The Best College Essay Prompt

It’s time to give some serious thought to the college essay prompts.  What do colleges really want to know about you?

This month, we’re sharing some of our best tips and insight from years of working inside the college prep industry to help you understand how to respond to a college essay prompt. With any luck, this will alleviate some stress and help prepare for the last phase of this journey to college.


Your story will show colleges how you think.

Beyond grades and test scores, colleges want to know who you are, how you think, and what makes you tick. The

best place to share this: the college application essay. An effective response to any college essay prompt will show insight into your character because it answers two central questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

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


In many cases, you will be given choices of college essay prompts. For example, the Common Application asks students to select from 7 options. The University of California asks students to respond to 4 out of 8 personal insight questions.

We talk to admissions officers all the time; they tell us they do not care which college essay prompt you select. Any prompt will do. Make sure you pick the prompt you like best and that you feel comfortable responding to.

“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.”


Next, 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.

You can respond to this prompt by sharing any type of story – a description of a meaningful conversation, a moment when you realized something important about yourself – anything that truly and vividly demonstrates who you are.  The experience does not have to be particularly impressive; you do not have to share a story about climbing a mountain or rescuing children from a burning building. You can 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 a positive characteristic.

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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