Persuasive Prompts in Essay Writing

Argumentation (persuasion) and exposition are the most common modes of writing asked for in timed writing tests. In this essay, we’ll
explore the conventions of persuasion. Here is a sample persuasive prompt:

Recent funding cuts have been made to the school district. To cope with the problem, your school board has plans to eliminate all sports and music programs. Some members of the community have questioned the board’s controversial proposal. Write a letter to the editor arguing your point of view on the proposal. Be sure to support your position with reasons, examples, facts, and/or other evidence. Readers should feel convinced to take your position seriously.

Close examination of the language of this prompt reveals several key terms. Words like controversial, support, and convinced all suggest the need to make an argument, to persuade readers. You are left with the choice of whether to support or oppose the proposal, but regardless of your choice, you will need to provide support for your claims, as the directive to provide “reasons, examples, facts, and/or other evidence” suggests.

After you have worked through the PAQs, brainstormed some possible approaches to a prompt, and written a draft, you’ll have a new strategy for taking ownership of prompts by transforming them into topics you can write about. One of the challenges of writing in response to any prompt is figuring out how to transform it into something you can write about, or how to “own” it.

Taking ownership of an assignment, whether one given in class or included in a writing test, is an essential skill for writers. In the process of making an assignment your own, you also choose a focus for the essay, identify an audience, and take a step toward establishing tone. Exercises like the ones we’ve given you should help demystify prompts and help you see them as opportunities to take ownership of your writing.

A Longer Persuasive Prompt

We’ve dealt with a persuasive prompt that gave you little information; now let’s look at one that includes much more information. The challenge here is to use the instructions in a productive way, without getting bogged down in reading the prompt.

Change is generally considered either an improvement or a change for the worse. Most people resist changes because they feel the old ways are working, so changes are not necessary.

Write a persuasive paper presenting one change you feel is needed. Discuss a change that relates to your school, your community, the state, or the world. Include examples and evidence to support why the change is needed. You should:

  1. Take a few minutes to plan your paper by making notes.
  2. Choose one change you think is needed.
  3. Give specific reasons that explain why this change is needed.
  4. Organize your ideas carefully.
  5. Check that you have correct sentences, punctuation, and spelling.

Before turning to the PAQs, let’s look at what’s different about this prompt and what we can learn from it. This prompt suggests the importance of prewriting in test situations, and we agree that taking time for planning your essay, even under tight time constraints, is important.

Directions two through five can be read in two ways: as an outline of the approach you should take in responding to this prompt and as an outline for a reader’s assessment of your response. That is, the grader is probably looking for one change, specific reasons for the change, and clear and careful organization. Number five, with its explicit reference to sentences, punctuation, and spelling, suggests the need to pay close attention to the conventions of written English. It also suggests the importance of sentence structure.

Now, here is how we might answer the PAQs for the above prompt:

  1. What is the central claim/topic called for?
    One is a key word in the prompt. I should make a claim for only one change and not introduce several. Because I can write about my school, community, state, or world, I have many choices for a topic, and it may be difficult to figure out where to focus.
  2. Who is the intended audience?
    Although no audience is specified, I think it makes sense to address an audience related to the area where I focus my topic—the principal of the school, the mayor of the community, the governor of the state, and so on.
  3. What is the purpose/mode for this writing task?
    Because my purpose is to argue for one change, I’ll be making an argument, but I would probably use narrative or description to lay out the situation I want to change.
  4. What strategies will be most effective?
    Comparison and contrast might be useful if I try to explain the difference my change will make. Of course, I’ll need examples, and definition may also be necessary.
  5. What is my role in achieving the purpose?
    Because I’ll be proposing a change and people don’t always like change, I’ll need to take on the role of expert, and a persuasive one at that.
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Analyzing Prompts in Essay Writing

If timed essays are like track races, then prompts are like event names—the 100-yard dash, the 440 relay, the long jump. Unlike the track star who approaches the starting line with a strategy in mind for the race in which he or she is competing, when you sit down at the start of a timed writing test, you don’t even know the prompt. You have to show up at the “starting line” prepared to perform a variety of writing tasks— the expository essay, the persuasive essay, the compare and contrast, and so on.

