Depending on how many schools you’re applying to, you’ll find a wide variety of essay prompts, some more open-ended than others. While I won’t be able to cover all the possibilities here, I can give you an idea of the types of questions you may encounter.
Common Application Questions
The Common App represents a network of more than 600 colleges that use the same online application so you don’t have to file separate paperwork for each school. In addition to the usual questions about academic and extracurricular background, the Common App provides a prompt for one major essay, around 500 words, that every school will receive. These prompts are slated for the 2016-2017 application:
- 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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Some schools keep their prompt pretty general, saying nothing more than “Please complete a one-page personal statement and submit it with your application.” No matter how simple the prompt, however, you will want to respond with a specific, vivid, and personal essay. And if you’re writing an essay for another school, including the Common App? Good news: you can “double up” and use that essay to fulfill the open-ended prompt.
Many schools ask for a personal statement/Common Application essay and an essay (or two or three) that requires you to describe your career goals and/or specific interest in the college or academic department of your major.
We will be looking at these school-specific questions more in depth in a later post, but for now, a little bit of advice: research! Spend as much time as you can getting to know your prospective schools and majors before you apply. Your writing–and satisfaction of knowing you’re applying to the right places–will show for it.
“What are the unique qualities of Northwestern—and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying—that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?”
“Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?”
These questions are so clearly associated with specific schools, it may be hard to “double up” and modify your responses for others. Some schools, like University of Chicago, change their questions every year. And yes, they are always, well, weird.
“Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.” (University of Wisconsin, Madison)
“Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)” (University of Chicago)
So How Do I Start?
1) Get organized
Before you start brainstorming topics, get organized. Copy and paste all your essay prompts into a document, and color-code questions that are similar enough to allow for doubling up or modifying. Then determine how many total essay “concepts” you will have to come up with for the application process.
Don’t skip this step! Doing this work at the beginning will save you from writing too many essays later. I mean, sure. I guess you can’t have “too many” essays. But senior year presents enough challenges as it is! Save all that extra writing energy for college.
2) Choose a topic
The downloadable brainstorming sheet below can help you choose a topic for the Common Application and any more open-ended questions. Even if the colleges of your choice offer prompts that take different directions, the brainstorming exercise will help you reflect on your qualities and experiences, an ability key to the success of your application process. And, you know, your life.
Brainstorming is just that–a quick list of ideas. But as you jot possible topics down, keep the following advice in mind:
Replace big, overused topics with smaller, more personal ones.
Students often believe they have to spin earth-shattering, dramatic yarns that leave their readers gasping for air. But you know what? Those “big” stories start to get pretty boring after student number 16, 324 writes about a winning wrestling match and hits “submit.”
So how can you write about something that’s both “small” and important?
- Thinking you should write about The Big Service Trip to Mexico to show what you learned about Helping the Less Fortunate? Why not write about your encounter with the woman who stocks the shelves at Walgreens? You know, when she snapped at you for talking too loudly on your phone and your argument turned into an opportunity for mutual understanding? There is power in the everyday, and admissions counselors want to see how you live those days. Because college will be composed of many “everydays.”
- Want to write about The Big Game–whether won or lost–to show what you learned about Giving It Your Best? How about the story of your dad asking you to assemble the patio chairs before the barbeque? Remember how you had trouble making sense of the instructions but used your visual strength to adapt and solve the problem before the aunts and uncles showed up? Now that’s interesting. They can look up your wrestling record later if they have to.
- Think they want to hear your thoughts on a Big Issue like terrorism or the environment, an issue that’s undoubtedly important, but, let’s face it: you’re not thinking about it all that much. How about your thoughts about one of your quirky qualities? One of my favorite essays was how a student learned to live with–and eventually love–her wildly curly hair.
When in doubt, always go “small”: quirky, local and personal, not big, dramatic, and vague. Your ability to reflect on what might otherwise appear to be a mundane event reveals growth, critical thinking, and maturity.
Ready to brainstorm? Come up with a list and stay tuned to our next post—how to get started writing about your topic.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland