How to Read a College Application Essay Prompt

President, Wow Writing Workshop

Jul   2016



To write a good application essay, you need to know how to read your college essay prompts so you truly understand the question your college of your choice is asking. Here, an essay-writing expert explains how.

Many of our students have come to us this summer really excited over unique and crazy ideas they believe will get them some attention inside the admission office. However, while standing out in your application essay is great, going for shock-and-awe is the wrong approach.

Before you open a blank document and start typing away, you need to know how to read your college essay prompts so you truly understand the question your college of your choice is asking. To answer it right, you need to put your crazy ideas aside for a minute and think about what colleges are hoping to get out of your essay.

In short, read your college application essay prompt(s) and ask yourself:

  • What does the college want to know?
  • Why do they want to know it?

The college essay is just as much a thinking task as it is a writing task. No matter what the prompt or what type of schools you are applying to, all colleges are looking for a piece of reflective writing.

At the end of the day, the topic is never as important as the subject—which is you! Colleges ask you to write personal statements and supplemental essays to:

  • Gain insight into your personality.
  • Get information about you they don’t already have.
  • Find out if you are a good fit for the university.
  • Round out your application package.

This can be challenging. Like most 16- and 17-year-olds, you and your friends are probably thinking about your future, travel plans, jobs, where you want to live, or just what movie you want to see tonight. You’re probably not reflecting on your life and what it’s meant thus far. (Then again, maybe you are, especially if you’re the journal-keeping type!)

So how do you learn how to reflect? Start by answering this question:

What do I want the readers of my application to know about me apart from my high school classes, grades, and test scores?”

The way you answer the college essay prompt is key to your success. It’s your opportunity to shine, to offer admission readers some understanding into who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and activities. That’s why you need to figure out exactly what you want admission officers to know about you before you pick an essay topic and before you write that first draft.

Start by thinking about your the traits and qualities essential to who you are. Are you industrious? Funny? Shy? Resourceful? Curious? Hard working? Which of your best traits would you like to share with colleges? Once you know the answer, you can more easily find a topic that answers the prompt and also 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?

Again, remember that your college application essay is not about your “background, identity, interest, talent, or experience”; it’s ultimately about you. Why is this aspect of your identity, background, or experience so meaningful? Have you learned something about yourself? What insight have you gained?

Admission officers already know your grades. They can see which sports and clubs you’ve joined from your college application. They know what types of courses are offered at your high 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, depending on your classes. Your transcript provides them with a wealth of information.

What they don’t know is how what 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.

Want to learn more? At Wow Writing Workshop, we talk to admission officers all the time, and we know what they want. You can download a free tip sheet here with information from top admission officers from UC-Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and many more.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is the President of the Wow Writing Workshop, one of the nation’s premier resources on the college application essay. Sign up for WOW and stay in the loop!  You’ll find out what University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admissions Kim Bryant wants to read in a college essay, plus get expert blogs, video, and other tips from many other top admission experts, including Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, Brown, Middlebury, Rice, Santa Clara, University of Miami, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Using a 10-step online system, we teach college-bound students how to write application essays that stand out so they get in! Our students get exclusive access to videos, articles, and writing activities to streamline the essay-writing process.

A journalist and communications consultant, Kim has been teaching college-bound students how to tell their own stories in their college essays for two decades. She started her career as a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. Since then, Kim’s work has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Crain’s Detroit Business, and a variety of regional and trade publications. She also has managed print and online communications for corporate and nonprofit clients nationwide.

Kim is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she was a reporter for The State News and covered campus news for United Press International. She served as a research/writing fellow for the Youth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and spent a summer honing her journalism skills at Northwestern University.

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