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Create Your Own College Essay Question

I tell students that virtually any topic will work for the Common Application essay, as long as it has two critical elements.  First, it must tell an interesting story in which you are the main character (the protagonist!).  Second, you (the author!) must provide some reflection and analysis of what the story means to you.  So no matter whether you address one of the six other Common Application prompts or whether you choose this catch-all prompt, just makes sure your essay contains both elements

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Your Choice

The nice thing about this prompt is that the admissions folks leave the choice of topic entirely to you. And therein lies some of the danger of deviating from the other prompts. You are free—and encouraged—to go beyond the limitations of these other prompts, but at the same time, you want to consider the fundamental commonalities found in the above prompts.

Ideas and Concepts: Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious, but you should consider whether your chosen topic has any intellectual or academic depth.

Transitions: The heart of many of these prompts is some sort of change in your mindset, perspective, or understanding. Admissions folks are looking for young people who have made some sort of transition that demonstrates their maturity, depth of thought, or newfound ability to see the world in a new light.

A Story: You must have some sort of anecdote animating your essay that helps your reader to see your point. This is where you will “show” your reader your fundamental point. You are the main character of this essay in which you can demonstrate aspects of your personality, your values, and your point of view.

Analysis and Reflection: Every other prompt requires you to dig underneath the surface, to go beyond superficialities and to uncover the important truths at the center of your story. It is not enough to tell your reader the story: you must demonstrate the fundamental importance of the story to you. The story is the vehicle to convey a deeper understanding of you as a person.

Already Written

Some colleges encourage the submission of essays you have written as part of a class or other assignment. These essays may represent you very well as a student and demonstrate some of your intellectual abilities and academic depth. If you choose to submit an academic paper, it is sometimes best to do so as an additional or supplemental essay to your application. In some cases, you may have written some sort of personal essay or narrative as part of a creative writing assignment. If this personal memoir has most of the elements described above, it could be an excellent college essay.

Own Design

It is perfectly acceptable to experiment with the form of the essay. Admissions folks want to encourage your creativity, and they are looking for unique approaches. I have seen students write very successful poems in response to the prompts, and a couple have written mini-plays or screenplays. You are welcome to experiment with the form. However, you will want to keep in mind the elements described above. While the form can be highly creative, it is important to keep the purpose of the college essay in mind: to communicate to your reader something important, something fundamental about who you are as a person, as a citizen, and as a learner.

Need some help writing a great college essay for the Common Application?  Whether you’re aiming for the Ivy League or you just want to look your best when you apply to the college of your dreams, our team of experts can help you brainstorm, structure, and edit an excellent piece of writing that will help you stand out in the admissions process.  Give us a call.

Mark Montgomery
Educational consultant and admissions expert

Filed Under: College EssaysTagged With: 2017-2018 applications, college essay advice, Common App


Colorado College Application Essay Prompts


How did you learn about Colorado College, and why do you wish to attend? (no more than 500 words)


The Block Plan at Colorado College has a tradition of innovation and flexibility. Please design your own three-and-a-half week course and describe what you would do. (no more than 500 words)


Below, we’ll discuss both prompts and successful strategies for answering each.


Overview of First Essay Prompt

It is important to note that the word limit here is 500 words. This is the length of your average essay, so keep this in mind as you begin to brainstorm and move on to follow the next steps.


STEP 1: The question has two parts — how you learned about Colorado College and why you hope to attend. We will begin with the first part, how you learned about the school. So… how did you? Did you hear about the college through email, through a friend, or through an accidental visit? Did you learn about the college from a teacher who constantly discusses his favorite memories there, or maybe you simply stumbled upon the college online?


Regardless of how you came across the college, write it down. (Yes, even if the reason is something that the college probably doesn’t want to hear, write it down for now.) Maybe you discovered the college through a combination of ways. In this case, jot down all the moments that helped you to discover and learn about Colorado College. We will discuss how to weave these answers together and “spice up” your response during a later step.


STEP 2: Now, it’s time to dive into some brainstorming for the second part of the question: why you hope to attend Colorado College. Be honest and make a note of all the contributing reasons for your interest in the school. Maybe it’s Colorado’s interesting Block Plan that compels you to submit your application; maybe it’s a certain extracurricular activity that you’d like to participate in; or maybe it’s a few specific classes that really catch your interest.


Regardless of your reason(s), be as thorough and honest as you can. Yes, your honest reason may be something that the college may not want to hear (e.g., “I don’t want to attend this college, but my parents are making me apply”), but still scribble this honest reason down for now. We will discuss how to weave your brainstorming here into your essay later on.


STEP 3: Take a look at both lists you’ve created. Now, we ask that you wait before you narrow down your list (this will take place in the next step). Consider every point you jotted down on each list, even the brutally honest answers that you believe Colorado College would not want to hear. Take a moment to imagine the possibilities for this essay with each point you wrote down; think about the direction you’d like this essay to take. We’ll call these “essay pathways” or essay approaches.


So, for starters, consider this: Did you initially have no interest in the school and then develop an immense appreciation for it later? In this case, it may be a good idea to take a creative and honest approach in which you anecdotally describe how the school came to appeal to you.


