As a college consultant, I have become intimately familiar with numerous supplemental college essay questions. While many prompts seem doomed to elicit responses that are conventional clichés, others are bound to spark creativity, and hopefully evoke genuine self-discovery, for the motivated applicant.
In no special order, here are ten of my “faves”, with musings about how I might try to respond to these thought-provoking questions:
1. Imagine that you have the opportunity to travel back through time. At what point in history would you like to stop and why?(Swarthmore College) How fun is this? It’s like Peabody & Sherman’s WABAC Machine! I want to apply to Swarthmore myself, just to write this essay. Would I wish to be among the crowd on the Via Dolorosa that fateful Friday afternoon, two millennia ago? Stand as a spectator on the Tower Green as Anne Boleyn forgives her executioner, the swordsman from France? Be aboard the ill-fated Titantic that freezing night in April, deciding whether to step into a lifeboat or remain on deck with my husband? In my family, filled with history buffs, this essay prompt could be an exciting after-dinner game.
2. Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University)
My choice would have to be David O. Selnick’s epic film that brought to life Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. I have always admired survivors of civilizations that were totally disassembled and reconstructed in a new way, such as my parents and in-laws living through the Great Depression. I occasionally wonder how I would fare if today’s way of life was suddenly forever changed. Further, Mitchell’s insightfully crafted immortal characters are archetypes that offer wisdom into the human condition; they have become lifelong tools for analyzing my own motivations and the roles others play in my life.
3. If you were to describe yourself by a quotation, what would the quote be? Explain your answer.(Dartmouth College) As a fantatical “quotaphile,” I would find this choice overwhelmingly difficult. It would be tough to select from the wise and witty sayings of Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, or Wilde. But since the quotation has to describe oneself, as a lover of the mysteries of the psyche, I would probably choose Carl Jung‘s observation: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
4. If you could go back and change one day in your life, what would you change and why?(Santa Clara University) This prompt brings to mind the intrguing award-winning movie, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which explores the concept of whether we make our fate by specific actions, or whether there is a destiny dynamic at work that prevails despite our actions. In my 56 years on the planet, I have come to subscribe to the latter view, so it would be difficult for me to answer this question. I would probably choose to discuss my ideas about free will, random events, serendipity and destiny.
5. If you had a day to spend as you wish, how would you use your time?(Carleton College) Wow. An applicant’s answer to this question would be truly revealing. I remember watching a Twilight Zoneepisode as a kid (“Time Enough at Last”), in which a bookworm is the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalpyse, finally having time enough to pursue his passion: reading (and of course, in Rod Serling‘s nightmare world, his Coke bottle thick spectacles break on the steps of the library). I would spend my “day” similarly (without the broken glasses!), either reading or writing, and I guess that reveals quite a bit about me. How your student would describe his or her perfect day would reveal much as well.
6. If you were to develop a Mt. Rushmore representing the 20th century, whose faces would you select and why?(College of William and Mary) This question reveals one’s philosophy of life, ideas on leadership and heroism, value system, and perhaps, one’s politics. Not to mention a knowledge of American history. For me, the four heroic leaders, Democrat and Republican, black and white, would be:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose bold brilliance as the architect of D-Day turned the tide of the war against Hitler; President John F. Kennedy, whose leadership during the Cuban missile crisis may have saved the world; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement ushered in a great step forward for racial equality in our nation; and President Ronald Reagan,whose assertion of his passionate beliefs in American exceptionalism, personal liberty and limited government led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and decades of U.S. economic prosperity and innovation. Whom would you choose?
7. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come? (Yale University) A dear and wise old friend, whom I greatly respect, met many of my long time friends at my fiftieth birthday party a few years ago. After the soirée, she observed, “All your friends that I met told a story of how you had helped them with something, like the courage to start a new business, or the strength to get through a personal tragedy.” Thank God. This meant more to me than any compliment on raw talent or professional accomplishment, because it affirmed my own values about helping others to find their way. If I can accomplish this goal, I will feel that my life has been a success.
8. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why?(Lehigh University) Several years ago, one of my clients answered this prompt by calling her institution “Altruism University,” requiring that all students learn about compassion and engage in community service. This exceptional young woman was of Indian descent and was a fervent adherent of Jainism, the non-violent, altruistic religion of Mohandas Gandhi. Her essay revealed much about her inspiring value system. What admissions officer wouldn’t want a student like this in the campus community?
9. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis. What does this quote mean to you?(University of Chicago) I believe this question is about uniqueness. A student’s contribution to the world is not about doing something no one else has ever done before; it is about doing what perhaps many people have done, but in one’s own special way.
10. Why did you do it?(Tufts University) Tufts always takes the prize for the most amazing, thought-provoking questions. How would you answer that?
My rule of thumb for “fave-ing” a college essay prompt is: would I myself be eager to roll up my sleeves and answer that question? Would it really make me think, look within myself, and respond from the heart? Or would I simply roll my eyes and start typing a perfunctory response, immediately knowing what the “right” answer is to a simplistic, stereotypic question?
Your teen may not be interested in applying to schools that happen to write the most provocative essay questions. But it might be a thought-provoking exercise to kick around some of these questions on a long family drive, to stimulate reflection for your high school student (and everyone else in the family). Future essay writing may be easy after taking on these challenging questions!
If you have come across a provocative essay prompt you would like to share, please feel free to comment.
On November 5, 2011 / 12th Grade, College Admissions, College Essays
Notes on Journal Prompts
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Based on the assumption that an academic year, in most cases, consists of 180 days divided into 4 quarters, I have grouped these prompts accordingly. You, of course, may choose to use any of these at whatever time you like.
There are eight graphics on this page to serve as general visual bookmarks. Additionally, please consider using the following text links to jump to specific points on this page:
Go to 1st Quarter Prompts
Go to 2nd Quarter Prompts
Go to 3rd Quarter Prompts
Go to 4th Quarter Prompts
1st Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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What follows below is a simple listing of prompts.
If you'd like to make these really POP (and save yourself some effort at the same time), you may be interested in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 1, which contains prompts 1-20 listed below.
1. Write about going back to school after summer vacation.
journal writing prompts
2. Write a thank you note to a friend who gave you onion and garlic-flavored chewing gum.
journal writing prompts
3. Draw an imaginary constellation. Write a story such as ancient people might have told about it.
4. Describe a real made-up dream or nightmare.
journal writing prompts
5. Write about your favorite childhood toy. journal writing prompts
6. Write out the best or the worst day of your life.
7. Finish this thought: if I could change one thing about myself (if you can't think of anything, you might want to consider telling how you got to be perfect!)
8. If and when I raise children, I'll never...
9. I have never been more frightened than when...
10. Persuade a friend to give up drugs.
11. Five years from now, I will be...
12. Write about a day you'd like to forget.
13. Invent and describe a new food.
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14. Describe an event that changed your life forever, or make up and describe an event that would change your life forever.
15. Describe someone who is a hero to you and explain why.
16. Write about a time in your life when you struggled with a choice and made the right one.
17. Imagine yourself in a different century and describe an average day in your life.
18. Which character from a book would you most like to meet and why?
19. Three goals I have set for myself are...
20. What would you do if 300 mice had just gotten out of their cages in a pet shop where you worked?Just like the above 20 prompts, prompts 21-40 listed below have not been "dressed up" much.
To see them in their finest clothing, you may want to download Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 2.
21. What would you do if you were locked inside your favorite department store overnight?
22. What would you do if you woke up one morning to find yourself invisible?
23. What would you do if you were able to communicate with animals?
24. What would you do if you could travel into the future?
25. What would you do if you could travel into the past?
26. What would you do if someone just gave you $1 million?
27. What would you do it all the electricity in the world just stopped?
28. What would you do if you could travel free anyplace in the world?
29. What would you do if the dinner served to you in a fancy restaurant came with a fly in the mashed potatoes?
30. Write a list of at least 50 things that make you feel good.
31. Describe the perfect day. Put in as many details as you can. Make it a possible day, not a "dream day."
32. Who is the person from history that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
33. Who is the person from literature that you would most like to meet and talk to? Why? What would you like to ask?
34. Compile a list of words that describe you as a child. Compile a second list that describes you as you are now. How are these lists the same? How are they different?
35. Compile a list of inanimate or animate objects to which you might compare yourself metaphorically. (I am a windmill. I change direction or my thoughts whenever someone talks to me...)
36. Tell about what triggers anger in you or someone else.
37. Invent a monster and describe it. Tell where it lives, what it eats, and what it does.
38. What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?
39. What is the best book you have ever read? Why did you like it? Did reading the book change you in any way? What way?
40. Write about what you didn't do this weekend.Prompts 41-60 (listed below) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 3.
Just display the prompt of the day via your digital projector, SMART Board, or classroom TV and take a break from your whiteboard for awhile!
