How to Help Students Respond to Any Essay Prompt

Many schools ask a variation on the question, “Why us?” This prompt can be one of the most challenging for students (and for counselors trying to help them). The questions often look like these, from current and past years’ applications:

Northwestern University: What are the unique qualities of Northwestern — and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying — that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?

Tufts: Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, Why Tufts?

New York University: We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and, more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study. If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand — Why NYU?

Cornell University College of Engineering: Tell us about an engineering idea you have, or about your interest in engineering. Describe how your ideas and interests may be realized by — and linked to — specific resources within the College of Engineering. Finally, explain what a Cornell Engineering education will enable you to accomplish.

Macalester College: What factors have led you to consider Macalester College? Why do you believe it may be a good match, and what do you believe you can add to the Mac community, academically and personally?

In every case, the answer needs to address three important areas:

  1. The School: What attracts me to this college or program?
  2. The Student: What do I want readers to know about me?
  3. The Stories: How does what I know about the program mesh with what I want readers to know about me? How can I illustrate this intersection?

Many students know very little about what a school offers academically, socially or culturally. Sometimes students choose a college because of its location or status. If you want to help your students with this prompt, make it clear that this is not what admission officers want to know in a Why College X essay. Admission teams need to know the student will be comfortable in the big city, but they ask the question to find out why the student is interested in the school, a particular college there or a specific academic program. Does this student have the chops to succeed academically? Are there any clubs or activities to support their outside interests? Why do these factors matter to this applicant?

Each year, we meet many young people who insist that a school is perfect because the student bleeds the university’s colors, feels at home inside the football stadium, and loves listening to stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table from Dad, Aunt Lisa and cousin Diana, all enthusiastic and accomplished alumni. Colleges want students to be comfortable for many reasons, but this type of answer is never sufficient. It does not answer the prompt.

Activity Essays

Generally speaking, colleges like to know more about a student than the sentence or two that students include on the activities section of an application or resume. When asked, “Which activity would you continue in college?” or “Tell us about one significant activity,” students need to expand upon the activity by explaining what they like about it, what they find engaging about the activity, and why this matters.

As with all essay opportunities, make sure students know why they are sharing a particular story. If a student writes about tennis because she won six championships, that information is likely already in the application. If she writes about how hard she worked to get along with her new doubles partner, and as a result has become a better team player, that’s something readers wouldn’t already know. One of our students wrote an activity essay about learning the value of hard work when he cleaned out a Dumpster as part of his job in the kitchen of the overnight camp he had attended for many years. His colorful description of the activity, along with what he learned, showed how hard he worked under the worst of circumstances. His essay revealed insight. That’s why it worked.

Influential Person Essays

The prompts on college applications are not always as straightforward as they appear. Consider the “influential person” essay prompt, which might look like this: Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Colleges do not want to read stories about Aunt Rose, a beloved first-grade teacher or the student’s great-grandfather who invented the crinkle potato chip. Instead, the applicant needs to write about how this special person helped shaped them, what they gained from the relationship, and why it matters to them now.

It is admirable if Aunt Rose saved five children from a burning house or won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But what does that have to do with the writer? Were they one of the kids she saved? Did they become a volunteer firefighter because of this experience? If not, let Aunt Rose apply for college on her own. She might even earn a scholarship for her heroic acts.

Issue Essays

Even if a college asks students to discuss an issue (racism, poverty, domestic violence, world hunger, gun control) that is relevant to them, admission officers still want students to reflect on that issue. Consider the “issue essay” prompt, which might look like this: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Is the writer passionate about the environment? Do they follow politics like a veteran pundit? Is the applicant a vegetarian or an advocate for the elderly? These are admirable issues, but unless the writer can explain what they have done as a result of this great concern, this essay won’t shine. Why did she become a vegetarian? How has it affected daily life? What insight has this student gained while teaching their parents to cook tofu? Answers to questions like these demonstrate reflection.

Creative Essays

Students generally either love or hate creative essays. Here are three sample prompts from the University of Chicago, the leader of the creative, provocative prompt:

  • Where’s Waldo, really?
  • What’s so odd about odd numbers? 
  • If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk?

In addition to a personal statement, UChicago asks students to write several supplemental essays, including one that demonstrates their compatibility with the school. People who attend UChicago like questions like this. If a student can’t bear the question, UChicago is probably not a good fit.

The idea is to have some fun with this essay. “Write it any way you want,” the school tells students. “We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.”

Other schools offer creative prompts as well. These samples come from current and past application seasons.

ApplyTexas: You’ve got a ticket in hand — Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

University of Pennsylvania: You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.

Bucknell University: Pick a movie or novel where the protagonist makes a difficult choice. Do you agree or disagree with the decision he or she made?

Hampshire College: Create two questions that drive you.

Lehigh University: You’ve just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about?

Just like personal statements, supplemental essays offer a chance for students to round out the application package. Help them make the most of this opportunity.

Our Gift to You: Free Counselor Book

This is an excerpt from Chapter 2 (Understanding the Prompts) of our book, How to Write an Effective College Application Essay, the Inside Scoop for Counselors. Get your free copy here.

How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me


Kim Lifton, named one of 10 LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, 2018 , is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. Click the Wow Method to find out how we help students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. We also help business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials.  If it involves words, Wow can help.