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How to Address the Prompt and Still Tell Your Story

October 5, 2011 by Mike in Admissions Essays

Prompts for college essays are generally predictable. Most are routine, although you do have some folks, like those at the University of Chicago, who clearly stay up all night ensconced in the Pythagorean Theorem, Johnny Depp films, and Stephen Hawking treatises to conjure up some of the most esoteric prompts in college essay admissions lore. But even then, no need to worry. You can make any prompt your own, and we at  ProofreadingPal are about to explain how.

No, you can’t ignore the prompt. If the folks on the admissions committee wanted you to write on anything you wished, they would have told you so. And many do exactly that. But those who go to the trouble of providing a specific prompt want you to deal with it. How you do that? Glad you asked.

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You can write one basic essay and use it for almost any prompt. So even if you’re applying to six or eight schools, all you have to do is tweak that one basic essay — sometimes with as little as a phrase, sometimes a few sentences or a short paragraph — but one basic essay can fit almost any prompt.

Some schools, for example, use this prompt:  “Tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced or expect to face.” Do not panic. You can do this, but not the way one student did. She wrote a self-indulgent, rambling essay that boiled down to her admitting she had not faced any significant challenges and she couldn’t think of anything that might come along. That’s a giant fail.

But in the process of wasting her essay, she wrote a line that acknowledged what a carefree life she had lived, unlike her mother, who had to drop out of school and get a job at her age to help feed her family. The writer missed a great opportunity. She might have written something like this: “My parents have made my life easy. I have faced no real challenges, although no doubt I will some day. But I know someone who did face major challenges at my age: my mom….” And then the writer could have gone on to tell her mother’s story. That would have made a compelling essay that would keep the admissions officers awake, even at midnight, even after sifting through scores of applications, even after the last piece of Papa John’s had been devoured. And that essay would do what any good college essay should: It would lift the writer out of the stack of faceless applicants who have nothing to say and into the thin folder of those who not only have something to say, but who know how to say it. These are the folks whose essays will give them the edge in the admissions process.

But some people say no, the writer shouldn’t have written about her mother because that’s not what the prompt says. OK. Fair enough. So let’s take another look at that prompt: “Tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced or expect to face.” Let’s remember, too, that the purpose behind any college essay prompt is to learn something about the applicant hidden behind all those numbers: the GPA and the transcript, the SAT or ACT score, AP scores, the family financial statement, class rank — the individual behind all those teacher and counselor recommendations. Admitting that you have had no challenges and really can’t speculate in any meaningful way about what the future might bring shows a mature perspective. Moving from that confession into your mother’s plight demonstrates an empathy and an understanding that would be welcome on any college campus. And that’s why writing such an essay well will not only satisfy the prompt, but any admissions committee on any campus worth attending.

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