41. Think about an incident that happened to you and exaggerate in the telling. Make it into a tall tale.
42. If you were ruler of the world, what things would you banish absolutely for all time (rain on weekends, eggplant, and so forth)? Make a list. Use your imagination.
43. If you could go back in time anywhere and "anywhen," where/when would you go and why?
44. What law would you like to see enacted which would help people? How would it help?
45. What commercial on TV do you dislike beyond all others? What about it is particularly annoying to you?2nd Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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46. Design some gadget, machine, building, or other creation that might enrich the future. What does it look like? What does it do? How does it function? In what ways might it benefit people?journal writing prompts
47. What current fashion in clothing do you particularly like or dislike? Explain. journal writing prompts
48. Convince someone why music or art or computers are important in your life. Make them appreciate your viewpoint.
49. If you had $100,000, how would you spend it?
50. Be a building you know well. Talk about your life and memories.
51. You are to tell a person from a distant planet or from another era what pollution is. Make that person understand what causes it and why it is bad.
52. If you could do something that you never have done before, what would it be? Why would you want to do it?
53. Begin a list of questions that you'd like to have answered. They may be about the future or the past.
54. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment to date and why?
55. Write one characteristic or habit about yourself that you like and describe it. Or write about one thing you don't like about yourself.
56. What is your hobby? Why do you enjoy it?
57. If you could go somewhere where you've never gone before, where would you go and why?
58. What's, if anything, would you be willing to fight or even die for? Explain your answer.
59. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Why would you make this change?
60. Is there a machine you feel you could not live without? Explain.The following prompts (61-80) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 4.
Just like all of the volumes in the Journal Jumpstarts series, Volume 4 features 21 high-quality animations that add “punch” to the prompts.
Use these animations in your own Powerpoints wherever you choose to do so.
61. Write about what you think you will be like and what you will be doing 10 years or 20 years from now.
62. Did you ever stick up for someone?
63. Describe your neighborhood bully.
64. Write about a baby-sitting experience.
65. Describe a great fort you built for a great game you played as a child.
66. Write about an enemy who eventually became your friend.
67. Write about a time you cheated and got caught.
68. Write about a privilege you earned.
69. Write about the stray animal you brought home.
70. Did you ever send away for something that turned out to be a disappointment? (Or order something over the Internet)
71. What is it like to go shopping with your mother?
72. Write about a time you performed in front of an audience.
73. Write about a difficult decision you had to make.
74. Write about learning to skate, to ride a bike, to climb a tree, or to turn a cart wheel.
75. Did you ever get lost in a strange town?
76. Were you ever locked in or out? What did you do?
77. What was it like to spend your first night away from home?
78. What was it like to come back home after a long vacation?
79. Write about a disappointment.
80. Write about something minor that turned into a big deal.The following prompts (81-100) are included in Journal Jumpstarts, Volume 5.
All of the prompts in the Journal Jumpstarts series are titled and listed in a clickable table of contents, making it easier to determine where to resume.
81. Did you ever win or lose a contest? Tell the story about what happened.
82. Write about something you desperately wanted when you were younger.
83. Did you ever know someone who had "everything"?
84. Write about the time as a child you played in one of the following: treehouse, a cornfield, a construction site, a junkyard, an abandoned house or barn, a stream, a cemetery, a swamp, a pasture, railroad tracks.
85. Did your mom or dad ever make you wear something you hated?
86. Write about a time you were talked into something and you regretted it.
87. Were you ever in a helicopter, limousine, racecar, hot-air balloon, submarine, or horse-drawn carriage?
88. Did you ever forget something really important? What happened as a result?
89. Write about an experience in a hospital.
90. Were you ever accused of something that you didn't do?3rd Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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91. Write about a disastrous trip or vacation.
92. Were you ever given a responsibility that you couldn't handle? journal writing prompts
93. Were you ever in a fire, flood, tornado, or hurricane?
94. Describe the best concert you ever attended.
95. Write about a window you broke or something valuable you lost.
96. Did you ever catch fireflies? Crickets? Frogs? Snakes?
97. Write about a time you tried to help and ended up making things worse.
98. Did you ever break an important promise?
99. Write about moving to another city or neighborhood.
100. Describe an outdoor game you used to play in the summer time.
101. Write about building sand castles or mud pies.
102. Did you ever meet a famous person?
103. Write about mowing the lawn, burning leaves, or weeding the garden.
104. Describe the club you organized as a kid.
105. Describe a car or bicycle accident you were in.
106. Write about being a misfit.
107. Write about a day spent in another country.
108. Write about a time you out-smarted someone.
109. Write about going shopping for new clothes.
110. Did you ever turn someone in or tell on someone and feel bad about it later?
111. Imagine that you are an animal in the zoo. What type of animal are you? How do you feel about being caged? How do you feel about people that visit and watch you?
