Answering College Application Prompts: Common Mistakes

Answering a prompt by hand.
Answering College Application Prompts: Common Mistakes

College application essay prompts offer you the opportunity to showcase the best qualities of your character and capabilities. They are not only an important means of sharing personal details, but they can also be extremely beneficial to your overall presentation during the application review stage. The pressure of presenting yourself in writing can bring undesired challenges and may feel very overwhelming, especially if you've been dreaming about attending a particular university for years. Unfortunately, many will fail to get beyond the first round of reviews because they simply do not take the time to answer an essay prompt correctly. Many factors go into the application process, and if you do not take a step back and respond with personalized, purposeful, quality thought, you may miss your chance of being invited to step through those educational doors. If you find yourself spinning on this very concern, don't worry. The following post will guide you through common mistakes to be aware of when writing responses to college application prompts. It will also offer tips to writing strong answers to essay questions.

Let's first look at what an essay prompt is.

Professional writing prompts are writing devices to help writers get ideas out of their heads and onto paper (or computer monitor). College application prompts may appear to be the same on the surface, but in reality, their purpose is completely different. These questions are disguised as being simple essay prompts but are designed to reveal details about your personality and other facets that make you who you are.

Ultimately, colleges want to make sure the students they accept will thrive in their environment.

If this seems unfair or sneaky, consider that you will likely be spending thousands of dollars for your higher education pursuits. Wouldn't you want colleges to take the time and make the effort to get to know you beyond your name, contact information, grades, and test scores? Plus, any reputable school needs to take the application process seriously and use these prompts to determine if their curriculum and services will provide you with all the tools that may be needed to succeed in your future endeavors. When you really think about it, this is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

5 common mistakes that may hinder a full review of your essay

  • Word and character limit violations. Word or character limits vary greatly from school to school, but this application rule should always be followed very carefully. With lower limits, such as a response written in 50 words or less, make sure your writing is succinct and to the point. In other words, use phrases that carry a lot of meaning without needing many words to send the intended message. With higher limits, such as 500 words or less, make the effort to elaborate on your experiences, insights, and decisions, while carefully avoiding any tendencies to veer off topic. Regardless of whether limitations are low or high, make every word count and do not go over the word limit. Doing so will show that you cannot follow instructions and may disqualify your application no matter the quality of your essay.

  • Auto-correct spelling errors. Be diligent in making sure your spellcheck or auto-correct tool does not make unwanted changes to the words you use in your essay. Auto-fill functions can also result in incorrect word usage. For example, there are drastic differences in meaning between the commonly misspelled words "there" vs. "their," "affect" vs. "effect," and "your" vs. "you're," to name a few. Remember, colleges are looking for people who take the time to prepare high-quality essays for them to review, and this includes correct use of writing conventions, including (but not limited to) spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Simple mistakes can leave the impression that you didn't put much effort--and therefore, importance--into the task. Carefully double-check your work so you feel confident that everything is in proper order.

  • Using excessive amounts of filler words and phrases. The use of excessive amounts of filler words and phrases to add length to your essay is never a good idea. Fluff content is easily spotted by experienced admissions officers, and they do not add any value to your application. As you sit down to write, do your best to come up with quality content that offers an inside look into who you are, what you're hoping to achieve, and so forth. If you are struggling to come up with ideas or topics to write about, contact us and we'll help you with the brainstorming process. Oftentimes, people don't realize how many topics are literally at their fingertips until the right, personally relevant questions are asked. Every experience you have has the potential to be used as a focus of an essay; it's just a matter of developing those experiences into essay topics, and from topics into your written personal story.

  • Not directly answering the prompt or question. When writing an essay in response to a prompt or question, many applicants lose sight of what is being asked. As a result, they find themselves traveling down a road of offering extensive details related to the topic, but never actually getting to the point. There are also those who inadvertently steer away from directly answering the prompt because they fall into the rut of applying their usual writing style. This happens because, like many other habits that are engrained in us and are part of our daily routines, we often write in a style that we're most comfortable and familiar with. Combine habitual writing style and preferred content, and applicants end up more focused on meeting their personal preferences instead of answering the question. As you write your response, remember that college admissions officers receive thousands of essays throughout any given recruiting period. They likely will not have the time or desire to read essays that do not directly answer the questions being asked. Commit time and attention to reading the prompt or question carefully and evaluate your response against it regularly. It may also help to have feedback from others before you submit your application.

