The Best College Essay Prompt

By Kim Lifton
President, Wow Writing Workshop

Junior year is winding down; it’s time to give some serious thought to the college application essay prompts.  What do colleges really want to know about your child?

We’re going to give you some of our best tips and insight from years of working inside the college prep industry to help you understand how to understand a prompt. With any luck, this will alleviate some stress and help prepare your high school junior for the last phase of this journey to college.

Tip 1: Colleges want to know how your child thinks
How do you think?
Your story will show how you think.

Beyond grades and test scores, colleges want to know who your child is, how they think, and what makes them tick. The best place to share this: the college application essay. An effective response to any college essay prompt will show insight into a student’s character because it answers two central questions: 1) What happened? and 2) Why does it matter?

Why a topic matters to a student (the reflection) is more important than what happened (the experience, the activity, the concept, or the person who influenced that student). 

 Tip 2: There is no perfect college essay prompt

In many cases, students are given choices of prompts. For example, the Common Application asks students to select 1 of 7 prompts. The University of California asks students to respond to 4 out of 8 questions.

Admissions officers do not care which prompt your child selects. Given a choice, any prompt will do. Make sure your child picks the prompt they like best. Wow offers a range of services to help your child from the beginning till the end of the process. 

“The prompts simply serve to help students approach that question from as many angles as possible, whether it be maturity, identity, curiosity, pastimes, aspirations, community, relationships, or anything else,” according to Scott Anderson, Chief of Staff, the Common App. “Students should pick the prompt that supports and gets them excited about the story they want to tell about themselves.”

Tip 3: How to parse an essay prompt

We are going to teach you how to parse a prompt. To start, take a look at Common App Prompt #1.

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 key word in this prompt is “meaningful.”

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. What did you learn about yourself? What made it meaningful? Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you. They can tell from your application that you are on the lacrosse team or in the school orchestra. They know you worked as a researcher or a hospital aide or a bagger in a grocery store. And if your transcript says you took American Literature, they can assume you read books like A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible or The Bluest Eye.

They don’t know how those experiences affected you, whom you met along the way or why a particular piece of music is so important to you. They have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school. You can share these insights in your essay.

Your child could respond to this prompt by sharing any type of story – a description of a meaningful conversation, a moment when they realized something important about themselves – anything that truly and vividly demonstrates who they are.  The experience does not have to be particularly impressive; your child does not have to share a story about climbing a mountain or rescuing three children from a burning building. They could write about babysitting or making meatballs with grandma, navigating an icy highway or playing basketball with friends. The big challenge is to find a story that illustrates something meaningful. They should choose a moment, then explore it in detail.

What does this mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? They can start preparing for the essay. Now.

What are you waiting for?

We wrote a book that is full of tips to teach your child how to select a prompt and write 

The only college prep book you’ll need

meaningful answers to any question. Chapter 2, “Understanding the Prompts,” delves deep into that topic.  We also explain every Common App prompt in detail. You can order a copy of How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Parents on Amazon.comIt’s just $9.99 – and we’ll gift you a free eBook with your paperback purchase! (We also wrote a companion book for students.)

Kim Lifton can get a story out of anyone writing an effective college application essayKim Lifton is President of Wow. We are a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write college application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!