Sadhvi Mathur 11 min read College Essays, Essay Tips

The 4 Main College Essay Prompts You Need to Know

When you start applying to colleges, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the different essay topics you have to write. Each college you apply to is likely to have anywhere from one to three supplementary prompts, and each one is going to be different. Or is it? 

 

We at CollegeVine have analyzed the vast majority of college essay prompts to help students receive the guidance they need to succeed in the college admissions process. We’ve noticed that most of the prompts that fall under one of the following archetypes: 

 

  • Academic Interests 
  • Culture, Values, and Diversity
  • Extracurricular Interests 
  • Impact on Community 

 

If you know what the different prompt archetypes are and craft a winning college essay for each one, you’ll find yourself being able to reuse your essays for various prompts, with some tweaks of course. Keep reading to learn all about these prompt archetypes, some examples of these archetypes in real college essay prompts, and a detailed walk-through of how you should approach your essays. 

 

Prompt Archetype 1: The Academic Interest Essay 

 

The Academic Interest essay prompt is the one where the Admissions Committee seeks to learn more about your intellectual passions, deciphering what areas of academia most fascinate you and why. You are also going to have to explain why you chose the intended major that you did.

 

Here are some examples of actual colleges that have used Academic Interest Prompts: 

 

  1. Bucknell University: Please explain your interest in your first-choice major/undecided status and your second-choice major, should you opt to list one. 

 

  1. Trevecca Nazarene University: Explain how you anticipate your education at Trevecca Nazarene University will prepare you for your future career and help you to fulfill your goals and aspirations.

 

When planning out this essay, you need to think hard about why you chose your intended major in the first place. Don’t list superficial reasons like money or prestige. Think of some specific things that you like about the major and your best experiences with the subject inside and outside of the classroom. Also think about how you would describe your feelings and your state of mind when you’re exploring this field of study. Why is it so appealing that you want to immerse yourself in it for four years? The more specific you can be, the better. 

 

Once you’ve thought about the things above, you’re ready to put together your essay. A good answer to an Academic Interest prompt will explain why you’re interested in the major, give specific examples both inside and outside the classroom of your positive experience with the subject, and reflect further on those experiences if you have the word count.

 

Once you have that general essay written, you can edit it to conform to the specific prompt you’re dealing with. For example, if the prompt asks you to explain why you want to study that major in that college specifically, you’ll need to add in some thematic elements of that university’s take on the major that you find interesting. You should also do some research and find a specific class or program that you are excited to be a part of, along with any related extracurriculars that the university offers that you find fascinating. 

 

If you’re an undecided major, this essay is definitely still within your reach. Even if you’re not sure what major you may want to study, you can discuss the kind of intellectual pursuits that are meaningful to you, and point to the reasons you want to take some time to explore many interests. 

 

Here’s an example of an effective essay with a maximum word count of only 150:

I grew up in a household where chatter of my father’s medical work was ubiquitous. When I showed interest in STEM as a child, I was bombarded by enthusiasm from my parents. During my senior summer, I participated in lab work through the Neurological Summer Program at the University of Washington. I found the time passing quickly; I was mesmerized by the brain. Every night I itched to get back to my research to analyze all my results, and I began to consider the interest in science to be mine alone. A concentration in cognitive neuroscience at Brown offers a window into cutting edge science through extraordinary programs like the Brown Institute for Brain Science and its summer research opportunities for undergraduates, while also allowing for a holistic, interdisciplinary, liberal arts education that is unparalleled.

The student briefly explains his background, what inspired his love of science, and why Brown is the best place for him to explore that interest. Academic Interest Essays should not only explore your interest in the subject, but also why the school in question would best help you achieve your academic goals. 

 

Since the word count was small, there’s less of an opportunity to bring readers to a specific moment, and to show us his thoughts and emotions in that moment. If your essay as a higher word count, you might consider zooming in on some important experiences with your academic interest, and showing us your passion through storytelling, rather than simply describing it.

 

Prompt Archetype 2: Culture, Values, and Diversity Prompts 

 

Many colleges give prompts that ask you to talk about your background, culture, and the communities that have shaped you. Sometimes, they will add in a special component to the prompt that asks you to discuss how you would bring diversity to the campus. 

 

Let’s make this description more concrete with some real examples of Culture, Values, and Diversity Prompts: 

 

  1. Rice University: The quality of Rice’s academic life and the Residential College System are heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What personal perspectives would you contribute to life at Rice? 