To help you prepare, let us give you a quick definition of a prompt before we go any further. A prompt is “something said or suggested to incite to action, or to help the memory.” In this essay, we’ll give you the strategies to contend confidently with the challenges presented by prompts.

Our back story starts in 1866 when Alexander Bain, a Scottish rhetorician, wrote English Composition and Rhetoric, which described what we know today as the four modes—exposition, description, narration, and argument (a handy acronym for remembering them is EDNA). You may have been asked to write one or more of these types of essays in your English class.

  • Exposition: written to inform the audience
  • Description: written to describe something
  • Narration: written to tell a story
  • Argumentation: written to persuade the audience to the position promoted

Why is it useful to know these terms? Well, many writing-on-demand prompts refer to the modes, and you will be more comfortable responding to those prompts if you know what conventions the mode calls for. To help you analyze or take apart prompts, we’ll use our secret weapon: the Prompt Analysis Questions—or, as we like to call them, the PAQs.

Five PAQs

The PAQs help you become a close reader of prompts, which will help you avoid the rookie mistake that Sid mentions at the beginning of this chapter. Of course, prompts vary radically in the types and amount of information they provide about the kind of writing expected, so it may not be possible to answer every question for each prompt or assignment. However, learning to ask and answer a series
of questions about the claim/topic, audience, purpose/mode, strategies, and role helps you figure out what is required and generate ideas for meeting that requirement.

With that in mind, we offer the PAQs below to help you unlock the secrets of any prompt. Each of the five questions can be amplified by additional questions. These questions recur throughout this chapter and the rest of the book because we have found them particularly useful for understanding prompts and assignments.

  1. What is the central claim/topic called for? Do I have choices to make with regard to this claim/topic? Will I need to focus the claim/topic in order to write a good essay? What arguments can I make for this claim? What do I know about this topic?
  2. Who is the intended audience? If named specifically, what do I know about this particular audience? If the audience is implied or not identified, what can I infer about it or them? In either event, how might the expectations of this audience affect my choices as a writer?
  3. What is the purpose/mode for the writing task? Is the purpose stated or must it be inferred? What is this writing supposed to accomplish (besides fulfilling the demands of the prompt/assignment)? What does the goal of this writing suggest about the mode (narration, exposition, description, argument) or combination of modes that I should consider in responding?
  4. What strategies will be most effective? What does the purpose/mode suggest about possible strategies? Of the strategies I am comfortable using—like examples, definitions, analysis, classification, cause/effect, compare/contrast—which will be most effective here? Are there any strategies—such as number of examples or type of support—that are specified as required?
  5. What is my role as a writer in achieving the purpose? Have I been assigned a specific role like applicant or representative? If I have not been assigned a specific role, what does the prompt or assignment tell me about the level of expertise I should demonstrate, the stance I should assume, or the approach I should take?

You might have some questions about some of the terms in our questions. If so, you may find these definitions useful:

  • Claim: Often confused with topic, claim is what an argument rests on. Some prompts specify a particular topic on which the claim needs to be based. Here is an example of the difference between topic and claim:
    • Topic: The role of experience in learning.
    • Claim: One can learn in many ways, but the most effective is through direct experience.
  • Purpose and Mode. The purpose designated by the prompt—to explain, to describe, to argue, and so on—will usually dictate the mode of writing to be used. The modes frequently blur into one another because it’s very difficult to write an explanation without some description or argue without explanation.
  • Rhetorical strategies: Techniques for writing well and/or organizing your ideas so that the reader can understand your point. Some examples are compare/contrast, cause/effect, example, definition, and so on.
  • Stance: The different positions writers take in relation to their audience and topic.
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How to Write Essays That Define

The instruction in this essay helps students move beyond the scaffolds and apply the procedures they have learned to create their own extended definition of a concept.

Stage 1: Building Interest and Engagement

It is important to pique students’ interest when you ask them to write an extended definition essay on their own. Begin by helping students identify a concept they are interested in defining.

Start by introducing a situation currently in the news or evident in your school that suggests the need for an extended definition. For example, recently there was a controversy in a Chicago-area high school about whether a student could wear a T-shirt with an antigay message (“Be Happy, Not Gay”). The student in question argued that not allowing her to wear the shirt infringed on her right to free speech. School officials disagreed, arguing that students do not have the right to wear something to school that potentially would negatively affect the learning environment.

