by Elyse Krantz, former admissions officer at Barnard College
If you’re a high school senior who’s been diligently scouring the Common Application searching for college-specific essay questions, you may have come across this particular prompt:
Who in your life is depending on you? What are they depending on you for?
This question is brand new this year, and it was made available to all Common App member colleges as a “bank question” for use on their supplements. Barnard College, Harvey Mudd College, Marquette University, and the University of South Carolina have elected to include this prompt (as an optional question) on their 2019-20 applications.
The History of the “Caring Question”
According to the Common Application, this question is a direct result of their partnership with Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2016, Making Caring Common issued a report titled, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions.” The goal of the report was to encourage college admissions decision-makers to answer the following three questions:
- How can colleges motivate students to care about others in their community?
- How can colleges better assess which students are engaging with their communities?
- How can colleges reshape their own notion of “achievement” so that students who show genuine citizenship and responsibility are rewarded?
Thus, the “caring question” was born. By asking students, “Who depends on you?” colleges are demonstrating that they value ethical engagement in additional to intellectual engagement in the college application process.
Why Colleges are Asking the Caring Question
If you were to poll a random sampling of high school students about the clubs or activities that would be most impressive to a college admissions committee, it’s likely they would respond with student government, athletics, leadership, or perhaps community service. But what about the student who works a part-time job after school to help pay for their family’s bills? Or the student who is unable to join any clubs because they care for an aging grandparent or younger siblings at home?
The schools that have adopted the caring question want applicants to know that a flashy résumé with traditional school-sponsored clubs isn’t the only way for one’s extra-curricular activities to stand out. These colleges value the experiences of applicants who go out of their way to meaningfully engage with others.
How to Answer the Caring Question
For both Barnard and Marquette, the caring question is entirely optional. For Harvey Mudd and the University of South Carolina, however, the caring question is one of the available options on a required supplemental essay. Either way, students don’t need to answer this question if they don’t feel they can draft an honest and compelling response.
For students who are looking to craft an essay that demonstrates their authentic concern for the common good, here are some pointers to keep in mind:
- The “who” of this question—that is, the individual that depends on you–doesn’t need to be a single person. A group of people (such as your religious community or the children at your local summer camp) could certainly be an appropriate response. Additionally, the “who” here could refer to an animal, whether it be a family pet or the cats at a nearby shelter.
- The goal of this essay is to help students show colleges that they have taken the time to invest in others. Students’ responses should illustrate that they are thinking and acting outside of their own individual experiences to help care for and shape the lives of those around them.
- While the Turning the Tide report focused on students seeking a “deeper understanding of and respect for others, especially those different from them in background and character,” students can write about their caring relationships with any individuals, whether a neighbor in town or a child from across the globe. Either way, colleges are genuinely interested in reading about how students have treated others in the world.
- Don’t fall into the trap of writing solely about the other individual. Even though the first part of the essay question asks, “Who in your life is depending on you,” in the end, colleges are using this essay to learn about the student—their character, their feelings, and their motivations. And, while not an official part of the prompt, students should absolutely explore the “why” and “how” behind the question. In other words, why do you care for this individual, and how has it shaped you as a result?
We hope more colleges will continue to ask the caring question in future years, not as a required essay, but as an optional way for applicants to provide a little more insight into their character, the choices they’ve made, and how they’ve been positively impacted by their own journey to embrace the common good.