College essay
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Decoding the Prompt

Decoding the Prompt

Before beginning to outline your essay in response to a prompt, you must figure out what the prompt is really asking. There are two components to a prompt: the surface question (i.e. the explicit question), and the underlying question (i.e. the “so what?”). The surface question may or may not be relatable to your development as a student. It may seem irrelevant to your qualifications, asking about your family or a life-changing experience. However, all college application prompts are asking the same questions in their subtext: “How are you an excellent fit for our university?”

Always remember that the purpose of the essay prompts are to examine your capabilities as a student and to test your reasoning and analytical skills. The latter can only be deduced by looking at the introspection in your paper. This is why we strongly suggest spending more time (60%) on evidence and supporting points, and less time (40%) on telling stories or anecdotes (The 3 Keys to Writing the Perfect College Application Essay).

The Surface Question: Staying on Topic

The prompt often asks a very specific question. Do not use this as a springboard question that stimulates discussion on other topics. You must effectively answer every portion of the prompt and stay on topic.

Take a look at the following Common Application Prompt:

Prompt #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The prompt is asking for three things, so your essay must include all three for an adequate essay. (1) You must tell a story about an experience where you failed, (2) you must cite its effects on you, and (3) you must cite the changes in yourself that occurred as a result of this experience. This does not mean briefly mentioning a failure and then spending the rest of your paper telling success stories. The paper must be wholly dedicated to addressing these three interrelated topics.

However, some prompts are designed to give you a variety of options. This is both liberating and dangerous, because you are left to formulate the structure of your paper entirely on your own.

Take a look at this Common Application Prompt:

Prompt #1: 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 asks you to share something about yourself that is not obvious from looking at your transcript or your test scores. Here, you have free reign to talk about anything significant to your life. Students often mistakenly try to come up with the most exciting, dramatic story of their life. Remember that the admissions officer reading your paper is not only interested in your background, identity, interest, or talent. He or she wants to see how your background, identity, interest or talent has shaped you into the unique and extraordinary candidate that you are.

The Subtext: How to Answer the Question Behind the Prompt

If you answer the obvious question that the prompt is asking without getting sidetracked, then you have the basis for a solid essay. However, what separates good responses from great responses is the author’s ability to present him or herself in the best possible light and answer the subtext question: How are you an excellent fit for our university?

First, we must take a look at what universities seek in applicants.

1) Successful alumni. Universities love successful alumni because they enhance the school’s reputation and prestige, which attracts high caliber applicants and brings them future donations. To become a successful alumnus, you must be success-driven and goal-oriented. Try to indicate that you have some idea of what your goals are (e.g. for college, your career, or your life) and that you have the character to realize them.

2) Active students. Part of a university’s reputations lies in the culture and learning opportunities offered outside of the classroom. The quality and quantity of a college’s sports teams, clubs, and organizations are paramount to its success. They want students that are going to take advantage of the many opportunities they offer. The best application essays relating to involvement highlight specific organizations at the university in which the applicant is interested.

3) Team players. When you enroll in a university, you become a part of a huge team environment. College is a place where you will be expected to work on group projects and participate in group discussions, regardless of your major or concentration. If you are not a team player, you do not belong in a collegiate environment.

4) Leaders. Universities want people who can contribute as team members, but who are also not afraid of leading and taking initiative when a group needs guidance. It is important to know that leadership does not always occur in formal roles. Many of the best examples of good leadership occur when someone without a defined role has taken on more responsibility to generate greater impact.

5) Good people. Schools want people who are hard-working, success-driven, and dedicated, while none of them want to be affiliated with people who are unprincipled. Virtuous and selfless people are more likely to help their peers and better their environment. Universities prefer students that will help maintain and better the campus community. You can demonstrate goodness by selecting supporting evidence that demonstrates your empathetic and moral qualities.

6) Good fits. The common application essay does not allow you to cater your essay to each individual school, but you can address how you will fit at each school in the university-specific supplemental essays. Supplemental essays are your chance not only to demonstrate that you are a strong and capable student, but also the reasons for which a given school’s particular program is the best fit for you. Do your homework before starting supplemental essays and be specific in stating your interests. Mention professors who you are excited to work with, organizations you look forward to joining, and classes that you want to take. Anything that is exceptional about this program should be mentioned if it can help onto the right career track after you graduate.

Make sure to demonstrate many of these qualities while answering the prompt. Allow your stories and introspection to illuminate the positive traits that will make you an excellent student at your dream school.

Take a look at Matthew’s introductory paragraph in response to the following Common Application prompt:

Prompt #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

My graduating class was fifty. In a private school of that size, there are not many opportunities for extracurricular activities or clubs. My goal has always been to become a journalist, and I felt that, at my high school, there was no place where I could begin honing my writing skills to better prepare for a journalism major. After voicing this to a few peers and then to my English teacher, I became the founding editor and contributor Walsham High’s first ever newsletter made for and by the students—an achievement that has given me writing experience, contributed to my confidence, and taught me leadership skills.

As you can see in his introduction, Matthew not only identifies a problem and explains how he solved it, but also depicts himself as a driven, hard-working, and involved student with leadership experience.


In order to have a strong college application essay, you must decode the prompt. You must be sure to answer every component of the question, as well as take advantage of every opportunity to display your best qualities as an applicant.


  • Answer every part of the question.
  • Portray yourself in the best possible light. Determine the underlying question, and make it clear that you will be an active member of the student body and a successful alumnus.
  • Do your research. If you are writing a college-specific essay, make sure you can explain why that particular college is a good fit for you.


  • Go off topic. Keep your essay focused on the questions the prompt poses.
  • Say or reveal anything negative about yourself.
  • Focus on coming up with a flashy or dramatic story. The introspection is most important.

Write well and prosper!

Cassandra Cloutier
Cassandra Cloutier is a NY-based actor, writer, and educator. She graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 2019 with a BFA in acting, and her acting credits include Evil Lives Here on Discovery+ and productions at The Actor’s Temple and Shakespeare NYC. She worked as a Writing Coordinator and the Social Media Manager for Prompt for several years and until August 2023.