In order to discuss this situation, your students need an extended definition of the concept of freedom of speech, especially within a school setting. To help them develop one, ask questions such as:

  • What is freedom of speech?
  • What is and is not allowed in school?
  • What criteria should be used to determine what is and is not allowed?
  • School attendance is required. Students can turn off a television or radio program if they are offended by it, but they can’t stay home from school. What effect does this situation have on freedom of speech?

Ask the class to brainstorm other situations and concepts that might have potential as the topic of an essay to define. Add your own ideas, especially if students are struggling. Possibilities include:

  • friendship
  • maturity
  • leadership
  • loyalty (or misguided or misplaced loyalty)
  • integrity
  • patriotism
  • responsibility
  • terrorism
  • progress
  • cruelty to animals
  • success
  • sportsmanship
  • what equal opportunity means in a school setting

Work with each student until everyone has selected a complex
concept to define.

If the essay that defines is part of an instructional unit focusing on a particular concept such as coming-of-age, the American Dream, or integrity, create a “hook” to generate student interest in defining that concept. For instance, give students a list of some well-known people (or characters) and ask who they believe have or have not achieved the American Dream and why. Or provide a situation such as the following in relation to integrity:

A person running for the United States Senate says in a campaign ad that he received an award as Intelligence Officer of the Year. It is later discovered that it was his military unit, not he alone, that won an award for outstanding service. Does running this ad show a lack of integrity by the candidate for office? Why or why not?

Providing a hook helps students see the need for creating an extended definition of the unit concept.

Stage 2: Modeling Processes as Students Generate Ideas for Writing

As students are developing their essays, support them by modeling parts of the process in class.

Model the process by asking the class as a whole to brainstorm ideas for writing scenarios for a given concept (cruelty to animals is a good one to use). You might begin by piquing student interest in cruelty to animals with something in the news.

For example, in 2009, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, was criticized by some animal rights groups for swatting and killing a fly during a television interview. The critics said he should have simply brushed the fly away, not killed it. One group sent the President a Katcha Bug device, which traps bugs and allows their safe release. Ask students whether President Obama was guilty of cruelty to animals.

Now have students write their own set of scenarios related to the concept they have chosen. Give them a scenario planning sheet and remind them to include some scenarios that represent borderline, debatable cases. (You could have students who have chosen the same concept work together in small groups.)

Have students use the scenarios they have developed to create a set of defining criteria. To remind them of what the task involves, you might have students together generate a couple of clear and effectively worded criterion statements that define cruelty to animals.

For instance, “hunting and killing animals is cruelty when it is done in a way that causes unnecessary suffering to the animal or endangers the survival of a species.” Some students may feel that causing an animal pain by changing its appearance for aesthetic purposes, such as clipping a boxer’s ears, is cruelty; others may not. In this case, their criteria may differ.

Groups of students working on the same concept can share their ideas. Alternatively, after they have drafted their criteria individually they can, in small groups, read one another’s criteria, determine whether they are worded clearly and are understandable, and suggest possible revisions.

Stage 3: Organizing and Drafting

Once students have developed scenarios and criteria, they are ready to organize their ideas in preparation for writing a draft of an extended definition essay.

The sheet should have space for four criterion statements, but tell students they may have more or fewer criteria, depending on their concept and the way they have framed the criteria. They should probably have at least three criteria in order to produce an effective essay. (Students sometimes combine two or more criteria into a single statement. They may need your help or that of their peers to recognize that they’ve done this.) They can draw their examples and contrasting examples from the scenarios they have created in the previous activity or think of additional or different examples.

It can be amended as necessary to match the consensus your class reaches during its discussions. Or students can suggest revisions that will improve it. After they have examined and discussed this planning sheet, have them develop a planning sheet for their own topic.

Once students have completed a planning sheet, they are ready to begin drafting their compositions. You may want to collect the planning sheets and check whether students are on the right track. You can return the sheets with brief comments on strengths as well as suggestions for improvement. (Meet individually with students who are struggling to talk through their ideas and help them improve weak spots.)

At this point, it’s helpful for students to examine an essay that defines and discuss its strengths and weakness as they think about creating their own compositions. Ask students, in small groups, to read the essay and answer the questions. Then have each group share its work with the whole class, perhaps projecting some of the students’ answers and discussing them at length. Alternatively, or in addition, use writing that students have produced earlier in the unit.

