QuestBridge Essay 1: Biographical Essay
We are interested in learning more about you and the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations, and accomplished your academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors helped you to grow? (797/800-word limit)
“Mama, ¡por favor! Don’t go!” I cried, gently tugging on her brown leather jacket. Raindrops pummeled my bare face, making me squint to see her silhouette in the darkness of the cold night. One by one, she began reluctantly loading her belongings onto our old grey minivan.
“I’ll see you soon, mijito,” my mother despairingly said as she wiped the tears trickling down her cheeks. She pulled me into her arms, and I tightly held her, knowing this might be the last time I ever could. Seconds later, she got into the driver’s seat, and the engine roared to life. Before I could say goodbye, the old grey minivan began driving out of sight.
My mind raced with questions. Why was my mother leaving? Why couldn’t I go with her? Flashbacks to towers of late rent bills and the rumble of my sisters’ empty stomachs made one thing clear: she had to.
Ever since I was born, LA’s high rent prices pushed our family onto the brink of homelessness. We lived our life on a coin toss—heads or tails deciding whether we’d pay our monthly rent or groceries. This life meant the roof above my head changed faster than the clothes on my body. It meant doing multiplication tables on the cold pavement while waiting for a bed at the shelter. It meant having to watch a childhood slip away as my parents’ struggles slowly materialized into my own. That rainy night, my mother finally reached her limit and moved to Utah in pursuit of a better life.
With my mother gone, my home felt scattered beyond physical confines. However, the emotional sanctuary I yearned for, I discovered in my second home: school. Here, I raced through kinematics problems and sneaked into the computer lab, my hands flying over the keyboards. This home I found in the flickering, fluorescent-lighted hallways and weary, purple-colored walls gave me a sense of belonging. However, the small source of stability I was beginning to gather became intercepted by a looming decision: Do I stay in LA with my father or leave for Utah to be reunited with my mother?
I chose LA.
After months of watery eyes and harrowing headaches produced by images of my sisters’ childhoods without me, LA’s charm finally shone through. The allure was in the spontaneous dance parties sparked by the neighborhood abuelitas’ cumbias—in the rewarding taste of Tommy’s world-famous chili burgers and Ocha’s “seven seas” soup. Aside from the cultural respite I gained in Los Angeles, there was a glaringly obvious gift in my stay: LA welcomed my curiosity with open arms, preserving my interest in political science through an ACLU program, and fostering my passion for CS through LACCD courses.
However, life in LA is not always sweet. While walking home one night, an ominous car crept up beside me. My blood ran cold as I noticed the gun’s glisten. My life flashed before my eyes, and I braced myself until . . . CLICK. The gun jammed. I ran with every jot of energy left in my sore body. I ran for my life. In South L.A, it sometimes feels like I’m always running—unable to escape the candles on every street corner, reminding me of those who weren’t as lucky. Amidst this sea of chaos, I resort to my outlet: computers.
Although my only access to technology is a recreational center 30 minutes away, I do everything in my capacity to explore this new home. Writing simple “Hello World!” programs transformed into graduate-level work developing neural networks and AI algorithms. Yet my CS journey still feels like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece.
Although thankful for the opportunities, the missing piece is a dream. It’s the dream of blending my past with my future as a computer scientist and engineering a better world. That is why I eagerly await the opportunity to attend a university to finally fulfill this dream. And one day, using all the experiences and wisdom I gained from my college professors and peers, I will return to South Los Angeles not only to inspire future generations to pursue the wonders of CS, but to empower them with the tools needed to break through every socio-economic barrier standing in their way.
As I embark on my college journey, I will always remember the sight of that old grey minivan driving away. However, instead of viewing it and the many hardships I went through as moments of weakness, I see them now as defining moments of strength and inspiration.
The next time my mother sees me, I won’t be on the ground, begging her, “Mama, don’t go!” Instead, I will be walking across the graduation stage, as the first in my family’s history to do so, calmly telling her, “Mama, we did it.”
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Tips + Analysis
Let structure work for you. This essay makes effective use of the Narrative Structure—an essay that focuses on a Challenge + Its Effects on You, What You Did About It, and What You Learned, in roughly equal parts—to directly address the prompt (“the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations, and accomplished your academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors helped you to grow?”).