 

  1. University of Mount Union: What values do you cherish the most and how have you demonstrated them through the choices that you have made? 

 

When you’re trying to answer prompts like these, you need to first choose a specific community that you belong to, or a background that you have that has impacted your development. This could obviously be an ethnic, gender, or racial background, but it could also be a community based on experiences that are unique to you. For example, you could be in a community of people who grew up in a low income bracket or had a certain illness. As a general rule, you should pick a community or identity that is significant to you; if extracurricular-related, that identity should take up at least 3-4 of the 10 activities on your Common App list. 

 

Once you’ve narrowed down the part of your background that you are going to talk about, start asking yourself deeper questions about your experiences growing up in that community. What is the strongest emotion you feel about your background? Have your emotions about your background changed over time, or do you have any strong negative emotions towards your background? Have you developed any skills or talents as a result of your background? What challenges have you faced as a result of this community membership? Through these questions, you should be able to outline three formative experiences you had as a result of your upbringing. 

 

With these things in mind, you can start crafting your essay. A good essay in this category will discuss your current emotions about your background or membership in a community and how those emotions evolved over time. To support, you should try to weave in 2-3 anecdotes (more or fewer based on word count) throughout the essay and discuss the evolution of your emotions. 

 

Here’s an example of a student who grew up with a bipolar sister, and how that impacted his perspective:

Y=sin(x). This is how I conceptualize my older sister’s disorder: Bipolar 2. Similar to the function, she can have manic phases where her emotions lie above the x-axis and she is hyperactive and anxious. She can just as easily dip far below the x-axis where she becomes depressed and distant. 

 

This curve has existed, or at least has manifested itself, for the past six years. It takes every ounce of my compassion to watch my sister struggle, knowing I can do nothing to help her. I choose my words delicately around her, screening out comments that could trigger a swing. When we were kids, the disorder was more dormant and we had a typical sibling relationship. We bickered over which type of cereal to buy or which seat at the dinner table was ours. We shared secrets and jokes under the covers and hummed our favorite songs. Now we hardly exchange text messages over the course of months at a time. She has become completely withdrawn to the point that I don’t even know her anymore. 

 

I try to push aside my inherent desire to understand and categorize her volatility because I know that this is not what is needed. Instead, I do my best to love her and let her know that I will always be there as a pillar for her, and my parents, to rely on. I am stability, and that is how I must stay.

The author effectively uses the sine curve metaphor to illustrate the ups and downs his sister experiences, and that he and his family experience as a result. He shows us the evolution of their relationship by comparing his fond memories to his current lack of contact with his sister. Rather than try to analyze and judge his sister’s behavior, the author chooses to be as supportive as possible. He shows us through this essay that he can remain stable in volatile and emotional situations, and understands how to support those touched by mental health disorders. 

 

Prompt Archetype 3: Extracurricular Interest Prompts 

 

This prompt archetype is all about your extracurriculars, the activities you participated in outside of the classroom. You’ll have ample opportunity to discuss your extracurricular achievements in the resume portion of your college application, but these essay prompts ask you to go in much more detail about one specific activity that really stood out. 

 

Here are some actual college essay prompts that fit into this prompt archetype: 

 

  1. Davidson College: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. 

 

  1. Stanford: Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.

 

The activity you choose to write about should usually stand out to you rather quickly. Choose activities you’re most committed to, not those you think would look good on a resume. Choose the one that you’re most passionate about. Just try to avoid writing about the same activity twice; if you wrote about something already in your Common App essay, or another supplement the school will see, pick another activity.

 

Once you’ve chosen an activity, think about what the activity means to you, and how that may have changed over time. Further think about how you feel and what goes through your mind when you participate in this activity. Has this activity shaped your personality in any way? Have you developed any specific skills as a result of this activity? How does this activity affect the rest of your life? 

 

Now, when you’re writing your Extracurricular Interest essay, make sure that you are not simply listing your achievements in an activity. That’s what the activities section is for! Focus on one of two things: your emotions and state of mind while you do this extracurricular, or how that activity helped you develop as a person. Most of these prompts are shorter, so you will need to be very precise in your language and make sure you’re communicating a reflective tone that shows admissions committees your emotions and personality.