When students have completed their drafts, have them, in groups of three, read one another’s work and suggest revisions based on these questions:

  1. Does the essay have an introduction that catches the reader’s interest and presents the concept that will be defined? How does it establish the need for or importance of a definition of the concept?
  2. Does the introduction present a set of criteria for defining the concept? What are the criteria presented?
  3. For each criterion, what example and contrasting example does the writer provide to clarify the criterion?
  4. Which criteria and/or examples are difficult to understand or confusing? Explain.
  5. What ways can you suggest to improve any of the criteria or examples and contrasting examples?
  6. Has the writer employed a warrant to explain how each example and contrasting example does or does not illustrate the criterion? If warrants are missing or unconvincing, how could the writer provide or improve them?
  7. How does the writer conclude the essay?
  8. What part of the composition is clearest or best explained? Why?
  9. What suggestions do you have for the writer?

Have students work on a final draft of their essays, either in class or on their own (depending on how much support you think they need). Evaluate the essays in terms of the qualities discussed and elaborated on in class: introduction of the concept; definition of the concept in terms of criteria, examples, contrasting examples, and warrants; and a conclusion discussing what the term means in relation to human conduct. Also consider whether the language and mechanics exhibited in the essays communicate ideas clearly and appropriately.

Return the essays. Have students make final revisions and post final versions of their essays on a class bulletin board or website so they can read one another’s definitions and perhaps reach a wider audience as well

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Teaching Students to Write Essays That Define

Writing to define is fairly common in magazines, newspapers, and blogs, as well as in academic settings. A recent example appeared in the Chicago Tribune after a man set his home on fire and intentionally crashed a single-engine plane into a building in Austin, Texas, where Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offices were located. His lengthy suicide note complained about the U.S. government, the IRS, and government taxation.

After the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the man’s actions did not constitute a terrorist act, Thomas F. Schaller wrote “A Double Standard in What We Define as ‘Terrorism’” (2010; see box). In his commentary, Schaller presents the definition of terrorism provided by the USA Patriot Act and argues that the man’s actions meet all the criteria. He compares the Austin incident to other acts that have and have not been labeled terrorist, analyzing their similarities and differences. The essay discusses a number of examples to clarify the defining criteria and set their limits. Without a working definition of what terrorism is—and is not—Schaller’s argument would have been impossible to make.

What Do We Mean by Essays That Define?

Definition writing, which we find an essential part of the English language arts curriculum, doesn’t always get the attention we believe it should. By essays that define we mean the kind of composition, such as the essay on terrorism (see boxed text on pp. 1–2), that defines a complex term or concept and uses examples to clarify what the term or concept’s definition does and does not include.

Usually when people talk about “writing definitions,” what comes to mind is a brief dictionary definition. Teaching students to define or write definitions is often seen as a vocabulary lesson or a method of paragraph development. This is not what we mean here. Defining complex concepts usually requires much more explanation and clarification than a simple one-sentence or even a one-paragraph definition provides.

A chapter on definition writing is sometimes included in college composition texts and in a few secondary-level textbooks. At the high school and middle school level, however, definition is often treated simply as a method of paragraph development. Although teaching essays that define is not always emphasized at the middle and high school level, we believe it is vital to do so, because much of the writing secondary students are asked to do has definition at its foundation. This kind of thinking and writing is also an excellent way to develop and hone students’ critical thinking skills.

How Are Essays That Define Essential?

Consider some common thematic units in English language arts, humanities, and social studies classes: the tragic hero, the American Dream, equality and civil rights, Impressionism, coming-of-age, courage, industrialization and urbanization, feminism and human rights, the antihero, and so forth. These kinds of units are intended to help students build, illustrate, explain, and clarify definitions:

  • What is a tragic hero?
  • What is the American Dream?
  • What are one’s civil rights?
  • What are human rights?
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • What does it mean to have equal rights?
  • What is Impressionism?
  • What does it mean to come of age?
  • What is industrialization, what is urbanization, and how are they related?
  • What is maturity?

For students to be successful in much of the writing and thinking they are asked to do in school, they need to know how to develop effective definitions. If we ask students to write an essay about how Macbeth is a tragic hero, they will have to provide a definition of a tragic hero—a complex concept—and analyze the extent to which the character fulfills the defining criteria. If students do not know how to do this, their essays will be weak at best.

