We asked our team of experts to share their favorite (or least favorite!) college application essay prompt and how they recommend responding. See their advice below!
Washington University in St. Louis: Tell us about something that really sparks your intellectual interest and curiosity and compels you to explore more. It could be an idea, book, project, cultural activity, work of art, start-up, music, movie, research, innovation, question, or other pursuit.
Andrew’s tip: A question like this is great because it's inherently exciting. There's no implied expectation to start with some wild hook or pithy remark. Really, the best way to start with this kind of question is just with free brainstorming, or even going back-and-forth with a friend. Imagine: what kind of class would you read in a course catalogue and go nuts over? Or start listing out some of your favorite (or just recent!) classes, books, movies, etc. and start spitballing: what grabbed you? Once you've filled a half page (or more!) with everything that jumps to mind, start rereading your notes. Do any immediately lead you to ask another question? These cascading questions can be a great sign that you really have an interest to describe here.
Villanova University: Describe a book, movie, song, or other work of art that has been significant to you since you were young and how its meaning has changed for you as you have grown.
David’s tip: I love this one because it allows you to both revel in a work of art or pop culture you've loved as a kid and also show the tools you have now to look at it with more adult eyes. I recommend going back to something you loved before you were, say, 7. Because all great works you love as a kid have so much more there waiting to be explored!
Eli & Julia
University of Virginia: What’s your favorite word and why?
Eli’s tip: This is a great chance to be creative and really stand out in the process - think outside the box!
Julia’s tip: This prompt allows you to fill in the cracks of your application with whatever aspect of your personality you feel hasn't been addressed elsewhere. Is the rest of your application quite serious? Choose a silly word (like my personal favorite, "guacamole" -- it's impossible to say without smiling). Are you bilingual? Choose a non-English word of significance to you. A language nerd? Choose something with an interesting etymology, like "clue". Still can't come up with anything? Then work your way backward: pick a story that you want to share with your Admissions Officer, and come up with a word that will serve as a segue allowing you to tell your tale.
Fausto & Marjorie
Common Application: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Fausto’s tip: This question gives you an opportunity to acknowledge a time when you struggled and overcame a challenge. By reflecting on challenges and setbacks, you will demonstrates courage, perseverance, a sense of maturity and self introspection. Think of an obstacle that resulted in an "aha" moment. Show how that obstacle was transformational - what did you learn? how did you change?
Marjorie’s tip: This is actually my least favorite prompt. Like any prompt, the “lessons we take” from setbacks or failures can result in a good essay, but so often it’s a trap! Students set up artificial “challenges” wherein other students misbehave (e.g. in a homophobic, misogynist, or racist manner) and, having witnessed this behavior, they confront the “challenge” of what to do about it! This results in a judgmental rather than an introspective narrative. Or worse, the student addresses an authentic setback or failure...but dwells on actual failure resulting in an essay leaving what might best be characterized as a “Wah wahhhhhhh” impression rather than a positive impression on the reader.
Stanford University: The "write a letter to your roommate" essay.
Grace’s tip: I'd recommend answering it colloquially (without being disrespectful or crass, of course) while revealing your voice and personality, any quirks and weird fun facts about yourself, and general excitement about specific opportunities (name them) Stanford has to offer -- and how you're pumped to explore all of those things together with your roommate.
University of California Application: Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
Matthew’s tip: I love the way this question defines creativity in such a broad fashion, beyond the usual associations the term has with the arts. I'd recommend writing about an activity they don't suggest. Baking cookies? Doodling on your converse sneakers? The weirder, the better!
Yale University: Most first-year Yale students live in suites of four to six people. What do you hope to add to your suitemates' experience? What do you hope they will add to yours?
Sean’s tip: I love this Yale-specific question because it brings back a flood of memories from my time in the residential college system. Having gone through Yale, I would advise someone who is applying to lean into the second half of the question. "What do you hope they will add to yours?" During my time at Yale, I was exposed to some truly unique people and experiences, and most of them happened in the form of impromptu trips to people's hometowns, meals they cooked, or concerts of their favorite bands. These experiences both broadened my interests and helped me make life long friends. It may sound tacky but its true, and that is one of the goals of Yale's residential college system. If you can speak to this, the admissions officers will see that you are applying for a wonderful reason: your peers.
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