What is a College Essay Prompt Really Asking?

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By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Many students get excited over college essay ideas they think will get them some attention inside the admissions office, without giving much consideration to what the college essay prompt is really asking.

At Wow, we tell our students they are starting in the wrong place when they come to us with a topic in mind! If you want your college essay topic to shine, then take a few steps back, put the idea aside, and make sure you know what you want to share with colleges before you even begin brainstorming for ideas. That comes later in the process, and starting with an idea can (and often does) lead to mistakes.

You’ll avoid basic mistakes if you set your idea aside and start the college essay at the beginning of the writing process: Understanding the prompt. We talk to admissions officers all the time, and they all say the same thing. They want you to answer the question, and many students fail to do this, year after year.

To get it right, keep in mind that all college essays begin with a prompt, not a topic. To answer any prompt correctly, ask yourself this question: What do I want the readers of my application to know about me apart from courses, grades, and test scores?

Your answer is key to your success on the essay. It’s your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

Before you write that first draft, you need to figure out exactly what you want readers to know about you. Colleges want to know what YOU want to tell them about yourself, not what you believe they want to know. They want you to dig a little deeper than usual to show some insight and reflection.

How do you learn how to reflect? Think about your best traits and qualities.

Are you industrious? Funny? Shy? Resourceful? Curious? Hard working? Once you know which traits and qualities you want to share, read the college essay prompt. Then find a story that answers the prompt and illustrates those traits.

Take a look at this Common App prompt that we parsed for our students. Our coaches use the same approach with students completing other Common App, ApplyTexas, California and supplemental essay prompts.

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,” but even that word can seem big and overwhelming. What makes an experience meaningful?

Ultimately, your essay is not about your background, identity, interest, talent or experience; it’s about you. Why is this aspect of your identity, background or experience so meaningful? Have you learned something about yourself? Does this m

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you.

They know your grades. They can see which sports and clubs you’ve joined from your application. They know what types of courses are offered at your school, and whether your neighborhood is wealthy, poor or somewhere in the middle. They can even figure out which types of books you’ve read if you took American Literature. Your transcript provides them with a wealth of information.

They don’t know how anything you did during high school affected you, who you met along the way or why you cannot get a particular piece of music out of your head. They have no idea how you have changed or why you might be a good fit for their school.

Your challenge is to write an essay that illustrates something meaningful about you. We can help you do that with any prompt for any school.

Want to learn more? Sign up for one of Wow’s free monthly  parent chats on Tuesday nights at at 8 p.m. ET. I’ll answer your questions about the college essay and share some insight from recent panel presentations I’ve moderated with admissions directors from Cornell, Northwestern, Indiana, UC-Berkeley, Columbia, Barnard, Michigan State and the University of Michigan.