Sample Essay Prompts

As on-line applications become the norm, more and more institutions are using the Common Application. In theory, the Common Application minimizes the anxiety and level of effort required of an applicant, because “you’ll only have to compose this one essay.” But most universities will require a school specific essay as well (more on that, below). Here’s what the Common Application looked like as students began the process in the fall of 2011: 

Personal Essay (Common Application)

Please write an essay (250 words minimum) on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below, and attach it to your application before submission. Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate box. This personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself.

NOTE: Your Common Application essay should be the same for all colleges. Do not customize it in any way for individual colleges. Colleges that want customized essay responses will ask for them on a supplement form.

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  • Topic of your choice

Dave again: As I said, most schools want to see you tailor something specific for them. A few universities are getting interesting with this tailored approach, as this recent article from the Huffington Post observes.  And a July 2013 article on Yahoo Finance was entitled “The 15 Most Ridiculous College Application Questions.”

Below, meanwhile, are some more traditional, school-specific prompts:

Princeton (Princeton, NJ)

Please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.

  • Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
  • Using the statement below as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

~ Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

  • Using the following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

~ Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

  • Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation at the beginning of your essay.

Tufts (Boston, MA)

Think outside the box when you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.


Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: “Why Tufts?”


A. There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised—your family, home, neighborhood or community—and how it influenced the person you are today. (200-250 words)

B. For some, it’s politics or sports or reading. For others it may be researching solar power fuel cells or arranging hip hop mash-ups. What makes you tick? (200-250 words)

Rice (Houston, Texas)

The Committee on Admission is interested in getting to know each candidate as well as possible through the application process. The following essay question is designed to demonstrate your writing skills and facilitate our full appreciation of who you are.

The quality of Rice’s academic life and the Residential College System are heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What perspective do you feel that you will contribute to life at Rice? (Most applicants are able to respond successfully in two to three double-spaced pages.)

Stanford (Palo Alto, CA)

Candidates must respond to all three questions/topics. Please respond to the following essay topics with up to 250 words.

- Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging.

- Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

- Tell us what makes Stanford a good place for you.

Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

The Admissions Committee is interested in both your ideas and in how you express them and will read your writing with regard to both content and style. Clearly type or print your response on a separate sheet of paper and attach it to this form. Include your name and social security number on any attached sheet.

a) What experience in high school has mattered most to you? How do you see this experience influencing your decision-making in college?

b) Although it may appear to the contrary, we do know that people have a life beyond what they do to get into college. Tell us about an experience you’ve had outside of your formal classroom and extracurricular activities that was just plain fun and why.

University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words.)

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.

Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.)

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL) REQUIRED ESSAYS

Essay One: In 500 words, share your personal story of faith in Christ and how your experiences have been formative in growing and developing your current relationship with Christ.

Essay Two: Select a topic below and write a 500-750 word essay.

  • Have you ever had the experience of having a strong opinion about something, and then changing your mind? What was that experience like?
  • Given your desired major, what draws you to that area of study?
  • Discuss a local, national, or international issue, and why you’re passionate about it.
  • G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” Describe an experience you have had that illustrates this idea.
  • Describe a time when you made a wholehearted commitment to something bigger than yourself (i.e. church, small group, family, or team). What were some challenges you faced and sacrifices you made, and how did this commitment help you to grow more whole?

Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)

On a separate sheet of paper, please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 500 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college(s) to which you are applying. Be sure to include your full legal name exactly as it appears on passports or other official documents and date of birth, and attach the page to the back of this form. If you are utilizing the primary/alternate admission option, you must complete an essay for both colleges; please complete the essays that correspond to your primary and alternate choice.

- College of Arts and Sciences: Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the

- College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study.

- College of Engineering: Engineers turn ideas (technical, scientific, mathematical) into reality. Tell us about an engineering idea you have or your interest in engineering. Explain how Cornell Engineering can help you further explore this idea or interest. 

University of Georgia (Athens, GA)

All four essays are required for application submission.

Essay A: Choose an intellectual or creative opportunity (for example, community involvement, a summer program, a unique project, travel abroad, etc.) from your high school years that you have enjoyed and highlight how you have grown personally because of the experience. (200 Word Limit)

Essay B: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anais Nin

From freshman year to now, we know that you have interacted with a number of people in your high school who are different from you and have affected who you are now. Tell us about one such relationship with a close friend, with a focus on the details of your interaction, not the person. (200 Word Limit)

Essay C: Tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself that you have not already shared in your application. (200 Word Limit)

Essay D: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”  ~ Victor Hugo

If someone were to look at your music collection right now, they would probably know a great deal about who you are. Individuals are drawn to music, and each song conveys something about that person. Select a musical piece to be your theme song. Tell us what it would be, and more specifically, why it represents who you are. (200 Word Limit)