Definition is key even in cases in which it may not be as directly evident. If students are asked to write about whether Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is a success, they will need to develop a definition of success. They will need to address issues such as whether going from rags to riches makes a person a success, whether wealth is necessary or sufficient for success, whether attaining one’s goals makes someone a success, whether the nature of the goals one attains makes a difference, whether personal happiness is necessary for success, and so on. Then they will need to analyze Gatsby’s character and actions in light of the definition.

If students are writing a composition arguing whether Atticus Finch is an ideal father, they will need to determine the criteria for defining what it means to be an ideal father. Their writing will not be effective if they do not provide a definition of the concept and then analyze whether the character fulfills the defining criteria.

In social studies classes, students frequently encounter essay test questions or writing prompts that ask them to define concepts: What is an absolute monarchy as opposed to a constitutional monarchy? Which country had a successful mercantile economy, England or Spain? What is a filibuster and should it be eliminated?

In science classes, students are asked to define more concrete concepts such as photosynthesis, natural selection, and respiration. Students need to be able to write essays that define—and do the critical thinking this requires—to succeed in school and in life. We have found that using a structured process approach to writing extended definitions is a particularly effective way to teach them how.

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Everything You Need to Know About Essay and Essay Writing

In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.

Essay lights up the Internet daily, allowing us to reach across the globe to touch the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings in ways unheard of before cyber technology. Essay explores topics about everything in the galaxy, the living and the inanimate.

This very moment, as I attempt to live peaceably with my new rescue puppy and teach him manners for his safety and our household’s sanity, I reach out to Patricia McConnell’s (2009) funny, touching, and thought-provoking essays about canines, to follow her journeys of
thinking, and to know that even on the topic of how to build relationships with dogs, there are gray areas and places of uncertainty.

Essay also finds a home in print and digital magazines and journals pertaining to literature, history, music, art, pop culture, nature, medicine, psychology, sociology, and science. Essay fuels photography and film, stand-up comedy, televised current events, and political punditry.

And essay appears on the cups and brown paper bags at Chipotle Mexican Grill, inviting us to pause while ingesting the fresh, organic ingredients in their burritos (I don’t work for or own stock in Chipotle; I’m just a fan of the food and the company’s policies!), like the one I just read by Sheri Fink, where she asks, “Whom would you chose? When, in the event of an unimaginable catastrophe, we had to ration medical care, whom should we save first?” (2014).

This profoundly deep question and Fink’s lovely answer to it then cause us to drive home or walk back to our offices to search for more essays like this one at the website called Cultivating Thought Author Series, curated by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. This website recently ran a contest for high school students to write essays, and the winning pieces were to be printed on cups and bags and included online, right along with work by Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and other famous writers.

Wow. We can look to our burrito restaurants to cultivate thought these days. As Christy Wampole (2013) argued in a much-shared essay on the New York Times Opinionator blog, lately, it seems, we face the “essayification of everything”!

These are essays in the wild, unbounded by rules and regulations, and we know that creatures are happier and more fiercely beautiful in the wilderness than confined in a zoo, like Rilke’s poor panther, who loses his vision of the world, grown weary from constantly passing by the “thousand bars” of his cage. Rather than conforming to the cage bars of any formula or template, these essays are driven by curiosity, passion, and the intricacies of thought.

In schools, however, the essay suffers. I am aware of the arguments for the efficacy of teaching what is called academic and argument writing. I’ve been hearing them for decades, ever since I first invited teachers to help their students write what Randy Bomer calls “journey of thought” essays (1995, 178). Over the years, I’ve led workshops and weeklong writing institutes where I’ve plied participants with some of the most moving, humorous, thoughtful pieces of literature ever published.

We read essays, and we giggle, we weep, we find ourselves needing to talk about their content. We write our own short essays and laugh and cry all over again. And then people move back out into the world, eager to say yes! to essay writing with their students, only to send an email later, telling me their school administrations or their department chairs or their state testing formats won’t allow them to stray from the
five-paragraph formula.

In this era of high-stakes accountability, academic writing, which is indeed a rich and viable mode of writing, absolutely worth teaching students to do well, gets funneled down into the five-paragraph formula because it is easy to check for its requisite parts and assign a score.