The hook, opening in a moment of high tension that also raises questions about what’s happening and why, pulls us in. The author then pulls back and puts that moment in context, offering the challenge the student and his family faced, and the various effects (brink of homelessness, rent or groceries, school work while waiting for a bed at the shelter, lack of sanctuary, the gun, etc.) that challenge had. But then fairly quickly, the author shifts into what he did about it: kinematics, home in the computer lab, the ACLU program, algorithms, etc.
The author also intersperses details and reflections that show what he learned from these experiences by directly or indirectly linking to and reflecting on his values (like family, curiosity, culture, and many more). The ending does a nice job of bookending (calling back to the start of the essay), but reframing it to show how he’s grown, and what the experience means to him in the greater context of his life.
Show and tell (rather than “show, don’t tell.”). It’s important to provide details and examples that illustrate your experiences, offering a way for the reader to connect and identify with you, to feel as though they understand a part of what you’ve experienced. But it’s also important and useful to directly name at least some of what these experiences mean to you, rather than assuming that the reader will think it means the same thing you do. Showing and telling strikes a nice balance between demonstrating your abilities as a writer and helping us connect emotionally, while also helping show you understand the importance of clarity.
Flex your “voice.” “Find your voice” is advice that we’re not sure is all that useful, as what exactly the phrase means is often left unsaid. So here’s a more specific way to think about it, and something this author does well: Revise and rewrite until you’re discussing your experiences and reflections in a way that’s different from how someone with the same or similar experiences would discuss them. Really specific details (like this: “The allure was in the spontaneous dance parties sparked by the neighborhood abuelitas’ cumbias—in the rewarding taste of Tommy’s world-famous chili burgers and Ocha’s “seven seas” soup.”) take things that many students reading this post may have experienced, but that still make them feel specific to this author in a way that helps us see who he is and what he values, and what he brings to a college community.
QuestBridge Essay 2 Example: Topical Essay
Option 1: Tell us about a concept, theory, or topic you have explored simply because it sparked your intellectual curiosity. Why do you find it intriguing? How do you want to explore it further? (492/500-word limit)
The seed began growing sophomore year when I pushed open the red oak doors of WLAC’s Intro to CS and strode to an empty seat at the front of the room. Excitement raced through my body. I had anticipated this moment ever since I first glanced at a computer. Although that computer was the beat-up Blackberry my father accidentally found on his way from work, its call and text features kindled countless questions about the power of technology. Alongside my excitement for unlocking the secrets behind my burning questions, however, came bundles of nervousness. I had no idea what computer science was or how programmers went from lines of code to full mobile apps. But as I sat there staring at the Python IDE, I decided to leap into the unknown–a leap that planted my CS seed.
Intro to CS loaded me with head-scratching moments as I tried to understand lessons on everything from conditionals to functions. During a particular lecture on CS and society, however, I finally discovered CS’s multifaceted appeal. Though coding was fun, my interest lay in the empowering nature of CS. It can fuel space exploration, predict natural disasters, and connect distant parts of the world. After the course, I not only knew how to program but knew this was how I would leave my impact on society. This thought grew the seed into a small sapling.
Because of the lack of CS opportunities at my school, I enrolled in every CS course and community program available in LA. From studying object-oriented design to developing social-impact games, a new leaf would emerge from the sapling with every touch on the keyboard.
Then, I discovered USC’s SHINE program and its mission to allow passionate high school students to conduct novel engineering research at USC Viterbi. Naturally, I applied in the blink of an eye, eager to use my CS background to finally make a real-world impact.
In seven weeks, I learned many disciplines. From deep neural network development to reinforcement learning and AI programming, I blended it all to develop a MAPF planner that could optimize MAPF environments faster than other state-of-the-art planners.
Despite my growth in SHINE, my initial eagerness remained unfulfilled. Optimizing MAPF planners wasn’t going to solve issues like homelessness or education inequity. It wasn’t going to make the day-to-day lives of my family or community any easier. My CS background has prompted a new mission: growing my CS sapling into a tree worthy of providing for my community through research. Although my research topics are not on the current covers of AI research or scientific journals, researching them will contribute equally to engineering a better world.
