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

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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