What Do Those Essay Prompts Really Mean?

College essay prompts often reflect the personality of the school and its students.  That’s why, if a certain essay topic inspires you to write a 10-page thesis, well, you might have found your perfect match.  Below are five actual essay questions from this year’s applications, along with some insight into how these questions reflect the schools and their students.  The names of the colleges who posed the questions have been withheld..

Essay topic #1
“You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”

Did you hatch a 10 year plan on your 10th birthday that detailed your academic rise, summer internships, and college plans? Then this school might just fit the bill for you. The college that poses this essay question seeks out candidates who have definite plans for the future. These are highly motivated students who want to use this university’s resources to attain those goals that they probably set at age ten.

Essay topic #2

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis

Maybe you’re the kid in class who’s constantly questioning the majority
opinion.  Perhaps you like to analyze each angle of a situation before
forming your viewpoint—and in the process, you learn even more about
yourself and the subject.  Maybe you don’t like quick and easy answers
as much as you like the questions that come up while you’re learning.
For “outside the box” thinkers and analyzers, this college is a good
bet for you.  And this university wants to populate its dorms and
classrooms with throngs of students who “play what’s not there” every
day of their lives.

Essay topic #3
“What is college for?”

Conventional classrooms not your cup of tea? That’s OK. This college
echoes your sentiments completely. They’re excited about students who
question the current education system and want to make it more
personalized, taking things back to basics. Want to devise a major in
which you study geology and drama, taking classes in a rock quarry and
performing monologues lamenting the decline of the pet rock? Go ahead!
This college celebrates all forms of inquiry and urges students to
define for themselves what college is for.

Essay topic #4


“Tell us how service and leadership experience in your own life has
developed your stewardship for the common good and made a difference in
your community and/or the lives of others.”

You’re the kid who’s racked up a whole lot of community service hours,
but you never bothered to count how many exactly because that was never
the point.  You were donating your Saturdays to ladling soup at the
homeless shelter because that’s what you loved to do.  That’s
wonderful!  This college lauds applicants who are true pillars of the
community.  It sees a college education as an opportunity for students
to both improve their knowledge and benefit the surrounding community.
They’re looking for applicants eager to organize things like clothing
drives for the needy and who will encourage other students to help out.

Essay topic #5
“Please tell us about something you did last Sunday afternoon (or the Sunday before that, or the Sunday before that?).”

Much of the college experience occurs outside of the classroom.  This
university recognizes and celebrates that.  They want applicants who
will enhance the entire experience, perhaps by teaching dorm mates how
to salsa dance or starting an intramural roller hockey team or even
beginning a Sunday afternoon coffee and book club in the residence
halls.  It’s OK if you spend your Sundays sleeping—just know that this
school might not be the best match for your interests.