Opinion: How to write an interesting college essay from a boring prompt

Masked students walk through the campus of a university earlier this year.

Masked students walk through the campus of a university earlier this year.

File photo

With the imminent deadline for college applications, students are scrambling to complete the dreaded personal essay. As an instructor of college-level writing, the years I’ve spent teaching students on the other side of the college admission process has left me thinking about what I might say to prospective students.

Essays come in all shapes and sizes — some are breathlessly creative, others poignantly policy-oriented. For me, at least, the best student essays stand out for how well they show the nuances and complexities of how the author thinks.

College essays are difficult to write because they address broad prompts. But if you take time to separate out the parts that comprise the prompt’s implied argument, you might revise the prompt to suit your needs and curiosities. You might create a question that you’d love to answer.

Here’s a prompt: “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?”

Many students might begin by listing all of the hard times they’ve experienced over the years. But what if you feel you have nothing remarkable to report?

To develop a response, we need to understand what the prompt is asking us to do. At a basic level, the prompt is asking us to take the claim — “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success” — and supply evidence. But to merely check these formulaic boxes would be a missed opportunity. Rather than listing out experiences that may relate to the prompt, another way to go about prewriting is to perform surgery on the prompt. We can look for what rhetoricians call a warrant: “a general assumption or principle that links the evidence to the claim.” For example, the idea that you need to write a good college essay to get into college assumes, among other things, that you want to go to college.

Playing around with warrants can be fun. For example, a meme about mistakes circulating on the internet shows the picture of an obviously photo-shopped penguin holding two cymbals ready to crash over a sleeping polar bear. The inspirational poster parody reads that, like obstacles: “We learn from our mistakes” and underneath it in smaller font: “Today you will learn a lot.” Of course, the humor of this meme is that the penguin will soon learn the effect of waking a sleeping bear. That lesson, however, won’t serve the penguin for long since waking a predator close by leads to serious trouble. In this humor, we can spot a warrant: there is an expectation that time passes between our mistakes and what we learn. Moreover, there will be future events at which time one can apply this new learning.

The best thing to do with warrants in an argument is to challenge them. What if we don’t learn from obstacles? What if the things we learn now don’t lead to later success? What if they drift into oblivion?

Now it’s your turn: can you think of a time when you didn’t learn from obstacles? What did you learn from the experience of not learning from obstacles? Or, thinking on a broader sociocultural level: If we don’t always learn from obstacles, then why are educational institutions asserting that we could or should learn from obstacles?

The steps are as follows: (1) Challenge the warrant and ask why. (2) Use the questions you come up with like a new prompt. (3) Write an essay that responds to a question for which you do not have an answer at the outset. Write to explore the question and look for answers. One question I’ve wondered about, for example, is “Why is learning from mistakes so fundamental to postsecondary pedagogy in the United States?” Does it always work? Does it ever cause harm?

So before you begin to write your response to the prompts, pause to ask questions back at them. If you find yourself asking a question to which you don’t have an answer, and it’s one that you’d really like to have an answer to, then dive in. Begin free writing. Perhaps you’ll recognize the college essay application process not for what it is but for what it could be: a chance to explore the habits of mind that shape how you understand the world and to nudge readers to question the way they think.

Heather Klemann is a lecturer in the English Department at Yale University.