  • The decision to follow example responses too closely. Sample prompts and responses are available to help guide you in knowing how they could be answered effectively. Having examples provides an added sense of understanding for what to do, how to do it, and what's expected. A common problem that frequently results when referring to samples is the tendency to fall into the trap of writing and sounding like the sample itself. This leads to the loss of your individual writing style and voice. An admissions officer who is informed of resources that are available to the public may notice the similarities quickly and may not continue reading your statement because your authenticity will be compromised. Remember, they want to know who you are as an individual and that you've taken the time to genuinely answer the question that was asked. Sample prompts and essay responses are there to help you, but make sure that your personal voice and stories shine through.

Tips to help you create the best essay possible

  • Do your research first! How does your chosen college portray itself? Studying the terminology a college uses to depict itself on marketing materials is a powerful tool when answering your essay prompt. By closely examining the words they use, you will get an indication of the style of writing they associate with. Also, what is their mission and where do they invest their time, money, and efforts? Are they heavily focused on academics, community service, global outreach, or something else? These do not provide the fine details of what they may be looking for, but these offer a strong place to start. This simple step of doing research of the school is often overlooked by applicants, but it can have a huge impact on how you complete your application. Don't hesitate to request informational materials from the college and use them as reference points. Look them over, take notes, and see if you can incorporate the style of writing and wording they use as you write your essay.

  • Stay focused on who you are, always! What if the college application asks you what you would do if you're accepted? This loaded question can be very tricky. In our experience of working with students, we've seen the repeated decision to describe all the great opportunities and benefits a school provides as they aimed to impress the admissions committee with their intimate knowledge of the university. Remember, the admissions officers who are reviewing your essay already know about their place of employment and what's available to their school community. The application process is designed to make sure that not only will they be able to provide you with the tools to succeed, but to also uncover what you may bring to uplift their institution by your presence. Focus on carefully considering how you will use the amenities and experiences they are offering to not only benefit you, but others as well, and be sure to include the essence of who you are.

  • Reveal your inner voice. Depending on your personality and your writing ability, this can be the hardest part of writing an essay response. Oftentimes, one will hide behind facts or superficial personal stories thinking it will come off as intelligent and sophisticated. Alas, the opposite will be true. Finding and revealing your inner voice will always be most powerful and effective in showing who you are as the person wanting to attend the college of your choice. There is no easy formula for bringing out your inner voice other than to be genuine as your write. If possible, when you're finished with your essay, give it to as many people you trust and whose opinions you respect. Ask them if your personality and voice shine through. Be prepared for some criticism and keep an open mind. If you find that the feedback is similar from one person to the next, you can assume that there is some merit to the point(s) being made. On the other hand, if everyone seems to have a different viewpoint that doesn't align with who you are, you may have to go back to the drawing board and rewrite your essay. This may be the most difficult and uncomfortable process when writing, but it could end up being the difference between you and another candidate.

Here are 5 quick questions to ask yourself when you are finished writing your essay:

  1. Did I answer the prompt directly?

  2. Did I answer the prompt in a concise manner?

  3. Am I within the word or character limits stated in the application's instructions?

  4. Is my response written in a way that makes others want to continue to read it?

  5. Does my personality and voice shine through?


After reading this article, it is our hope that you take away how important your personal voice is when writing an essay for a college application prompt or question. Don't let the fear of showing who you are get in the way of possibly attending the college of your dreams. Also, do your homework and research the colleges you're applying to, read the application instructions carefully for word or character limits, proofread and edit your work, and most of all, be sure to answer the prompt or question directly as instructed. Ultimately, remember that everyone has something to offer, and it is this that colleges are looking for. Everyone is a one in a million, so why should they choose you over another applicant? Be confident, be authentic, and let your personality and voice shine through!

A final word…

College application prompts are oftentimes uncomfortable to answer because they may push you to reveal a side of your character that you have never written about. You don't have to expose deep, dark secrets; but, if you are able to show a positive side to your personality and capabilities, as well as why it would be advantageous for them to consider you, then all the better. We often have to remind people to step out of their comfort zone and reveal the unique value they bring to the table, whether it's through their personality, skills, insights, outlook, etc. If you have any questions, support is just a click away! Contact us here and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.