Tom Newkirk calls this “mechanized literacy,” when to satisfy the human or computer scorers, “writing has to be bent out of recognition to be tested” (2009, 4). Peter Elbow argues that the five-paragraph formula is an “anti-perplexity machine” because there is no room for the untidiness of inquiry or complexity and therefore no energy in the writing (2012, 309).

The preponderance of formulaic writing, traditionally reserved for high school students, now finds its way down to kindergarten, where I’ve seen tiny children dutifully filling in worksheets with sentence starters such as “My favorite ice cream flavor is _____. One reason I love ice cream is that ____.”

Practicing this algorithm over and over, from kindergarten on, so the logic goes, will ensure that students’ writing can achieve high scores on state tests, which require little more than a sterile standardization of human thought and composition. The rationale sounds at times like some geometrical shape that bends back on itself forever and ever, always ending up at the same point, at what Alfie Kohn calls (hysterically) “BGUTI,” or “better get used to it,” because kids need it for the next grade, for high school, for college, for career (2015, 42).

English professor Bruce Ballenger burned up the Internet in a lively blog entry titled “Let’s End Thesis Tyranny” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2013), where he calls the thesis a “thug and a bully” that stops his first-year college students’ thinking dead in its tracks. He suggests that perhaps asking deep questions and writing to discover what they think might be a better way for his students to arrive at an essay.

Dozens of responses to Ballenger’s blog entry argued defensively for the need to maintain proper thesis-driven essays because, in essence, (1) no one wants (or has the time) to read what students wonder and think, (2) young people need to know this for their other academic work in middle school, high school, and college, and (3) this is the way we’ve always done it; it’s how we all learned to write when we were in school.

To me, the arguments fail to convince that teaching kids, sometimes as early as kindergarten, to produce a one-sentence, conclusive thesis statement in answer to a question they aren’t even asking and then to invent sufficient proof of that statement before they’ve had the opportunity to think and to question, to change their minds,
to discover and surprise themselves, will ever help them learn to write well or find their own unique way of looking at the world or turning a phrase.

When writing is taught as a formula, students fail to discover that their writing can truly engage readers. And they have little chance to fall in love with writing, to feel how fun it can be, and to see how writing can help them solve problems and figure things out.

Teaching writing to a formula loses more writers than it wins. But that’s just my opinion.

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8 Types of College Supplementary Questions and How to Ace Them

Luckily, there are identifiable patterns in the supplemental questions that most universities ask, so you won’t have to start anew on every single essay.

Broadly speaking there are 8 main supplemental essay types. Below we explore these types AND offer some Top Tips on how to answer them!

1. The ‘Why us? / Why you?’ question

For a ‘why us’ prompt, your focus should be on (1) what the school offers and (2) how it aligns with your interests, passions, and values. The college is asking you: “why are you choosing us?” For a ‘why you’ essay, your focus should be on (1) your interests, passions, and values, and (2) how they align with what the school offers. The college is asking you: “why should we choose you?”

Top Tip

The ‘Why us’ / ‘Why you’ questions are two sides of the same coin, but the order in which you present the items—and the amount of the essay you spend on them—is reversed for each. Ultimately, your goal with this essay should be to sincerely, authentically, and excitedly tell
admissions committees what you will get out of going to their school in particular, and what you will contribute to their school as a student there. Which specific opportunities will you take advantage of? How will you bring your skills and past experiences to bear as a leader and collaborator on their campus?

2. The academic interest essay

These essays ask you to explain your intended choice of major, or if you don’t have one, your academic interests in general. They are typically ‘short’ answer questions, with universities often asking for responses in 150-250 words.

Top Tip

When answering this prompt you must address three questions: Why you want to study your elected future major area of study (or if you are undecided, you’ll need to write about your primary area(s) of academic interest), what your goals are for the future, and how pursuing this course of study will help you to achieve them. You don’t need to know exactly what you plan to do in the future, but it’ll make your essay a lot stronger to have a few ideas and try to develop those ideas with a bit of detail!

3. Describe an extracurricular

Tell us about an extracurricular activity you’re involved in and how it has shaped you. Once again these questions normally ask for a 150 250 word response. In these essays you explore one of your extracurriculars in greater depth.

