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Tips and Sample Prompts for Writing the Perfect College Essay

written by: Keren Perles•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/6/2011

If you’re choosing a college essay topic and feel stumped, then maybe college essay prompts can help. Sometimes your college provides a prompt for you, but what do you do if they don't, and what on earth do you do with them anyway? Stop that head scratching and let us walk you through it.

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    If the Prompt is Provided

    Choosing an essay topic can seem simple at first; after all, the school you’re applying to often provides the topic for you. Surprisingly, however, simply answering the essay prompt isn’t the best way to approach a college essay. College admissions committees are looking for passion, creativity, idealism, and similar personality traits in their applicants. In order to show them these aspects of your personality, you’ll want to write about a topic that truly speaks to you, and you’ll want to give over a message that you believe in strongly.

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    How to Use Sample College Essay Prompts

    Let’s assume that one college’s official essay topic is to analyze the following quote and say whether you agree or disagree with it: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him." Another college’s essay topic is to talk about the one way that you would change the world if you had all of the time, abilities, and resources you needed. A third asks you to describe a person who has had a tremendous impact on your life. As these topics are so different, you might feel like you have to write and polish three different essays for the college admissions committees. The truth is, it’s far better to work on an essay topic that speaks to you, writing a solid essay that describes something you are passionate about, and then to trying to tweak it so that it answers all three essay questions.

    For example, if you decide you want to write about the pride you felt when you volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, you might write an essay that uses that experience to answer the second essay prompt (i.e., if you had all of the resources you needed, you would enable people to become more financially independent and give people the joy that Habitat for Humanity did). You would polish that essay until it was perfect. Then you would write another draft of the essay, using as much of the original wording as possible, to answer the other two questions. For your essay to the first school, you might say that your character changed through doing something for people who would not be able to pay you back, and then you would use most of the content of your first essay to explain how. For your essay to the second school, you might describe someone you worked with on Habitat for Humanity that had an impact on your life, or you might say that the founders of the organization – or even the people who you built the house for – had an impact on your life. Most of the essay topics are general enough that you can squeeze almost any topic into them if you think for long enough.

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    Sample Prompts

    Here are some sample college essay prompts that you can use to think of ideas for your essay topics.

    1. What would you like to do in the future, in terms of your studying, career, or personal goals?
    2. What experience did you have that truly changed who you are?
    3. Think of a person who you truly admire. Why do you admire them? What have you learned from them?
    4. Have you ever had an experience that you thought was negative, but that turned out to be positive? Describe the experience.
    5. Is there a place that you feel speaks to you more than any other place in the world? Why?
    6. If you could do anything for the next year, what would it be?
    7. Why do you want to go to college?
    8. What do you hope to find in a college, and why is that so important to you?
    9. How has your family affected the person you are today?
    10. What is a true friend?

    Make sure to choose a prompt for your college essay that you feel you have something important to respond to; you don't want to be in the beige or gray category after all, you want to stand out!

Applying to College

Applying to college can be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences you'll ever go through. This series examines different parts of the college application process, including how to write a stellar college essay and how to ace a college interview.
  1. Writing an Autobiography for a College Application
  2. Tips and Sample Prompts for Writing the Perfect College Essay
  3. Competitiveness in College Admissions: Is It Tougher to Get in Than It Used to Be?