7 Surprising College Application Essay Prompts

With the 2019-2020 application season winding down, here are seven surprising and thought-provoking college application essay or short answer prompts (in random order):

  1. “What is the most compelling thing you have ever read, and how has it changed you or inspired you to take action now, in the past, or in the future? This could be an entire book, a passage or chapter, a poem, an article, graffiti- anything written.” George Mason University Honors prompt 
  2.  Seattle has a rich musical history and SU students love discovering new Seattle music. Tell us: what five songs would be the soundtrack to your perfect college experience? (two to three sentences for each song is appropriate)” Seattle University prompt
  3.  “At USC Viterbi, we endeavor to engineer a better world for all humanity. This vision goes hand-in-hand with the objectives of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges. Engineers and Computer Scientists are challenged to solve these problems in order to improve life on the planet. Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenges at http://engineeringchallenges.org and tell us which challenge is most important to you, and why.” University of Southern California prompt
  4. “There are approximately 171,476 words in the English dictionary. Pick your favorite word and tell us why you picked it.” Brandeis University prompt
  5. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” Stanford University prompt
  6. “Who does Sally sell her seashells to? How much wood can a woodchuck really chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Pick a favorite tongue twister (either originally in English or translated from another language) and consider a resolution to its conundrum using the method of your choice. Math, philosophy, linguistics… it’s all up to you (or your woodchuck).—Inspired by Blessing Nnate, Class of 2024” University of Chicago prompt 
  7. Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?” Yale University prompt 

Which of these prompts do you think is the most challenging? The most creative?

What prompt did you encounter that you consider thought-provoking?


Some of my favorite college references

Here are a few of my favorite college planning reference books and websites organized by category.  What other references do you like and use?
Figuring out what makes a college right for you: College Match
College Majors: Book of Majors
College Guides:
·         The Princeton Review, The Best 3xx Colleges
·         Fiske Guide to Colleges
·         America’s Best Colleges for B Students
·         Colleges That Change Lives
·         Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers
·         The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences
·         Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges
College Search Sites:
Chance for acceptance: Naviance scattergrams from your high school
Financial Aid:
·         Financial Aid information- http://www.finaid.org/
·         FAFSA Web site – http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/
·         CSS Financial Aid PROFILE – https://student.collegeboard.org/css-financial-aid-profile
·         Federal Student Aid – http://studentaid.ed.gov/
·         Some legitimate college scholarship search sites:

Net Price Calculator – on each college’s website


College Visits:
·         “A Pocket Guide To Choosing a College: Questions to Ask on Your College Visits” by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – http://nsse.indiana.edu/pdf/NSSE_PocketGuide.pdf
·         On-line visit – www.youniversitytv.com
Common Application: http://www.commonapp.org/
College Essay: Conquering the College Admissions Essay on 10 Steps
Going to College Advice Guide:  The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College

Expected Pay when you Graduate: www.payscale.com
For students with Learning Differences:
·         “K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” by Marybeth Kravets and Imy Wax.
·          Information on SAT and ACT accommodations – http://professionals.collegeboard.com/testing/ssd and http://www.act.org/aap/disab/index.html.

·         “Questions for the Office of Disability Support” by Rana Slosberg on http://tourcollege.blogspot.com/2010/09/questions-for-office-of-disability.html.

If Your Life Is Not A Bowl of Cherries

So you want to go to college, but there has been a significant problem during your high school years.  Perhaps you have been suspended, been arrested, have abused drugs or alcohol, or have suffered from a mental illness.
You might wonder what your options are, so first ask yourself these three questions:
  1. Have I healed from the problem? 
  2. Do I want to go to college?
  3.  Am I ready to start college with the rest of my high school graduating class?

If you answered no to one or more of these questions, you may need professional help to recover from the problem and/or you may want to work or take a gap year (or more) before pursuing further education.
If you answered yes to all three of these questions, I recommend that you write an extra essay, a special circumstances essay, as part of your college application.  This essay should be focused on your recovery, not your problem, and should describe how the problem led to who you are today.  In this essay, you will let the college know what the reason for your suspension, arrest, drop in grades, and/or missed semester was.  You will need to take full responsibility for what happened, explain how you have changed, and what you have learned from your decisions.  

Ten College Essay Tips

Here are ten college application essay tips shared by the young adult author, Hillary Frank, at the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling annual conference:

1. If you are having trouble with the essay, consider:

  • Telling your story to a friend

  • Recording yourself telling the story

  • Writing a letter about the story

  • Reading the draft out loud.

2. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.

3. Don’t be boring. Use compelling visual details.

4. Tell me something I’ve never heard before.

5. Use your authentic voice.

6. Use your speaking, rather than your writing voice.

7. Write a first sentence that:

  • Piques the reader’s interest

  • Is worded artfully

  • Provides a memorable visual image or point of view.

8. Uses similes never heard before.

9. Make characters complex.

10. Show surprising personal growth.

What tips would you share about writing the college application essay?