Top Tip

When answering this prompt you must address three questions: Why you want to study your elected future major area of study (or if you are undecided, you’ll need to write about your primary area(s) of academic interest), what your goals are for the future, and how pursuing this course of study will help you to achieve them. You don’t need to know exactly what you plan to do in the future, but it’ll make your essay a lot stronger to have a few ideas and try to develop those ideas with a bit of detail!

4. The meaning of community

Colleges may word these questions somewhat like this: “Our college campus is all about community and valuing a diverse group of people. In what ways do you value community? How have you contributed to communities in the past? What would you bring to our community?” As you can see in this case you need to narrow down on what you would bring to this specific university’s community.

Top Tip

In asking this question, admissions officers are trying to find out: What in particular does our school have to offer that you’d like to get involved in as a future student? And… What will you contribute or bring to the table as a student on our campus? In answering these questions you must show how your past experience as part of a community informs what you’ll contribute.

5. The second Common App essay

These essays can vary in content just like the Common App essay, and they are similar in length (500-650 words). They might ask you to write about a person who has inspired you; or write about an experience that has shaped how you approach the world; or to use a quote as a starting place to tell them about your perspective.

Top Tip

This supplemental essay type typically asks you to write a 500-650 word piece using a usually broad prompt to guide your answer. Writing this essay is like writing a second Common App essay – but you must be sure to pick a new topic that explores a new area of your past, interests, personality or attributes.

6. Short takes

Some colleges ask you to provide brief descriptions of yourself or things you like in 100 words or less — sometimes without even using complete sentences. They might ask for two adjectives your friends would use to describe you; or your favorite word; or what your favorite snack is; or who (living or dead) you’d like to ask a question to, and what you’d ask them; or if you were teaching a class, what it’d be called.

Top Tip

These short answer questions can be hard to tackle! Top tips include: answer the question, but don’t repeat it, consider the underlying message you are sending, explain your answer and be specific!

7. The write a letter to your future roommate prompt

This prompt is pretty self-explanatory the aim of it being for admissions officers to gauge what you will bring to campus as an enthusiastic, passionate, intellectual and empathetic member of the college community. They can be creative, humorous, reflective, inspirational — whatever theme and style reflects your personality best.

Top Tip

These questions provide a great opportunity to show what you will bring to campus on micro level. Will you be the ball of energy that exudes positivity, or the reflective listener who is always there to lend a helping hand? This question must be honestly and reflect a side of yourself that will provide a true insight as to who you are beyond the classroom.

8. Miscellaneous prompts

These are the creative or otherwise unusual prompts (“design a major,” “design a class,” “what do you do for fun?”, “choose an image that represents you,” “what gets you excited about learning?”, etc.) that vary in length and style. While not common, they can be great fun for applicants to create!

Top Tip

These questions vary, but some basic tips include: be personal (go deep!), be humble (no bragging!), be intellectually curious (show your love of learning) and be genuine (no platitudes or clichés).

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The Importance of US College Supplemental Essays and How Admissions Officers Review Them

Imagine you want to hire someone for a job.

Your boss gives you 10 questions that you have to ask — but she tells you that you can create a few extra questions of your own in addition.

The first 10 questions will give you a good sense of who the applicant is, but those extra few that you create — those are the ones that will give you the best insight into whether the person will be a good fit to work with you and your team.

You can think about US college supplemental essay questions in the same way. The Common Application questions are the standard questions that every school gets answers to — but the supplemental questions represent the individual universities’ best chance to really get to know you and to judge whether or not you’ll be a good fit on their campus(es).

They’re also your best chance to show schools why they should pick you. Lots of students underestimate the importance of the supplemental essays — and lots of students get rejected as a result. If you’re here reading this, then you’re already well on your way to avoiding that critical mistake.

Admissions Officers use supplemental essays to fill out their picture of who you are and learn things about you that are not contained in the rest of your application. The supplemental essays shouldn’t contradict anything you’ve written elsewhere, but they shouldn’t repeat anything either.

If we were to choose three words that are key to the success of your
supplemental essays, they’d be specificity, authenticity, and

When it comes to specificity, colleges want you to go deep into your research on what they have to offer, and the various unique aspects of their campuses that appeal to you directly.

