The Colorful New World of College Application Essay Prompts

But What Does It Really Mean?


University of Chicago: “Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”

Brandeis University: “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?”

University of Virginia: Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about.

Johns Hopkins University: “Using a piece of wire, a Hopkins car window sticker, an egg carton, and any inexpensive hardware store item, create something that would solve a problem. Tell us about your creation, but don’t worry; we won’t require proof that it works!”

Santa Clara University:  “Tell us about the most embarrassing moment of your life.”

University of Pennsylvania:
You have just finished your three hundred page autobiography. Please submit page 217.

University of Notre Dame:
You have 150 words. Take a risk.


A distinct pattern is emerging from the new college application prompts trickling out so far this year, and in recent years. Many have taken a promising turn toward the absurd, silly and provocative. What I see, however, are creative writing prompts. These are the exact type of questions English teachers would ask students to practice and sharpen their writing chops.

The trouble is no one teaches creative writing to our kids anymore. It went out of vogue when everyone started panicking over grades and test scores.

Provocative prompts are good news for students, and the college admissions officers who read their essays by the armload. But I see a disconnect in our education system: While colleges seem to be imploring students to display their creativity in these essays, high schools aren’t teaching them how to do it.

In fact, English classes (at least the ones I’ve seen in California) focus on the opposite of creative expression, a trend called “teaching to the test.” This means teachers are pressured to teach students only what they need to know in order to score high on AP and SAT/ACT tests. (Of course, some inspired teachers squeeze in some creative writing instruction–but they are the exception.)

At the same time, college application essays are often a deciding factor in choosing among all the students who have near-perfect qualifications, including test scores. The provocative prompts trend tells me that colleges want students to use these essays to stand out among the competition. But no one has taught them how to convey their individuality through writing.

My two children both went through an affluent public school system, and after they hit high school I don’t remember  a single English assignment that involved creative writing. Instead, they spent weeks and months memorizing vocabulary words for the SAT tests, and hours upon hours writing stiff, formal academic essays on onerous works like Paradise Lost and Candide in the pedantic style that pleased their teachers. There’s nothing wrong with learning to write scholarly essays, and reading classic literature, but the balance is off when you don’t develop your own writing skill set.

Almost all of the students I have worked with on these essays over the last six years–whether they are from prep schools on the East Coast or public schools in California–have no clue how to write a narrative essay (in a storytelling, fiction-like style). 

So when they are told to tell about themselves in 500 words or less, and that this piece of writing could help decide their future, I understand why many of them are petrified, stressed out and even resort to buying or plagiarizing essays. Or, almost as bad, they write generic, boring essays.

The saddest part of this to me is that high school students are still so receptive to wanting to express themselves. Once you give them permission to be creative and the tools to do it, most are eager, even excited, to get started. I believe they should be taught creative writing so they can use the mechanics of English to express their ideas, feelings and dreams.

These college application essays are almost universally dreaded. I think we could change that if teachers, parents and schools embraced them as a platform to teach creative writing.

If these essays were more fun to write–and to read–wouldn’t everyone be happier?

New Guide for Writing Creative Essays

I have written a guide that is intended to help students learn how to write a narrative essay using creative writing techniques, called Escape Essay Hell!  I’m happy to send any teacher, counselor or librarian who works for a public school a free copy of my ebook guide, as well as any college counselors who work with low-income students who don’t have access to writing assistance. Just email me at

Read more about the trend toward provocative college application essay prompts:

Heres’s a related post on about why English Teachers Don’t Always Get It Write.