Common Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

The 2013-14 essay prompts for the Common Application, used by 488 colleges, have been announced. There will no longer be a topic of your own choice. The word limit will be enforced and will be limited to between 250 and 650 words.  The essay instructions and prompts are as follows:

“Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

• 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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

What do you think about the changes? What would you write about, given these prompts?

The Dreaded College Application Essay

Put yourself in the place of an admissions officer. You have hundreds of applications to read. You have just read an application filled with grades, scores, lists of courses and activities. It’s time to read the college essay. The last thing you want to read is a poorly-written essay that could have been written by any high school student.

Instead of dreading the essay, think of it as an opportunity to make your application come alive. It will change you from a bunch of numbers to an interesting person that the admissions officer would like to have as an incoming freshman. The essay is your opportunity to share something important with the admissions officer that doesn’t appear elsewhere on the application.

A memorable essay starts with the right topic. Read the essay prompt and instructions. Then, get in touch with yourself and brainstorm possible ideas. Pick a topic that you have firsthand experience with and that is important to you. Allow enough time to write the essay and then to edit it.

Five Things for High School Seniors To Do Now

For high school seniors, college application deadlines are just around the corner. Here are five things to do now, to be ready for fall application deadlines.

1. Finalize the college list and know the due dates. Generally, I recommend that students apply to no more than nine colleges, including stretch, match and safe schools. College application deadlines vary, and some schools have application due dates as early as October. For each school on your final college list, decide whether to apply early decision, early action or regular decision. Record the application and financial aid due dates.

2. Schedule Fall tests. If you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT, or want to take them again, check that the scores will be available by the college due dates, and then register. October is often the last test date that will be scored in time.

3. Schedule college visits. Many colleges use “enthusiasm to attend” as one of their admissions criteria. Visiting is an excellent way to demonstrate your enthusiasm and to learn more about the college. If possible, schedule an interview when you visit.  You may be able visit some colleges that are in session, before high school resumes. 

4. Get teacher recommendations. If you did not ask teachers for recommendations in the Spring, do it as soon as school starts. Notify your guidance counselor if you will be applying to schools early admission, since they also need to prepare a recommendation and get other materials ready for your applications.

5. Finish applications, including essays early. Your applications are critical and should be treated as such. Your essays will take time to write and revise.  Plan enough time to revise each essay three or four times.  Make sure to proofread your applications, including essays carefully.

August 1 Launch of the Common App

On August 1st, the Common Application, also known as the Common App, becomes available for use. While many colleges have their own college applications, 456 institutions use the Common App, making it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges.

The Common Application that will be launched on August 1 is very similar to the one used last year. To see the changes for first-year applications, students can look at the highlighted sections in the preview application.

The most dreaded portion of the Common App is the writing section. Students need to write a 250 – 500 word essay on a topic of their choice or on one of the five options provided. They also need to write about an extracurricular activity or work experience in the small space provided. Many colleges have a supplement to the Common App that may require additional essays.

I recommend that students write their essays before school resumes in September and life becomes more hectic. If you don’t think you’ll get it done without some structure, try my “Common Application Boot Camp With A Friend” or my 1-on-1 services.

College Trends and Hot Topics – Part 3

The admissions personnel on the Higher Education Consultants Association college admissions panel answered the following questions on current trends and hot topics.
How do you know a student wrote the college essay? 
  • The prose style of a 17-year old is different than a 40-year old. 
  • Essays written by committee loose their force. 
  • The main essay and supplement essays are consistent.  If they are in doubt, they compare the essays to the SAT writing sample.

What gender issues are colleges facing?

  • Liberal arts colleges are becoming increasingly female.  Some liberal arts colleges are looking to keep the percent of men at greater than 40%.
  • There are too few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

How should high school students spend their summer?

  • Do something constructive.
  • Test some idea, like “what is it like to work?” or “what is field x like?”

What is the role of the interview in the admissions decision?

  • The Muhlenberg College representative indicated that 75% of students are interviewed by their admissions staff on campus or off-site.  Their interview is both evaluative and informational.  The college wants to get at intangibles like what is the student hoping for and whether the student is kind and civil.
  • The Dartmouth College representative said that alumni conduct the interviews and score the prospective students on a 1 – 5 rating score.  41% of the students interviewed received a score of 4 or 5.  Dartmouth is interested in learning why the students want to attend their college.
  • At Rutgers University, students from the Pharmacy School and the Mason Gross School have interviews.

How are you using social media?

  • Rutgers University does not read the student’s Facebook page.
  • After students were accepted to Dartmouth College, they could participate in a Class of 2016 page.  High school students could video chat with current Dartmouth College students.

What’s happening with Spring admits?

  • Brandeis University has been accepting students who applied for the Fall term as Spring admits for seven or eight years.  This allows then to fill the space made available because students are studying abroad.  The students who are Spring admits have their own orientation, make a good transition to Brandeis University, and turn out well.
Do any of these answers surprise you?  Are there other questions that you wish they discussed?