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

@anon45019500 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!


As with the other thread, chatted with OP and a couple other folks. I’m opening so that the discussion can continue. Please be kind to one another.

I have seen this point openly debated by many current and former admissions officers. There are definitely many admissions officers who ding students for not answering the question.

Not the best essay writers, from my experience.

Not completely accurate.


Just to mention, so am I…as a lawyer, I generally always write to advocate for my position. But accuracy and relevancy are key to that, no matter what I write about.

The OP is obviously correct in telling students to think broadly. No issues with that. However, if a prompt asks me to write about my favorite breed of cow and I instead write about the US space program, I probably would get dinged on my essay, no matter how creative it was.

Perhaps the OP and others may disagree. However, I think a number of students do come here looking for advice. Being told to disregard what you’re being asked to write about is itself bad advice.

(or maybe it’s wonderful advice, and I just wrote my posts on this thread to generate clicks… :grin:)


I am a professional tutor. I’ve worked with many students who have been accepted to tippy top colleges. I tell my students to answer the prompt. Why? The college asked the question, so give them an answer. The same is true of a college writing assignment. Creativity might help you retain a few points, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of not telling them what they want to know.

It’s good to be creative, but don’t try to be creative if that’s not who you are or if your writing skills aren’t up to it. A student I worked with yesterday was unsure how to approach a supplemental essay for a college with an acceptance rate in the teens. The prompt: “At ______, we value finding conversation partners to discuss issues and problems facing society. Who is your favorite conversation partner? What do you discuss with that person?”

From experience, I know that many kids will fail to address an important aspect of this prompt. They will easily discuss the two questions, and mostly forget about “issues and problems facing society.” I will always ask the student to ensure that they write this essay using the context of the issues/problems facing society.

IMO, this prompt effectively says “we want to see how you view important issues and how you are able to discuss these issues with others.” This prompt is a good one because it is applicable to many aspects of college life: engaging with others, being able to learn from them, and being intellectually curious about the world beyond themselves.

A prompt such as this should allow plenty of room for creativity. But if I were an admissions officer and the answer was devoid of creativity, I wouldn’t ding the student for that, as long as their answer was complete and well thought out. However, I would ding the student for not addressing the three main components of the prompt.

To address something the OP stated in the first post, “ Do you think I ever read an amazing piece at Stanford, and thought, “Well, she didn’t really answer the prompt.” Note the word amazing. If the writing is indeed amazing, yes, an AO is much more likely to ignore the fact that perhaps the student didn’t address the prompt. But let’s remember…not many students are amazing writers. Hardly any, in fact. And the vast majority of students out there aren’t applying to Stanford. For the majority of students, the best option is to follow the prompt, which is generally a good strategy.


I think the bigger mistake a student might make answering this question would be to miss that this is a question about fit and shared values.

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