The College Essay, Part I: Prompts
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
I don’t know when you might be reading this—perhaps you have lots of time before college applications are due, perhaps not. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to start working on your essay. Given all the pressure people put on college essays, you might be tempted to procrastinate as long as humanly possible. But don’t do that.
That’s easy for me to say, of course. I already went to college. And grad school. There is no uncertainty left about where I will and won’t be accepted. But if you’re in the mood for a little unsolicited advice, I have plenty to spare, especially when it comes to writing.
I will be writing a series of posts on college essays. In this post, we’re going to decode the Common App essay prompts. The college of your choice may have supplemental prompts specifically related to their school or a specific program, but we’ll stick with the Common App prompts for the sake of simplicity and broad application. Besides, the prompts themselves are less important than how you are thinking about them.
As you read through the list of prompts, think about them critically (you can also do this with the supplementals). How are they written? What do they emphasize? What verbs do they use? Here they are:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, maybe just reading this list sparked something for you, and you’re raring to go. But probably not. If that was all you needed, you wouldn’t be reading an article about how to get started, would you?
If you’re not suddenly awash in inspiration from a single read-through, let’s pick those prompts apart a little. At this point, don’t worry about which prompt you’re going to respond to. Just focus on the language. Did you notice how the Common App prompts are written broadly (“some students,” “something,” “someone”) but still call for specific events or feelings? Did you notice how they ask for a lot of “reflecting,” “recounting,” and “describing”? They’re looking for stories, obviously. What kinds of stories? Ones that involve complex emotional states that involve meaning-making, motivation, and growth. Ones that show thinking, learning, and passion in action.
That makes a lot of sense, given the context. You can imagine that it might be helpful for a college admissions team to see a) that you can learn things, feel gratitude, and so on, and also b) that you recognize those moments in your life when they happen. Metacognition (i.e., thinking about thinking) is a crucial learning skill. If you have no idea what you know and don’t know, then you are liable to waste a lot of time and energy studying the wrong thing. If you can’t explain how you achieved success or why you failed, then you can’t adjust your behavior accordingly the next time around. These prompts invite you to show off your metacognitive skills because you are applying as a learner.
But everyone who is applying is a learner. Shouldn't you be trying to show something more than that? You will hear a lot of advice about avoiding the cliches of college essays: the mission trip, the dead pet/relative story, the minor injury that built character, etc. Do the college admissions people really want a thousand essays about how someone's getting their first B made them a better student? Or several million pandemic essays? In an effort to “stand out from the crowd,” you might be tempted to reach for the quirky, the shocking, or the tragic. I’m here to tell you that if your goal is to tell a completely original story that is unlike any college essay ever written, you are out of luck. Have you committed a crime for a good cause (or a bad one)? Someone has written that college essay. Did you witness your hamster’s demise firsthand? Someone has written that college essay. Did you eat live octopus during your gap year? Someone has written that college essay.
But don’t let that stop you. Successful stories (even fictional stories) need not be wildly original to be good. Good stories are told well, with heart and wisdom and lots of interesting detail. So go ahead and write about your beloved Hambone the Hamster, RIP. Write about sitting out the playoffs with a sprain. Write about volunteering at bingo night. As long as these moments and relationships shaped you in some profound way, they can work. The ultimate success of your essay is rooted in your ability to articulate what, exactly, you gleaned from the experience and why that matters, not the specific topic you choose.
Whatever story you choose, just be sure it answers the prompts. Yes, one of the prompts lets you write whatever you want, but I mean answering the spirit of the prompts. Show that you have a deep enough understanding of yourself to be able to say, “This is what makes me who I am. This is what shaped me. This is who I want to be.”
Some uncertainty is totally okay, here. You’re a person in progress (we all are). You can talk about what you don't know about yourself in the essay, analyze it, work it out on the page. (Side note: It is also okay, if you are unsure of what you want, to wait to go to college until you are ready.)
The prompts do give you a little guidance about what to write: the setback story, the shifting mindset story, the new understanding story. Character growth and change are at the heart of storytelling. Frankly, if nothing changes in a story, it’s not a story; it’s a vignette. If you need proof that you’ve changed in the past few years, just look at the freshmen at your school. Look at a younger sibling, a little neighbor or cousin. You were like them once. But now you’re not. What have you seen or done or learned that changed you? That could be a good place to start with your essay.
Some of the prompts ask you to center your essay around a significant incident, characteristic, or person. This is a fantastic approach, as the specific and concrete details of a single focal point can keep your essay from drifting off into foggy abstraction. That specific element—your passion for glass mosaics, your moment of humiliation in front of the whole tennis team, your uncle who gave you his kidney—can serve as a kind of clarifying lens, giving your essay structure. But the objective is still the same: tell them who you really are.
We haven't even started talking about how to write an essay about yourself, but that’s why this is a series. The first step is reflection and self-assessment. Judging by the prompts, one thing is clear: this essay is about you. Even when it’s “about” your third grade teacher or your cousin’s naturalization ceremony, it’s about you. But that’s fair, right? You’re the one applying to college.
I hope this helps you get started, but if this advice doesn’t work for you, do not worry. It’s not you; it’s me! There’s no way one dorky English-teacher-type’s advice will work for everyone. Keep asking for help. Keep trying things. You will find a way to tell the story that is authentically yours. That story already belongs to you.