumption that all African Americans have experienced the consequences of white oppression in the same way.

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