112. Write about a time your parents embarrassed you.
113. Describe learning something from a friend.
114. Write about a time you gave someone good advice.
115. Write about the funniest thing that ever happened to you.
116. If you had to escort a visitor from outer space for a 30-minute tour of your community, where would you begin and end?
117. Be a grape that becomes a raisin: describe how it feels to shrink, to shrivel, to become dry and wrinkled.
118. Be an icicle that becomes water. Describe how it feels to be cold and firm and full of beautiful crystals but only to melt and lose your shape.
119. You go to the store with your parents and baby brother. Your parents go into a store and tell you to watch your brother. You take your eyes off your brother for just a minute and you can't find him. You...
120. I really hate it when my mother/father/sibling...
121. What if the use of robots in school becomes a workable reality?
122. What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?
123. You have just met an alien from another planet. He wishes to take a student back to his planet. Convince him you would be the perfect specimen for him to take.
124. If you could change one law, what law would it be and how would you change it?
125. How forgiving are you when a friend lets you down? Explain. Give an example.
126. What if you were named principal for the week? What would you do?
127. If you could only speak twenty words for the rest of your life, what words would head your list and why?
128. It started out as an unusual Monday morning, when I...
129. As I approached the deserted house at the end of the road, I saw...
130. Do you think girls are raised differently from boys? If so, in what ways?
131. Do you think you are treated differently because you are a boy or girl?
132. Do you think men and women are equal in today's society? Why or why not?
133. Do you think a woman will be President of the United States in the near future?
134. Two men or women have it easier in our culture? If so, why do you think so?
135. Have you ever wished you were either older or younger? What would you consider to be the benefits? The problems?4th Quarter Journal Writing Prompts
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136. Describe what you think of as the typical mother.
journal writing prompts
137. Describe what you think of as the typical father.
journal writing prompts
138. Do you think women should take men's last names when they marry? Why or why not?
journal writing prompts
139. Would you rather have a brother or sister? Why?
140. Describe a fight you had with your mother. Now tell it from her point of view. journal writing prompts
141. Write a short biography of your mother.
142. Write a short biography of your father.
143. Visualize a time when your mother was laughing. Recall a time when you two shared a good laugh over something.
144. Write a physical description of your mother. Write as if you were looking at a movie rather than a photograph.
145. Concentrate on a particular habit that your mother has and write about it.
146. If you had three wishes, what would they be? (Do not ask for three more wishes)
147. What is something special and/or different about you? Why do you think it is special or different?
148. Write about two things that your family has taught you.
149. Write about some of the things that you worry about.
150. Describe a happy memory of your family.
151. How do you know someone loves you, even if he or she doesn't say it?
152. Name one thing you like about yourself and why you like it.
153. Imagine yourself as a teacher. What type of student would you like to teach and why?
154. Name and describe a teacher who made a difference in your life. What did that teacher do that was so special?
155. What makes you proud to be an American?
156. Describe the one thing that gives you the most comfort.
157. If you could be a character in any book, TV show, or movie, who would you be and why?
158. If you had to work in any store at your favorite mall, which store would it be and why?
159. Describe the most difficult thing about being your age.160. Describe one possession that means the most to you.
161. Who is the most important role model in your life?
162. Describe your best personality trait.
163. If you could study one subject in school that wasn't offered, what would it be and why?
164. If you had a chance to live anywhere you could, where would it be and why?
165. Write about the pros/cons of year-round school or a four-day school week.
166. Write about your favorite sport.
167. Is the school year too long? Too short? Why?
168. What does your summer usually consist of?
169. Who should be paid more, professional athletes or teachers? Why or why not?
170. What class do you enjoy the most and why?
171. Write about the worst fight you ever had with a friend.
172. If you had only one month to live, what would you do?
173. Describe your dream house.
174. Who is your favorite person to be with? Why?
175. What would be your ideal job when you grow up? Explain.
176. If you could guest star on any TV show, what would it be and why?
177. What do you think your life will be like in 10 years? 20 years?
178. Describe how you would manage your own radio or TV station.
179. What is your definition of success?
180. The saying goes, "Money cannot buy happiness." Do you agree or disagree? Why? journal writing prompts
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