Lousy College Essay Prompts (2021 Edition)

Josh Stephens
10 min readMar 16, 2022

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Sometimes, before you even start writing, you have to figure out what the prompt means

I admire students’ efforts to tell engaging stories and explore sophisticated ideas on their college applications. Good writing, which relies on thoughtful revising, is hard work. I only wish some colleges put the same effort into writing their essay prompts.

Strong essays — that are clear, engaging, insightful, honest, and all the rest — are supremely difficult to achieve when the colleges’ own prompts make no sense or, in some cases, when they are so inane that no student — least of all one who is qualified for a highly selective college — can take them seriously.

Now that I’ve read some colleges’ prompts, and responses to them, about a billion times, I’d like to take a moment to call them out. The students who have struggled to interpret and answer these prompts deserve a little solidarity and even catharsis. As for the colleges that wrote them: it would be nice if they’d set better examples for their applicants.

There were some doozies this year. Below, I identify them and explain their awkwardness or irrationality. In most cases, I offer advice for how admissions offices could fix their prompts or, perhaps more realistically, for how next year’s applicants can reinterpret them.

I’ll start with one near and dear to my heart. The rest are in no particular order….

What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
Princeton University (USC asks a version of this too)

I love when students share their tastes in art and pop culture. Essays on these topics can be incidental icebreakers, but they are often insightful. If someone professes equal love for Taylor Swift and Bad Brains, that’s probably someone I want to meet.

In Princeton’s case, though, I’m not even sure what the prompt is asking.

Is it asking about music that a student enjoys? Or is it music that reflects her mood? (Those aren’t necessarily the same thing.) Or is the “soundtrack” the music that is actually in the background of a student’s life, like music played on the loudspeaker in the quad or on the record player during family dinner? And what does “at this moment” connote? Students often take a while to draft essays, so which moment are we talking about?

Next time, just ask, “Tell us about a song, album, or musical artist that is meaningful to you.”

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
Stanford University

This is a reasonable question. And a terrible essay prompt.

Anyone who answers this question honestly will almost invariably cite one of a few slow-moving global calamities: climate change, hunger, erosion of democracy, war, etc. The trouble is, an honest answer isn’t necessarily an interesting answer.

Smart, aware, well-meaning applicants often end up writing roughly the same thing for this essay, which clearly is of no help to the admissions readers. Even worse, it’s sort of a trick question, by which savvy applicants come up with something distinctive (often a specific sub-challenge of the big ones) while applicants who are merely earnest end up looking generic.

Preferable: “Among all the world’s challenges, discuss one that particularly interests you.”

When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?
Emory University

As an object of philosophical pondering, I love this question. As a real-life prospect, it’s problematic.

First, it presupposes a life experience that many kids might not have had yet. Genuine epiphanies may not have arrived by age 17, even for kids who are hip to the world. Also, “true” is a tough word. It implies a factual proposition, which limits the range of responses and excludes ones that are likely most interesting. (Philosophers might argue that there is such thing as a “moral fact.” But I don’t expect high school kids to have gotten that deep into ontology just yet.)

Also, why does it have to be the “last time?” What if the penultimate time was much more interesting than the “last time”?

Preferable: “Tell us about a time when you changed your mind or discovered a surprising fact.”

Which book, character, song, monologue, or piece of work (fiction or non-fiction) seems made for you? Why?
Emory University

If this question reflects Emory’s values, the campus is likely to be full of egotists. Why does it have to be “made for you” rather than “interesting to you”, “especially memorable”, or anything else that doesn’t reward self-centeredness?

Yale students embrace the concept of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’, pursuing arts and sciences, tradition and innovation, defined goals and surprising detours. What is an example of an ‘and’ that you embrace?
Yale University

I have read this question more times than I can count, and I have literally no idea what it means. I don’t think it is grammatically or metaphysically possible to “embrace” a conjunction.

Beyond that, the premise is unclear. Does this prompt assume that an applicant has declared a primary interest (via a different Yale essay), reserving this essay to describe an additional interest? (“You already know that I love anthropology, but let me also tell you about subatomic physics…”) Or does it refer to some clever combination of seemingly disparate topics? (“Let me tell you about the time I taught subatomic physics to 7th graders in Slovenia…”)

Diversity in all definitional forms is intrinsic to excellence in engineering. Indeed, devising the best engineered solutions to complex problems is often achieved by drawing from the diverse ingenuity of people from broadly different backgrounds, lived experiences, and identities. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity and inclusion of the Cornell Engineering community? What is the unique voice you would bring to the Cornell Engineering community?
Cornell University (Engineering Applicants)

This is a heavy lift for a high school student.

Many of us live in gloriously diverse communities. But not everyone has. Should a student be implicitly penalized for growing up in a homogenous community?

Even if you ignore the labored introductory sentence, the actual questions are pretty tough. How does a kid know what diversity at Cornell Engineering is going to look like? And how many of us — at 17 or otherwise — have a truly “unique voice”? (Unique is one of those often insipid, almost always hyperbolic words that I tell my students to avoid whenever possible.) Moreover, if someone does have a “unique voice,” and rich encounters with diversity, I can’t imagine that 200 words would suffice to match the grandeur of this prompt.

Preferable: Make this question optional. Or make it more inclusive by inviting students to discuss a time when diverse perspectives might have helped even if they were not actually present.

A hallmark of the Columbia experience is being able to learn and live in a community with a wide range of perspectives. How do you or would you learn from and contribute to diverse, collaborative communities?
Columbia University

This one is more inclusive than the Cornell prompt, but not by much. What bugs me is the unnecessarily coy reference to “diverse, collaborative communities” in the second sentence. Gosh, what community could Columbia possibly be talking about?