Did you always know that you wanted to attend this school? In this case, it may be a good idea to take the heartfelt approach and write a story about something in the past that made you simply drawn to spend your college years at Colorado College. There are countless approaches you could take; it varies for each individual. Don’t be afraid to be a little imaginative. With so many paths to take in this essay, write all the approaches down that are applicable to you.


STEP 4: Now that you have various “essay pathways” to take, begin to narrow down your ideas to just one approach. Consider your abilities as a writer, the personal events you naturally gravitate toward, or the emotions you feel comfortable with expressing when writing. Maybe you find yourself to be brutally honest — take the brutally honest approach. Maybe you consider yourself a comedian — add a humorous twist to your essay! You may have a particularly significant life event that draws you to Colorado College; use that.


You may also realize at this point that some ideas you brainstormed won’t work in your planned approach. Cut these ideas out. Also, some ideas may be hard to weave in no matter what, due to how common or unspecific they are to Colorado College. For example, thousands of students applying to the school may say that they are interested in the school for its unique Block Plan. Unless you have an interesting way to present this interest of yours (based on an “essay pathway” you created earlier), you should try to choose a more personal and less commonly used reason.


STEP 5: Finalize your idea and begin to write! Remember to apply your creativity and ensure that your tone, diction, and content coalesce into a clear voice. Start with an interesting hook to reel readers in. There are many ways to accomplish this, including but not limited to the following: begin with a relevant quote, set the scene for an experience that’ll help define the rest of your essay, or begin with a rhetorical question related to your interest in the school. Then fill in the body of your essay with the essay approach that you decided upon earlier.


Wrap up your essay in a satisfyingly memorable and decidedly final way. Examples of strong endings could include the following: reflect on your essay through a larger scope, reiterate something you discussed in your first paragraph (your hook would be great for this), or write a thought-provoking statement that “fastens” your essay together.


As you can see, there are many ways you can approach the beginning and the end of your essay! Once you are done, read through the essay multiple times yourself for edits. Have teachers, parents, mentors, and other helpful adults aid you in your essay editing as well.


Overview of Second Essay Prompt

Again, it is important to note that the word limit here is 500 words. Another thing to keep in mind is that this essay pertains to Colorado College’s unique Block Plan. You may want to conduct some extra research on the plan if you would like; otherwise, you can reread the introduction of this guide to get a sense of the essay’s context.


STEP 1: Focus on the first sentence: “The Block Plan at Colorado College has a tradition of innovation and flexibility.” The key words here are “innovation” and “flexibility.” Whatever you’re going to write about, make sure that you reflect these two qualities. After all, they’re described as a tradition of the school.


STEP 2: Now, focus on the second sentence here: “Please design your own three-and-a-half week course and describe what you would do.” This essay is truly your chance to shine and showcase your truest, deepest interests. Take full advantage of that!


For now, focus on the first part of the sentence — “design your own three-and-a-half week course” — and brainstorm different interests of yours that you are very passionate about, have never had the chance to explore, or are a little quirky or imaginative and would make an interesting topic to write about. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind.


STEP 3: Now that you have your list of interests, start parsing through your list to eliminate the unsuitable topics. Here are just a few reasons you may cut something out:


  1. The topic is so shallow that it would be hard to complete the second part of the sentence — “describe what you would do” — effectively.
  2. Content-wise, the topic is inappropriate to submit in an application.
  3. The topic at hand is too broad. In this case, you may either eliminate the topic or specify your topic so that it’s easier to write about.


STEP 4: Pick your final topic; you may have to follow your gut a little bit or ask for the opinions of others if you’re stuck between two topics. Remember that you can always change your essay topic if you decide that you have not chosen the best one for the essay.


STEP 5: Now, handle the second part of the second sentence: “describe what you would do.” First, write down the different activities and learning styles you would prefer to implement for a class on your given topic. Don’t be afraid to be imaginative and to think outside of the box!


Remember Step 1: Colorado College’s Block Plan has a “tradition of innovation and flexibility.” How do you present your activities and learning styles in the essay?


You can approach this in a number of ways, but since the question is asking that you describe your course over three-and-a-half weeks, you may consider a chronological approach to be the most foundational and effective. Note: If you have another more-creative plan in mind, you can surely follow that layout instead! Just make sure that how you answer the prompt is clear.


STEP 6: All your ideas are gathered, and now you may begin to write! (Due to the complexity of this second essay, you may choose to start off with a short outline of the ideas you will present and in what order.) See the tips above (in question 1, step 5) for ways to properly begin and close an essay.


Now that you have a general idea of how to respond to Colorado College’s prompts, it’s time to conduct some research (if needed) and write.


It’s recommended that you do not procrastinate! Every word and idea counts when you’re committing yourself to applying to a college, and we hope that our Colorado College guide will help you write an essay that you’re truly confident in submitting to admissions readers.


In the meantime, you may consider visiting Colorado College’s campus to check out the campus and get some inspiration. We wish you luck in your writing endeavors!