That means taking time to do substantive research — it doesn’t mean finding the first class on microeconomics they offer and mentioning it in your essay, because that’s neither specific to the university (every university has an intro to microeconomics class!) nor is it specific to you (thousands of students will take a class like that).

When it comes to authenticity, colleges are looking for personality and individuality. That means talking narrowly and specifically about what interests you.

If you love completing Rubik’s cubes as a hobby, that should go in the essay. If you love model trains, that should go in the essay — the key is just finding an outlet for it at the university (a cubing club? a hobbying club?). Don’t just talk generally about the “incredible career opportunities” — what specifically is going to be great for you?

When it comes to commitment, universities want to see that you’re the type of person who’s had experience committing to extracurricular activities and your various communities in the past, and that you intend to do so at their school in the future.

You can express this eagerness to commit in ways small and large — it can be as simple as saying something like “I plan to build on a passion for community service that began in high school by joining
__ tutoring club at Harvard”. Little additions like that show that you value your commitment to things you did in the past and plan to continue building on that commitment in the future.

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How Personal Statement Essays Are Opening Doors for University Applicants

The personal statement shows different things depending on where you are applying. In the UK, the UCAS personal statement is an opportunity to explore the student’s academic area of interest and show the research they’ve done in that area.

The UK application process is more direct and focused on the student’s formal qualifications for study, so students can clearly demonstrate a rigorous grasp on their declared major. Quality personal statements cite existing research and show nuanced understanding of the underlying theory, proving the student’s readiness for college work.

In the US, the personal statement is similarly a reflection of broader
application priorities. Top US colleges and universities seek well-rounded students that will thrive in liberal arts academic environments emphasizing plurality of thought and inquisitive dialogue through Socratic-style teaching methods.

The US personal statement is thus about helping colleges understand who the student is – their formative experiences, their goals, and how they think about the world around them. More than any other part of the process, it is a window into their mind and thoughtfulness, empathy, and reflection are prized highly.

What kind of personal statement stands out to admissions officers?

This likewise varies a lot! A good UK personal statement will likely make for a poor centerpiece to a US application, and vice versa. Quality UK statements are direct and precise. They are nuanced and
academic, and applicants recite existing accomplishments and research to directly evidence their role qualifications.

Remember that the goal is showing that the student will be well prepared to study in their chosen area of discipline: their writing ability and personality isn’t being evaluated!

A good US personal statement, by contrast, has very little to do with the rest of the student’s application. It should not reiterate other parts of the Common App. Unless there is a ton of additional context needed on an existing activity, students should shy away from touching on topics covered elsewhere and focus instead on explaining other parts of who they are.

Statements should be authentic and reflective: what happened to the student is often less important than how they processed and understood it. Students can write about any topic they want – personal stories from their youth, how they think about important social issues, or their dreams and ambitions.

The essays below reflect this, what unifies them is neither topic nor style but how honest they are and the picture the reader gets into the writer’s mind and personality.

Common mistakes in personal statement essays

In the UK, a common mistake is to be too flowery with the writing – to put down something closer to poetry on the page. The UCAS personal statement is intended to capture academic goals and lay out the student’s vision for their time in college: it is not a measure of how good of a writer the student is.

In the US, one common mistake is to assume that because the readers want to learn about the student as a person, the best topic to write about are difficult personal topics. While some of the essays below are compelling personal narratives about hardship, not all good personal statements take that form. If you are writing about hardship because you feel that’s what they want to hear, and not because that is an authentic turning point in your life on which you have genuine reflection, it’s likely not the right topic.

Final words of advice

Writing personal statements is difficult! The UK essay is a bit more straightforward, but in both cases, it is the opportunity for the student to concisely explain the thesis of their application: why the college should take them. To tackle this well, you need to start early and take your time. Two techniques that help are:

  • Taking time to write by hand. Too many students write on their computer, where distractions abound and it’s easy to get sidetracked. Put the computer away and write on paper. It will go slower, and that’s ok! Slowing down gives you time to think and choose words carefully: the prizes are only for having the best essay, not finishing quickly.
  • Take time to walk outside. Walking has been shown to activate and calm the brain – when you hit stumbling block, leave the page behind and take some time to think as you exercise. Often, by the time you get back you may have figured out the right words!

So are you ready to explore exactly what sorts of essays result in acceptance to the best schools in the world? Keep reading and good luck!

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