Preferable: “How… do you hope to learn from and contribute to Columbia’s diverse, collaborative community?”

The University of Miami’s official mascot is the ibis. Folklore maintains that the native marsh bird is the last to take shelter before a hurricane hits and the first to emerge once the storm passes, making it an apt symbol of courage and resilience. Considering your ability to control your own motivation and behavior, how have past experiences helped build your courage and resilience to persist in the face of academic and life challenges so that, once these storms pass, you can emerge in continued pursuit of your goals?
University of Miami

It’s one thing to ask high school students to predict the future, as this one does by asking students not only to imagine challenges but also to imagine their responses. It’s another to make them wade — like an ibis — through a labored metaphor.

The University of San Diego is a proud Changemaker Campus, as designated by Ashoka U.…
University of San Diego

I’m perfectly fond of USD. I wish it had a little more self-confidence. What kind of college refers to another college’s estimation of it?

What does it mean to you to be educated? How might Georgetown College help you achieve this aim? (Applicants to the Sciences and Mathematics or the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics should address their chosen course of study).
Georgetown University

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience?
Carnegie Mellon University

The word ‘education’ can take on a variety of meanings. To some, receiving a high school or college diploma is the ultimate mark of being “educated,” while others take a different view. Looking past receiving a diploma, what does it mean to you personally to be “educated”? What standards will you put in place to define whether or not you’ve obtained a great education?
University of Southern California

Anyone who knows what it means to be educated, what constitutes a “great education”, or what the “process of learning” will be like, would not have to go to college.

These questions involve a bizarre, Eescher-esque time frame. They ask high school students to imagine not only a “process” that extends four years into the future but also to imagine the outcome of that process and then distinguish that outcome from whatever “goal” those high school students currently hold.

They could easily have asked a normal question like, “what do you want to study, why do you want to study it, and how will you go about it at our college?” and gotten far better responses.

Let’s give a shoutout to USC for truly special levels of awkwardness: the obvious introduction; the disembodied “some” and “others;” the useless acknowledgment of what people do and don’t care about. Most of all, the bizarrely bureaucratic notion of “putting in place standards” to measure something as-yet unknown to the applicant.

I’m pretty sure the “putting in place standards” is precisely, and exclusively, the college’s job. It is the college that determines students’ requirements, sets grading scales, and decides who graduates and who doesn’t. Those are standards. It’s the job of USC’s admissions office to identify applicants who can meet them.

Share a time when you were awestruck.
Emory University

Answers to this prompt would require a level of enthusiasm that disaffected Gen Xers such as myself would be constitutionally incapable of summoning. Even for today’s more ebullient youth, it’s a pretty heavy lift — especially kids who spent the better part of high school in lockdown. On Zoom. Wearing masks. Maybe they are awestruck at the ability of a virus to run rampant through the world’s most advanced society?

In truth, not everyone has been “awestruck” by age 18. Kids have varied life experiences. This prompt could have included a few more adjectives — impressed, confused, enraged, disgusted — and been more inclusive and less melodramatic.

…. In the words of Lehigh’s President, John Simon, ‘The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shaken our nation, and brought into harsh relief the life-threatening, systemic racial injustice that affects the lives of so many every day. Members of our community are angry and fearful, and we will support them…We need to make Lehigh University an actively anti-racist institution. By this, we mean actively speaking out and addressing acts of racism, racist comments, racist practices, policies and procedures.’ What would you want to be different in your own country or community to respond to issues of inequality, inequity, or injustice?
Lehigh University

Colleges are certainly entitled to share their values in their applications, and anti-racism is an admirable value. But co-opting a name and a tragedy that are completely unrelated to the university — and of which everyone is well aware — strikes me as manipulative and tone-deaf. The final sentence would be plenty.

Where are you on your journey of engaging with or fighting for social justice?
Tufts University

Even as a fan of ’70s power rock, I now recoil every time I hear the word “journey.” It has recently become the go-to euphemism, among college applicants and the general public alike, for aggrandizing even the most prosaic accomplishments: doing the laundry, studying for midterms, going out for lunch….you name it. Ulysses, Marco Polo, and Amelia Earhart might beg to differ. The use of “where,” in the absence of an actual location, makes the absurdity of this prompt that much richer.

“How are you engaging with or fighting for social justice?” would be just fine.

How will Pioneer’s rigorous system empower you to exceed your expectations of yourself?
Pioneer Research Program

Similar to Carnegie Mellon’s and USC’s prompts, this prompt does not merely ask students to share hopes and ambitions. It asks them to predict the future and to imagine something they have not yet experienced. It also implicitly requires applicants to disparage themselves. If applicants genuinely “expect” to learn some cool stuff and write killer research papers, how are those applicant supposed to respond? Should they express disingenuously modest goals but then say that only through the brilliance of Pioneer might they have the chance to write a decent research paper?

Conclusion
I know this blog is snarky. I welcome snarky comments in response. But, healthy criticism can be satisfying. Most importantly, I hope it is instructive for future applicants.

I do not recommend that applicants adopt either the tone or substance of this blog. But, whether they face elegant phrasing or mangled word salads, applicants should never dogmatically “answer the question.” They should interpret prompts, within reason, to serve their interests and to enable them to share ideas and experiences that they consider advantageous.

Sometimes, students have to be circumspect and maintain good humor, even at the colleges’ expense, along the way. They are entitled to find flaws in essay prompts and to acknowledge that even the most highly rejective, sought-after colleges are fallible too.

Image Credit: Suzy Hazelwood, via Flickr.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 and 2021 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all five other colleges of the Ivy League.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application essay guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.