Answer Prompt to Stand Out in College Essay!

By Kim Lifton

Shawn Felton, Interim Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Cornell University at NACAC 2013

Last week, I reviewed a student’s “Why College X?” essay for a Big 10 university. The prompt asks applicants to share why the program appeals to them and how the school’s curriculum will support the student’s interests.

This boy’s story focused on the many Saturdays he drove 250 miles from his hometown to the college football stadium with his father, an alumnus. His memories were great; he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; he felt at home inside the stadium.

Will the admissions team like this story? (Unlikely) Will it stand out? (Probably not) More importantly, does this story answer the question? (No)

Your job on the essay – your only job – is to answer the question.

The “Why College X?” question for any school is not intended to prompt a story about your father, your mother, your obsession with the school mascot or the football team. In general, institutions that ask this type of question want to know how their curriculum, clubs and campus life will support your academic and extracurricular interests.

Will you fit in? Do you have what it takes to graduate from this particular institution? Read this blog post to find out what the University of Michigan prefers, and this one to learn more about what New York University and Kalamazoo College like to read. These tips apply to other universities as well.

What Does Admissions Committee Want?

“Answer the question,” said Cornell University’s Interim Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Shawn Felton, during a recent interview with Wow. “Since so many students don’t do that, you could actually stand out by doing that very basic thing.”

At Wow, we regularly check in with admissions officers from small liberal arts colleges, elite universities and state institutions. Regardless of size, status or essay prompt, they all offer similar tips:

  • Don’t over-think it.
  • Tell us what you want us to know about you; not what you think we want to hear.
  • Answer the prompt honestly with a story about you.
  • Make sure your story is focused and written in your own words and your own voice.

You’ll find all sorts of advice online about writing admissions essays, much of it inaccurate or confusing. As you near the end of your college application process and put the finishing touches on your essays, be careful whose advice you follow, and make sure you know your sources. You can always count on Wow for accurate, timely information, direct from the admissions office.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop. You can read Kim’s blogs and get useful writing tips by signing up for Wow’s newsletter. Wow is also on Facebook and Twitter. Check our schedule to sign up for webinars and workshops that will help you and your students write great college admissions essays. Remember this: YOU are your perfect college essay subject.