My school’s newspaper and I have a typical love-hate relationship; some days I want nothing more than to pass two hours writing and formatting articles, while on others the mere thought of student journalism makes me shiver. Still, as we’re entering our fourth year together, you could consider us relatively stable. We’ve learned to accept each other’s differences; at this point I’ve become comfortable spending an entire Friday night preparing for an upcoming issue, and I hardly even notice the snail-like speed of our computers. I’ve even benefited from the polygamous nature of our relationship—with twelve other editors, there’s a lot of cooperation involved. Perverse as it may be, from that teamwork I’ve both gained some of my closest friends and improved my organizational and time-management skills. And though leaving it in the hands of new editors next year will be difficult, I know our time together has only better prepared me for future relationships.

This author’s writing style is endearingly flippant, and the analogy comes full circle. The author shares her sense of humor, her passion for journalism, and her ability to work in a team and manage her time. This is an example of a strong and creative extracurricular interest essay that doesn’t dramatize the moment of the activity, which is a common trope. 

 

Prompt Archetype 4: Impact on Community Prompts 

 

Colleges love to see students who have given back to their community in some way. Such activities illuminate a student’s interests, passions, and skill set. So, it’s not surprising that some colleges like to have an entire essay prompt devoted to your impact on your community. 

 

Such prompts often look like the following: 

 

  1. Texas A&M University: Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution. 

 

  1. Barnard College: Barnard women seek to make a difference in their community, whether through the residence hall, classes, clubs, volunteer work, or a part-time job they hold. Describe how you make a difference in your community and what you have learned from that experience. In what ways do you see yourself contributing to the community at Barnard, inside or outside the classroom? 

 

Some students have more impactful community service stories than others. The best case scenario is if you have had a deep involvement in some sort of community service activity for years or have worked on a project of activism. If the answer is yes, treat this prompt more or less like an extracurricular essay topic and delve into that commitment. 

 

If the answer is no, no worries. Perhaps you can think of a situation or event where you showed true altruism, kindness, activism, social change, social justice, generosity, or selflessness. These can’t be too short, e.g. helping a lady cross the street. It also shouldn’t be too self-serving, like participating in Habitat for Humanity for a week. Genuine commitments tend to be long-standing and really reflect your values. 

 

If you can’t think of an activity that showed any of the above traits, you should focus on any experiences that made a social impact. For example, if you do data entry for medical research, that has a positive social impact, albeit indirect. 

 

Once you’ve picked your community service story, go into detail about what happened and what motivated you to participate in this endeavor. Be ready to discuss a positive outcome that came from your involvement in this activity; this can be as tangible as a policy goal or as intangible as providing comfort to people. 

My community’s work revolves around a single word: seva. It comes from the Punjabi language and means “selfless service.” It can take any form or shape, from holding the door to tutoring a child, so long as one does not expect any personal gain from it. Seva is what binds my community together, and it has molded me into the person I am today.

 

Every year, my community hosts Partnership Walk, a campaign spearheaded by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) that aims to alleviate global poverty. During this event, I work with the Youth Ambassadors organization to deliver presentations on AKF’s efforts in Africa and Asia. The Foundation assists the underprivileged in numerous ways, but social sustainability is the area that has always appealed to me the most. At the AKF, this field involves challenging perceptions and attitudes about sustainable initiatives in order to spark social action. Ever since my presentation on social sustainability, I knew that my seva will thrive in this field.

 

I was fortunate to intern for the University of North Texas Office of Sustainability, where I initiated my own project called Green in Grid Out. This project challenges students to remove their cell phones and laptops from the grid and subscribe to bike energy stations instead. I aim to change the way students perceive energy as a commodity rather than a resource to take for granted. In the future, I hope to give back to my community by devoting my seva to social sustainability.

This student ties together two different community efforts with the concept of seva. She effectively conveys her dedication to social sustainability in these three paragraphs, though the second paragraph reads a little vague. It leaves us with questions as to how exactly AFK works–to whom is she giving presentations? What sort of initiatives does AFK lead? This paragraph and overall essay would’ve been much stronger had she been more specific, and focused more on her role; the part she plays is really mentioned only in passing. 

 

The final paragraph is much clearer, and explains the exact project and mission. This is the kind of specificity that would’ve strengthened the second paragraph and overall essay.

 

Final Thoughts

 

We at CollegeVine hope that these archetypes can help you organize and understand the essay prompts that are likely coming your way. If you’re applying via the Common Application, you’ll also need to write a Common App essay. The Common App’s broad, personal prompts might seem daunting, but CollegeVine’s essay experts have compiled an extensive and comprehensive post to walk you through the optimal strategy to approach these essays.

Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!