Unpopular admission advice: “You must answer the prompt” is bad advice for most students.
First: Do you think I ever read an amazing piece at Stanford, and thought, “Well, she didn’t really answer the prompt.”
Second: When students try to “answer the prompt,” they end up writing generic, boring responses that sound like everyone else. Because they feel like they are “supposed to” say something.
Third: I get why this advice is so popular: it comes from people who have never read college applications. When you’re an admission officer, you’re a speed-reader: scouring essays to see if they say something unusually thoughtful; you’re not marking up essays with a red pen for not answering the prompt.
Here’s good advice: Don’t be constrained by the prompt. Challenge it. Do something creative with it. Use it to take your essay wherever you want to go. Three examples:
“Why Stanford?” A favorite opening response to this prompt: “Why are we friends?” She then dove into a philosophical paradox of mereology. She thought through how reducing her friend, or Stanford, to a set of traits would make them replaceable.
“Write a letter to your future roommate.” I’d say 95% of students open with: “Dear Roomie . . .” My student? He opened with a Kanye West Album he loved. Then he drew parallels between the album and an important personal and intellectual experience he had.
“Reflect on an idea that makes you excited about learning.” My behavioral econ. student’s opening line: "You’re booking honeymoon tickets and see two options: ‘Paris with free breakfast’ and ‘Rome with free breakfast.’ What would you choose? The Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum? But what if you’re now shown a third option . . .
Bottom-line: The prompts really don’t matter. Colleges just think them up to “prompt you” to say something smart, interesting, and thoughtful. Don’t let them constrain you. Show how creative and thoughtful you are by writing a deft, daring response that you love.