writing college essays

It’s October in the US, and all around the country many a high school senior is logging into the Common Application, reading the supplemental essay prompts required of their prospective universities, rubbing their exhausted eyes in disbelief, and collectively uttering a simple, yet disquieted,   Wha…???”

Yes, we’ve all come across them:  those “nefariously” written college essay prompts, so challenging in nature even Einstein might not know what to make of them.  So to help prevent you from getting “lost in translation,” the expert college admissions consultants at College Coach have banded together to conduct an “exhaustive search” for The Most Challenging College Essay Prompts of 2013 and decrypt them for you—the writing’s up to you.  Here they are:

    • “You are walking down the street when something catches your eye.  You must stop and stare for a long while, amazed and fascinated.  What are you looking at?”

No idea?  Remember, colleges use the personal statement to learn more about their applicants’ accomplishments, goals, and dreams — not sideshows.  You play a role in the stopping and the staring.  What do you value that’s important enough to make you stop?  That’s your focus.  As the main character in this scene, you’re up for admission, not a long-winded description of what you see.


    • You just made the front page of the New York Times for doing something important that no one before you has ever thought to do. What did you do and why did you do it?”

Colleges admit real students, not figments of the imagination.  While it’s okay to dream, this essay should be 10% fiction and 90% non-fiction.  Here’s the trick: write about the present, or in the above scenario, how you got your “start.”  How did your “past” experiences and goals lead you to that futuristic accomplishment?  Did your undergraduate years, meaning your prospective college, play a role in getting you there?


    • “Ben Franklin once said, ‘All mankind is divided into three classes:  those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.’  Which are you?”

Here are the traps:  if you pick “immovable,” you might come off as stubborn and obstinate; pick “movable,” and you’re a malleable flip-flop; and if you pick “those that move,” well, you could be perceived as full of yourself.  Definitely have an objective third party read your response to check for tone before you press “submit.”  Or better yet, explain how you’re more than just one classification.  At any rate, answer the question.  No dodging allowed!


    • “Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.”

This prompt is akin to the “what do you do just for fun” question.  It doesn’t mean you have to pick something that goes completely “unnoticed.”  Remember, if it’s important to you, you’ve probably developed a talent for it — there just might not be any framework for earning distinctions.  Try not to be too literal with this one.


    • “Our mission of Scholarship in Action, education for the world in the world, extends beyond the classroom to include engagement opportunities with our campus community, the City of [X], and locations across the globe. Based on your interests, tell us what real-world experiences you might pursue during your education at [X University] as part of this mission.”

You’re not alone:  many students get lost at “Scholarship in Action.”  Here’s the CliffsNotes version:  “How do you plan on engaging in the world outside the classroom?”


Conclusion:  The trick to answering a challenging or cryptic admissions prompt is to think about what colleges need to glean from an essay.  They’re looking for information about students as academics as well as contributing members of the world around them — be it the student’s school, community, work, or family.  They want to know a student’s goals and aspirations.  Stray too far beyond that, and you risk veering off-topic.  College Coach’s years of college admissions counseling experience has taught us to recommend that students follow this advice so they don’t get lost in translation!



Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory. Visit our website to learn more about Zaragoza Guerra.