From long months spent combating homelessness by optimizing resource allocation policies to countless hours combating educational inequity through developing more kid-friendly e-learning platforms, I am excited to explore the limitless opportunities provided by a college campus—leaving my mark not only within the computer science department but throughout the world.
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Tips + Analysis
Clarify the topic (quickly, if possible). This student gets right to the point, establishing in the first sentence that this essay is about Computer Science, with a nice scene-setter that helps us experience his excitement. Doing so allows him to spend the rest of his word budget on showing how he developed his interest, how it evolved, and what he learned along the way. With 500 words at your disposal, you have a bit of room to use anecdotes and color to open your essay before revealing the topic at hand. But by getting to the point fairly quickly, you’re better able to get the reader to say, “Ah, I get how this is going to answer the prompt.”
Use metaphors to your advantage. Notice how this student compares his CS journey to the growth of a tree, starting as a seed and ending as a “tree worthy of providing for [his] community.” While not essential (seriously—don’t force it), the metaphor here serves as a nifty organizational device that adds a touch of poetry and helps to emphasize the escalating nature of the student’s involvement in CS. This technique works particularly well in montage essays like this one.
Provide concrete examples. Ideally, you’ll have some real experience with the topic you choose. This student has clearly invested a ton of time and brainpower into CS, and it shows in the exhaustive list of experiences he shares. In fact, every paragraph contains at least one example of real, demonstrated interest. Bonus points here for the geeky-but-not-inaccessible language.
Demonstrate values and impact. This student does a great job linking CS to his values and goals. It’s clear that he has ambitions to make a positive impact on his community, and he demonstrates how CS can be a powerful tool for combating homelessness and educational inequity, two mission-driven priorities for him. Don’t really know what your core values are? Spend 5 minutes on this, and make sure your essay (in fact, all your essays—so your application as a whole) conveys a broad range of core values that are meaningful to you.
Part I Example Essays
Respond to the following prompts in 200 words or less.
Tell us about one of your proudest achievements or moments and what it says about you. (198/200)
This is a straightforward, two-part question. First, describe the achievement. Second, tell us why it matters and to you, and link the experience to one or more of your essential core values. So think of it as a combination of showing and telling.
Today is the day. Four weeks of developing our app and designing our business model canvas led up to this warm Saturday morning. We were competing with six other teams for a $4,000 investment. Our judges worked for a range of companies, from Riot Games to Dollar Shave Club. A blend of nervousness and excitement overtook me as my team went first.
Like a scene out of Shark Tank, we described every aspect of our app: NOLA. “Our Right of the Day feature teaches users fundamental liberties while Trivia Trials allows users to test their knowledge with fun quizzes,” I persuasively said as I demoed the app on the screen. It went perfectly, until: “In 2nd place . . . NOLA!” I unmuted myself, thanked the judges, and saw the winners’ faces light up.
Although we did not win, I was beyond proud. Not only because I was the architect behind an app but because I fulfilled my dream–using my programming ability for societal impact. I created NOLA because I was tired of seeing teenagers in my community being taken advantage of for not knowing their rights.
Although I lost the competition, I went home knowing I accomplished something greater.
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Notice how this student opens the essay in medias res, offering the reader a fun way into the story and also establishing high stakes right off the bat.
Notice, too, how the achievement is not first prize. You don’t have to win the blue ribbon or the gold medal to have an achievement you’re proud of. Broaden your definition of success: Maybe you’re a tutor who helped a younger student grasp a difficult concept, or maybe you finally mastered an old family recipe. As long as you’re proud of what you’ve done, and as long as you can articulate why that achievement is meaningful to you and reflective of some essential aspect of your character, you’re good to go.
If you could meet a character from a book or a historical figure, who would it be and what would you ask them? (197/200)
This is a fun prompt, so … have fun with it! While not strictly necessary, tying this answer to your intended field of study (if you know what that is) could serve you well. The choice of character/historical figure is important, but more important are the questions you’d ask them. This prompt is all about showing off your intellectual vitality and curiosity.
