Why This College: How to Answer Common College Essay Prompts

Application Strategies
September 1, 2020
What’s The Difference Between An Okay College Application Essay And One That Lands A Student An Acceptance Letter?

Students often hear the advice that their personal statements should tell a story, but how can they accomplish that while staying within the essay prompt? Most importantly, how can they wow their dream college’s admissions officer and secure their spot on campus?

Well, in this article, we’ll discuss six of the most common essay prompts and give tips on how your student can write a strong response.

The Importance Of College Essays

College essays, also called college personal statements or supplemental essays, are one of the most important parts of a student’s college application. While the academic and extracurricular aspects of your student’s application are important, college application essays are where your student is encouraged to show a more in-depth and personal look at who they are. Because colleges want to see if your child is a good fit for their school’s culture, essay prompts are structured to offer crucial insight into your student that test scores and achievements can only hint at.

While personal statements are an opportunity for your student to showcase themselves to admissions officers, they are also an area where many students struggle or procrastinate. Taking the essay writing process seriously starts by setting aside the time to prepare for the prompts and outlining a response. Below, we’ve outlined some of the most common college essay prompts and different ways your student can approach each prompt to help spark that initial inspiration.

Common College Essay Prompts And How To Answer Them


The Prompt: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

One of the most common qualities that colleges look for in a prospective student is curiosity. This prompt gives your student a chance to shine a light on the topics and concepts that they have a passion for. This window into who your student is provides a great way to show admissions offices what your student could bring to campus and how they could benefit and flourish using the opportunities provided by the school they are applying to.

When responding to this prompt, students should ignore trying to impress the college and instead focus on what really drives them. Not only will their genuine enthusiasm show through in their writing, but it also allows the admissions office to compare their true personality to the school’s culture to see if your student would be an ideal fit. Colleges are looking for students that will bring passion and talent to campus and have learned how to spot essays written solely to impress.


The Prompt: 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?

For most students, talking about overcoming an obstacle allows them to display their ingenuity, grit, and determination. However, some students may be uncomfortable directly writing about overcoming a challenge or setback, especially if it was one of their own making.

In these cases, students who still wish to approach this prompt should make an effort to approach it from a positive angle. How did the setback change your student for the better? What did they have to learn, who did they have to ask for help, or how did they figure out a solution for their problem? Answering these questions will allow your student to answer the prompt clearly, while still showing their best side.


The Prompt: 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.

This prompt allows students with a unique background the opportunity to share their story and how it has shaped them. Whether your student comes from a background that has required them to go above and beyond to make their dreams come true or has worked to cultivate talents outside of school for years, this prompt is open-ended enough for your student to have fun and go in-depth with their response.

However, when answering this prompt students should be careful to limit themselves to the highlights of their background. Trying to weave a response together that includes your upbringing and all of your wildly varying interests can become confusing to read. Make sure to go over your child’s essay responses with them to see if they flow nicely, answer the prompt with clarity, and focus on a particular quality they would bring to each college they apply to.


The Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Students can approach this prompt from a variety of ways; an event or realization can be of any size or relevance to spark personal growth. Whether your student discusses the small “shower thought” that changed their life or how their response to a mistake caused them to change for the better, this prompt gives students the freedom to discuss where they’ve been on their life journey so far. It also provides an opportunity to end their story with their plans for continuing their personal growth in college, tying their past to their future at each college they’re applying to.

If your student needs more guidance on perfecting their answer, check out our admitted essay review where we break down a fantastic answer to this type of college essay prompt.


The Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Students are increasingly becoming involved in social movements before they even attend college, and this prompt allows them the opportunity to share these experiences on a deeper level than they can in the rest of their application.

Even if your student is less drawn to this prompt, a recent survey by the Common App suggests that this prompt is appreciated by admin offices because of what the response says about a student. If your student would like to try their hand at this prompt, but are unsure of how to approach it, offer your encouragement and reach out to those who can provide tailored essay writing help.


The Prompt: Why do you want to attend this college? What do you plan to do during your time here?

One of the most common college prompts is also one of the most difficult for students to answer. Above all, your student should aim to get specific with this prompt. A solid personal response for this prompt avoids general statements that could fit for any other college in the region. If your child could send their personal statement to both Columbia and NYU, for example, they need to go more in-depth with what draws them to apply.

Students who can clearly define the reasons why they chose to apply to a school are more likely to be admitted than the student who made sure they named off all the accolades a school has received. Make sure your student is honest in their response, and use the opportunity to tie their interest, talents, and backgrounds to what the school has to offer. While this prompt may seem to be all about the school, the admissions offices are looking to see how your student plans to take advantage of what the school has to offer, and why they should have the opportunity over other qualified applicants.

Ace Your College Supplemental Essays

A well-written personal statement could be the one thing that sets your student apart from the crowd and allows them to attend the college of their dreams. Crafting the perfect response requires that students go beyond the face-value of the prompts and truly get creative.

Your student will only have one chance to make a lasting impression with the admission office with their personal statement. Students should challenge themselves to go beyond a “good enough” essay and get personal in their response.

For this reason, if your child finds college essay writing difficult, don’t forget that our WeAdmit counselors are available to work with your student to write the ideal response. We’re here to guide your student through the steps of writing a winning personal statement, from breaking down what the prompt is really about to the final round of revisions that let your student’s efforts shine!



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