Bad College Essay Advice: "You must answer the prompt!"

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:

  1. “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.

  2. “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.

  3. “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.


I understand where you are coming from but:

  1. some prompts generally want an answer (and the overly creative approach can be just more for the adcoms to wade through)
  2. the worst writing I have seen in essays is “creative.” Many writers overdo it and have a result that is much worse than a straight answer.

A few outstanding writers can pull off what you are describing but essays most of all need to be likable, and the effort to be “unique” can therefore be counterproductive in my view.

I think some of the best essays are almost conversational. A skilled twist of a metaphor at the end does wonders, yes.


For the 1% of students who write the top 1% of essays, I think this is worth considering. For the other 99%, not so much.

As a wise man once said “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you’re a slob.”


My understanding of your message is that insight, intelligence, and creativity is highly valued and respected.

Question regarding your “Bad College Essay Advice”: Would you give this same advice to one applying to a “good college” ?

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A few examples (I am making them up) :slight_smile: I have seen them all.

After visiting and taking the tour, and talking to a professor in x department, I feel sure that x College is the best fit for me. because… (answers the prompt directly)

It was a hot summer day and as I shyly entered the admissions office for a tour, my hand was sweating as I slowly turned the door handle to the foyer. (tries to be creative and takes a long time to get to the point)

When I was a kid, I played with Legos for hours at a time…mention how Lego play resembles computer programming in that they both require binary choices. Leading into “x University offers the kind of CS program I am hoping to attend” etc. good use of creative metaphor with a twist at the end, also answers the question

I think a lot of kids approach essays with the second approach and would be better off with the first. A few can pull off the third.


When I read an argument like that, I remember Strunk’s advice from “The Elements of Style”:

“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit , attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”


@MichaelCShort Not all colleges are Stanford, and not all AOs are you. Other colleges may care a lot more about having students demonstrating the ability to follow instructions. In fact, for every AO like you, there are probably two who will look at those openers, and say “this kid can’t even follow basic instructions, how will they do well in the classroom?”.

The second issue with this advice, seeing as it’s coming from an ex-admissions person, will likely result in hundreds to thousands of students who now think that Not Following The Prompt is the Secret To An Essay Which Will Impress AOs. “Not Following The Prompt” will replace “How I Overcame Adversity” as the favorite theme of college essays.


And which all end up reading like the Charles Schulz version: It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.



This needs to be put into perspective, so that the reader can also make their own validations. The OP worked in Stanford admissions for a year, and that was over a decade ago. Which is not to say that his points are invalid, just that users should decide how much weight that adds.

And full disclosure: I have been an AO for precisely zero years. :relaxed:


I do not love the advice to not answer the prompt. Design a pedestrian bridge you say, why I’ll design an elevator. They both transport people and the elevator design highlights my elevated intellect and Gladwellian insight into how the confined space (enhanced by Brian Eno’s Elevator music) forces us to contemplate our mortality. ( I concede I am no Gladwell)

I’m starting to better understand the self-aggrandizing I come across when dealing with some Stanford graduates in my line of work.

I have also spent zero years as an admissions officer but I promise you young people that answering the brief, prompt etc. is the way forward in most of your endeavors in life. You can be creative, for sure, but missing the mark usually gets you disqualified.


My take on the OP’s essay advice was not to ignore the prompt, but to write more than a routine response. OP wrote: “When students try to “answer the prompt”, they end up writing generic, boring responses that sound like everyone else.”

OP wrote: “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.”

Creative intelligence is an important quality and the essay on a college application gives applicants an opportunity to demonstrate creative intelligence.

Do I believe that college application essay prompts should be ignored by an applicant ? No. But, I do think that applicants to the most competitive colleges and universities need to distinguish their candidacy for admission from thousands of other applicants.

“Show how creative and thoughtful you are by writing a…daring response…”


The common app has 7 prompts, most of them worded pretty broadly. The last one states write about anything, so applicants aren’t constrained (except for in word count) and in fact, have significant leeway in essay topics, style, and structure.

Common App Prompt #7

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.


The CC at our school encouraged students to use freedom with the prompts (but this was before the “free” prompt was introduced). They emphasized the purpose, which was showing who you are and giving color to your application.

Students taking AP exams, for example, cannot riff on an answer and get points for it but the point there is assessment of mastery. This is different, and students should be reminded of that.

Reading successful essays really highlights this better than this advice. The essays give you a chance to be human – which is far more interesting and memorable than your stats. Many students DO follow the prompts so literally that they end up submitting the same essays. That’s what you want to avoid.


In the videos and live sessions we watched for the “Why Us” prompts from engineering schools (UMICH,UIUC), they were very clear that they were looking for specifics and a straightforward writing style. I suspect that talking about existential philosophy or booking honeymoon tickets would not hit the spot for them.

And what 17 year old would even be thinking about honeymoon tickets as a comparison? Maybe they’re very mature or have older siblings, but to me it seems like a coached essay opening.


Wrong thread.

I agree. It looks like there was assistance.

Also, when I read that honeymoon essay opening, what came to mind was “how do you say ‘I grew up wealthy’, without mentioning your family income?”.

At least they didn’t talk about trying to choose between Bali and Fiji…


I don’t have a year at Stanford’s admissions office a decade ago, but that is, prima facie, just so wrong. I have no qualms with your guiding students to be creative and thinking outside the box. That’s very good advice. However, they need to do it within the confines of the prompt.

Taken literally from your title, you are telling students to write on anything they want, regardless of the prompt. I am not sure whether you wrote your title to get more clicks, but, as stated, it’s dead wrong.

You actually contradict yourself in the body of your OP, when you say:

Now you are saying to be guided by the prompt. And that contradicts your title. So which one is it?

You might consider amending your title to get a bit more credibility for your OP.


It seems clear to me that the title of the thread was intended as clickbait and not as genuine advice. The title worked as not only is the thread being read, it is attracting fairly passionate responses.

Reminds me of Abbie Hoffman’s book titled: Steal This Book

P.S. OP is an attorney and attorneys–at least trial attorneys–know how to generate responses.


Closing this thread also until I return from PTO Wed. and can address the questions posed to me via PM. Thanks everyone!