Here I am in Bletchley Park. My steps are slow and stealthy as my eyes survey the area. I spot him next to his Bombe, hair slicked to the side as he makes adjustments to the miles of wiring.
“That’s Alan Turing!” I say to myself, quietly tiptoeing towards him.
My heart beats like a drum as I fumble through the questions I hastily wrote down before I was zapped here. How do you see computer science collaborating with other disciplines? Then again, this is 1940, and the term computer science is as foreign to him as morphogenesis is to me. I crumple a few notes. In what ways are intelligent machines limited in helping us solve social problems? Is consciousness programmable? What kind of apples do you like?
My watch roars to life, indicating my time is up. He hears it and turns to me. In my place is one of my crumpled notes. He walks over, picks it up, and reads it: “It’s interesting to know whether a machine can pass the imitation game, but what happens when it intentionally fails it? Maybe then the real fun will begin.”
He smirks and resumes his work.
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Notice how this student takes the prompt to its logical conclusion and incorporates time travel. By no means do you have to do this, but it’s a nice way to have fun and stand out.
Notice, too, that Turing doesn’t answer the writer’s questions, and that’s ok too. Don’t feel pressured to put words into your subject’s mouth. After all, the prompt only wants to know what you would ask them, not how you’d envision them answering.
Part II Examples
Answer the following questions in no more than 35 words, about 3 sentences. You may use comma-separated lists instead of sentences when appropriate.
Quick tips on answering these short answer questions:
The most important use of short answer questions is to show many different sides of yourself. If you’re an engineer, don’t try to shoehorn engineering into every answer.
Don’t be afraid to give us personality. The other parts of your application have told us what we need to know about your achievements. Tell us what you’re into, and don’t be self-conscious about liking what you like (within reason).
Use the full word count! Don’t cut yourself off at 20 words. Is there more you can say? More context you can provide? A “why” or a “how”?
Specificity is everything. Don’t just tell us you like “relaxing”—tell us what that looks like.
More short answer tips.
What is your favorite subject to study, and why? (33/35)
Problems exist everywhere. Some are solved with formulas while others with experiments. I prefer a computer and code because I can unlock anything from 1+1 to getting a man on the moon.
What are your favorite books and/or movies? (35/35)
Books: My Beloved World, Race After Technology, Stuck in the Shallow End, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neural Networks for Babies
Movies: Under the Same Moon, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Imitation Game, Coco
What is your favorite source of inspiration? (33/35)
Whether I’m tasked with crafting a better future for my family or with simply fulfilling a group role, responsibility ignites a flame of inspiration within me–one which no amount of failure can extinguish.
How do you spend a typical weekend? (35/35)
After finishing lingering homework, I clock in for my translation, IT support, and tutoring family positions. At 10 pm, I decompress with a warm shower and tune out with a book read or jazz tunes.
What is the compliment that you have been paid that you are most proud of? Who gave you the compliment? (30/35)
“The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world won’t design the solutions to our problems, you will,” Adam Marks, Co-Founder of Biba Systems, told me during the TXT Full Cohort Demo Day.
After a challenging experience, how do you rejuvenate? (33/35)
A warm shower calls my name as melodies by Queen and Elton John fill the air. Afterward, I hear the calming voice of my mother through the phone and reflect on my day.
What would you contribute to your future college campus community? (35/35)
I will utilize my hardships to revitalize current CS research on social equity with new approaches and grow our FGLI family through student-run workshops where we can teach each other anything from coding to baking.
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Tips + Analysis
Paint a broad picture: Notice how much this student is showing us. We get a broad sense of what matters to them: computer science, family, music, responsibility, hard work, teaching, and social impact.
You don’t have to be funny: You might feel pressure to make your short answer responses funny or clever, but you really don’t have to do that. This student answers the questions here in a plainspoken, straightforward way, and it’s effective. As always, if humor doesn’t come naturally to you, please: This isn’t the place to start.
Make uncommon connections. If you choose a more common topic, like CS for example (favorite subject), you can help it stand out better (and be more memorable) by using uncommon language or making uncommon connections that only you can make. Like this: “I prefer a computer and code because I can unlock anything from 1+1 to getting a man on the moon.”