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Essay Prompts vs. Essay Topics: A Discussion of the Significant Experience Essay

In Autobiographical College Essay, college essay, common application, Essay on an Important Experience, Significant Experience Essay on July 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Most college applications have a prompt which addresses a personal experience.  An example can be found in the Common Application essay prompts, which  have not changed in recent years; in the first prompt for the Common App essays for 2011-2012, you will find what I call the “Significant Experience” essay, which is broken down into some subtypes by the C.A. folks, including a risk you have taken or an ethical dilemma you have faced.  This is a set-up for a classic reflective essay, most often  based on an autobiographical incident. Note that the trip essay I discussed in recent posts could also fit this category–I will discuss the tendency of various prompts to overlap at more length later.   In addition to discussing the significant experience essay below, I will also discuss the difference between prompts and topics and how to create a topic which addresses a prompt like this.

The college essay is a kind of game. The universities or the Common Application folks come up with a list of prompts–or a single prompt, in some cases–and you choose a topic to address the prompt. No matter what the prompt is or what topic you choose, the fundamental subject of the essay is you–you are playing a game in which you demonstrate what kind of person you are, how intelligent and engaged you are. Your creative abilities are meant to be tested as you show things the rest of your college application cannot show.

In earlier posts, I discussed the rhetorical situation and explored the issues posed by your audience and your subject. This post will more narrowly focus on analyzing prompts and selecting topics. In future posts, I will discuss specific prompts and specific topics at length. Let’s look at the first prompt on the Common Application as an example.

Prompt one asks you to do the following: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

This is a very broad prompt. It tends to elicit first person narratives but some writers will adopt alternate strategies. I have had students and clients who speak of themselves in the third person and adopt formats not normally associated with the college essay. In an example of this from a few years ago, a client wrote in the form of an entry from the Biographical Dictionary, which is essentially an encyclopedia of significant persons. This writer had an excellent sense of humor and a good wit, so he pulled this off nicely. He also knew that his audience would–or should–know what the Biographical Dictionary is and would understand that his essay was a parody which conveyed certain truths about about the author–among other things, that the author is knowledgeable, creative and has a good sense of humor.

But let’s consider prompts versus topics before we look at narrative technique and rhetorical strategy.

This post goes on to describe exercises to get this essay started.  The next post will continue this discussion.  To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing , put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.


  1. No, they are not unfinished. They are just not fully available if you have not paid a subscription. I hold to the concept that my ideas have value, and that those who want full access to the value of my ideas should pay for them. After all, I am running a business. You will notice that I provide a lot of information free on the college app process, as a public service and to give you a sample of my work. So if you do want full access, you can pay the truly minimal amount of $15 and become a member on my private blog, where all of the posts are fully available. Let’s face it, you’ll be paying $50-$75 to each school you apply to; fifteen bucks for help in creating the applications is a bargain.

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