Prompt Prose

Don’t hate me, students, but I’ve always found the writing process to be incredibly easy.

(Hey!  I said don’t hate me!)

I don’t know why this is, but since I struggle more with math, I’ve concluded that my brain is just hard-wired in favor of languages and letters and not toward numbers.  (I read somewhere that either people can do math or they can spell; I can spell, so there you go.)

Still, ever since I was very young, if given the chance to write something – a short story, an essay, a letter – I could put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and string together a series of words that would eventually form a finished product.  I remember a creative writing exercise from high school where we had to pull two random names out of one hat and then choose an action phrase from a different hat – a sort of Mad Lib writing prompt – and in 30 minutes, I put together a complete story without really straining over it.  (In fact, I would have preferred to have an hour; I was on a roll toward the end.)

In my admission counseling days, I once created a 30 page formal business proposal (with diagrams!) based on an idea that my boss sketched out on a napkin while we were at lunch.  (I confess I amazed myself when he drew three lines and two squiggles and I said, “I actually know what that means.”  Scary!)

Now, the purpose of that introduction isn’t to brag about my writing skills.  (In fact, please know that I have written some utterly awful essays and suffered from my own fair share of debilitating writer’s block over the years).  Rather I want to point out that writing is a skill that doesn’t come easily to most people.  Like anything else, it’s something that really only improves with practice, but even if you keep a blog or write regular essays in your English class at school, it doesn’t mean that the ideas necessarily flow freely from your brain and onto the page every time.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of the time you’re completely stumped as to what to write.

It seems rather cruel, then, that the majority of colleges to which you plan to apply will require you to write at least one essay (and probably two if you apply via the Common Application, which traditionally has a school-specific supplement for each individual college).  Crueler still, they’ll provide you with a selection of prompts that will most likely puzzle and frighten you more than anything else.

Want some examples?  Here are a few from last fall:

  • What’s so odd about odd numbers?  (University of Chicago – a school known for their particularly mind-bending prompts)
  • Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.  (University of California system)
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act?  Would you make the same decision again?  (Common Application prompt #3)

What do you think of those?  Inspiring or overwhelming – or a bit of both?

If anything, the above prompts should at least provide explanation as to why students who work with me on their application essays rarely ever start with a writing prompt that comes directly from the application of one of the schools they hope to attend.  Instead, we start in a far less structured way that doesn’t lock them into one idea and stifle their voices.

But Randi, you ask, how can I write a good application essay if I don’t adhere to the schools’ writing prompts?  Won’t I be off topic?

The short answer, readers, is no.  You won’t be off topic because that’s the funny – and kind of cool – thing about application essay prompts:  No matter what a particular prompt asks you, you can always shape an essay to fit it after it’s already written.  And since the entire purpose of the essay is to demonstrate facets of your character that aren’t readily apparent from the other parts of your application – things like your grades and test scores – you need to be in control of what information you would like to share with the admission staff.  What do you want them to know about you?  What do you feel that they must know before they evaluate your file?

Think of it this way: Every other component of your application is out of your control by the time you submit it; your grades from ninth through eleventh can’t be changed, your test scores are what they are, your resume reflects what you’ve done outside of class over the past three years, and your letters of recommendation are written by other people.  The only original and self-selected piece of your application that the colleges will see is the essay you write for them.  So why not sit down now and make a list of the things you think they should know about you.  What’s special in your life?  Where are you from and where do you want to go?

The bottom line is this:  You are the lead character in your own life story.  Figure out how best to share that story with your colleges, keep it around 500 words or less, and you’ll be well on your way to being admitted.

(Need help with your essay?  Contact me about my 2015 essay writing bootcamp or pick up a copy of my book to read about how you should (and shouldn’t!) talk about your riding in your essay.)


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