College Application Essay Prompts (for Parents)

As parents, we want the best for our children, but knowing when to step in and when to keep our distance can sometimes be a tricky path to navigate. Presumably, our goal is to raise independent thinkers and self-sufficient adults who can manage deadlines and uncharted territory with minimal input from mom and dad. To that end, the college admission process is a learning curve for everyone – get informed, ask the right questions, and try to take a backseat in the application and essay writing process.

Standardized Tests:

The most common standardized tests affecting college admissions are the SAT, the ACT, and the PSAT/NMSQT. Most students take these tests for the first time as part of the school day during their junior year and then re-take them, if necessary, in the fall of their senior year.

Administered seven times a year, it is used by almost all colleges and universities. The maximum score is 1600 points and the average score is in the neighborhood of 1080. It measures reading, writing and language, mathematics, and has a written essay portion.

Testing Dates:

  • March
  • May
  • June
  • August
  • October
  • November
  • December

Given on five national test dates, and measures English, Math, Reading Comprehension, and Science. A perfect score on the ACT is 36 points, but the average score is a 20. This test also has an optional essay portion.

Testing Dates:

  • October
  • December
  • February
  • April
  • June
  • Sometimes September

The PSAT/NMSQT is a practice for the SAT. If a student selects their preferred colleges and universities during the signup process for the test, they receive information from those institutions. Scores on the PSAT/NMSQT create eligibility for scholarships, mainly the National Merit Scholarship.

Testing Dates:

  • Administered at the discretion of High Schools – usually in early October.

  • For exact dates visit their website.

The Application Process

With preparation, the application process becomes more time consuming than stressful. Many colleges and universities have made it easier by combining their applications into something known as the Common Application (Common App).

More than 800 institutions use the Common App to collect all the personal and academic information the institutions need. There is some variation between schools, but these are provided when each student chooses the school where they want to apply. Certain colleges have College Specific Questions which require long response answers or essays submitted with the application. The Common App guides students through this process.

Others colleges use their own individual applications that contain prompts created and chosen to highlight information and traits they want to explore about their applicants.

Writing the Admission Essay

The Common App offers seven different college application essay prompts. If your child uses the Common App, they should write two of the seven available prompts. The essay portion tells schools something about your child that standardized test scores, courses, and grades on high school transcripts can’t provide. The essay is where applicants get a chance to stand out, so students need to take them seriously.

Depending on the prompt they choose, a student can:

  • Showcase what makes them unique and how their interests benefit them in their studies.
  • Explain a lower overall GPA. and highlight their ability to apply themselves to reach their goals.
  • Prove that they are a well-rounded person even though their resume doesn’t indicate a wide variety of extracurriculars.
  • Highlight their love of learning, their passion for social causes, their curiosity, and their resilience and determination to succeed.

Not every essay needs to be about your child’s triumphs. Demonstrating that they found value in failing illustrates their resilience, and can be a wonderful opportunity to create something interesting and fresh.

All of this helps your child become more than statistics, test scores, and transcripts. Students stand out if they choose to be authentically open and vulnerable in their essay. The events they write about can be small or large, just as long as they created real personal growth.

Be there to help them brainstorm and to share memories and specific details that can strengthen the prompt they choose. Then step back and let them write.

Encourage them to write many drafts. The first draft might be longer than 650 words. That will be okay so they can explore their topic fully. Every following draft will only improve as they clarify their ideas and tighten their writing. Remind them that revision is normal and not a waste of time. They only get one chance to make a first impression. These two essays (or versions of them) will be used repeatedly throughout the process and might play a part in supplying information that could guide them to scholarships as well, so they are worth spending time writing.

 College Application Essay Prompts

Guide your child to the prompts they are most excited about. Writing is much easier, fresher and more interesting if they feel like they have something to say. They should write in a way that fulfills the prompt and reflects their personality. Admissions Officers read hundreds of prompts, so make sure the essay is fresh and authentic not just a clone of what their best friend wrote.

An essay must be 250-650 words. Therefore, your child is faced with the challenge of being both interesting and concise. An online writing tool, like Ecree can help by pointing out wordy and unclear passages – it checks more than just spelling and grammar.

Here are the seven 2019-2020 college application essay prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  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.

Writing Tips

Remind your child that the essay portion of the application takes longer to complete than other parts. Urge them to begin their essays in the summer before their senior year so they have enough time to:

  • Write and edit a thoughtful essay.
  • Let it “cool” a bit so they can read it with objective eyes.
  • Proofread it for grammar and spelling issues but more importantly revise it for organization, analysis, clarity and impact.
  • Run it through an online tool like Ecree for an objective, teacher quality review.

It is hard to see your own writing clearly, and sometimes the sensitive and personal nature of the essay makes a student unwilling to show their essays to parents or family members (or even teachers). An objective writing resource, like Ecree maintains their privacy but assures high-quality feedback in real-time, while they write.

When to Apply

Not every college or university’s admissions policy is the same. That means that not all applications need to be submitted at the same time. Basically, the submission timeline begins early in the fall of your child’s senior year and ends in approximately January.

Usually, Admission deadlines fall in November and in January.

In November, many colleges have “Early Admission” Deadlines.

Some schools have “Rolling Admissions” policies and accept students based on a first come first serve basis. If your child wants to apply to an institution with a Rolling Admissions policy they should do it as early as possible. These schools usually start taking applications in the fall, sometimes as early as September.

Student Writing Practice

Maybe your college-bound teenager is not quite ready to jump in and write or maybe he is still a few years away from submitting applications, encourage this time to be spent on practice.  Here’s a free way for students to practice their College Admission Essays and write against real essay prompts.

Writing college admissions essays can become the best part of the process if a student gives it the space and time required to complete it with imagination and precision. The essay provides an opportunity for an applicant to become a three-dimensional person to the admissions department. With preparation and practice, your child can create an understanding of their identity and how they can fit and excel at the college of their choice.