Common Application Essay Option 6: Losing Track of Time

Learn Tips and Strategies for this 2019-20 Application Essay Option

Common Application essay option #6 asks you to explore a topic that makes you lose track of time.
Common Application essay option #6 asks you to explore a topic that makes you lose track of time. Innocenti / Getty Images

The Common Application added essay option number six several years ago, and the question remains unchanged for the 2019-20 admissions cycle. The prompt reads, 

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

It's a broad question that allows you to explore nearly any topic of interest to you, but as with all Common Application questions, some responses will be better than others. You'll also want to make sure you are reading the prompt carefully and that another essay option isn't a better choice for your particular focus.

Let's break down the prompt to come up with an effective strategy for a response.

What Does It Mean to "lose all track of time"?

Central to Common Application essay option #6 is the idea of losing track of time. But what exactly does this mean? In short, the essay prompt is asking you to discuss something that you find so absorbing that you are aware of little else when contemplating it. Think about concepts or ideas that excite you or fill you with wonder. If you've ever found your mind wandering off in a waking dream only to discover that an hour has gone by, that's the kind of topic this essay prompt wants you to explore.

Keep in mind that option #6 can overlap a bit with other options, especially option #4 on a problem you'd like to solve. If there's a problem that you constantly find yourself contemplating, it's quite possible you could use that issue for either essay option #4 or #6. Option #4 might be the better choice if the solution to the problem is central to your musings.

Essay Option #6 Has Three Calls to Action

The prompt has three sentences, and each asks you to do something: describe your chosen focus, explain why you are interested in this topic, and explain what you do to learn more about your topic. These three words don't deserve equal weight in your essay. Here's why:

  • "Describe"—Describing your "topic, idea, or concept" is important for clearly and concisely setting up your essay. What exactly is it that you find so captivating? That said, don't get carried away with description. Describing something is kind of like plot summary in an analytical essay—you need to do a little of it to orient your reader, but if you never get beyond the plot summary or you overemphasize plot summary, your essay will be superficial and fail to impress. Very little analysis and critical thinking go into "describing" something, yet it is your ability to think critically that the admissions officers most want to see in an essay.
  • "Why"—No matter which of the seven Common Application prompts you choose, responding to the question "why" should be at the heart of your answer (even if the word "why" isn't used in the question). Think about the purpose of an application essay: the admissions folks want to learn more about you. When you "describe" something, we learn nothing about you other than your ability to write effectively. When you explain "why" something is important to you, we get a window into your passions and personality. Answering "why" will require self-reflection, an important piece of any successful application essay.
  • "What"—This part of the prompt is a little tricky. You want to capture the idea that you know how to dig deeply into a topic. Answering the "what" effectively should reveal that you have good research skills and/or that you are effective at seeking out help from experts. You want to do more than say you Google the topic to learn more. Sure, you probably do start your exploration with Google, but go beyond this first research step. Where did you internet search lead you? Did you find a book on the topic that has inspired you? Did you discover a professional organization related to the topic? Did you reach out to experts you identified during your research?

What Is a Good "Topic, Idea, or Concept" for an Essay?

The best "topic, idea, or concept" depends entirely on who you are. Choose something for which you have a sincere passion or interest. Make sure your focus reveals a meaningful dimension of what it is that makes you tick. An effective focus helps the admissions folks know you better and make a more informed decision about your place at their school.

The essay prompt is wonderfully (perhaps paralyzingly) broad. You truly can write about any topic that you love to contemplate. The topic can be big and challenging like these examples:

  • A scientific theory such as the big bang, quantum theory, or genetic engineering
  • An artistic concept such as neo-expressionism, cubism, or absurdism.
  • Psychological topics such as the way we deal with death
  • Political topics such as the sources of radicalization, the true causes of war, or the barriers to peace

The topic you choose can also be something small and personal:

  • What ingredients, preparation, and process will lead to the perfect pastry?
  • What are the mechanics and techniques that can maximize my performance in the high jump or the 100-meter dash?
  • How can I get through the day while making a positive impact on the environment?

Within reason, nearly any topic can work for this essay option as long as you are being true to who you are and what it is that you care about.

Bad Topics, Ideas, and Concepts

While nearly any "topic, idea, or concept" can work for this essay option, you do want to make sure your answer is in good taste and that it actually falls within the parameters of the question. If you lose track of time fantasizing about destructive weapons or ways to murder without getting caught, I'd recommend not sharing those fantasies with the admissions committee.

Also, the phrasing of the question—"topic, idea, or concept"—is quite academic in its tone, as is the follow-up question about what you do to learn more. Some of the things you do that cause you to lose track of time—playing an instrument or participating in a sport, for example—are really activities, not "topics, ideas, or concepts." That said, there may be a sports- or music-related topic that would be perfectly appropriate for this essay option. 

A Final Word on Essay Option #6

Your college is asking for an essay because it has a holistic admissions process. The admissions folks want to get to know you as a whole person, not as a spreadsheet of numerical data such as grades, SAT scores and AP scores. Essay Option #6 on losing track of time is an excellent choice for sharing something important about you that may not be obvious from other parts of your application. Make sure your essay accomplishes this central task. Ask yourself, "What will the admissions officers learn about me from this essay?" A strong essay will reveal something for which you have a passion, and it will show that you are hungry to learn more. Students who have passions and a desire to explore a topic in depth are students who will succeed in college.