How to Combine Your College Essay Prompts (To Save 20+ Writing Hours)

College Essay Prompts

One of the most daunting aspects of applying to college is the sheer number of essays you have to (wait, get to!) write.

What do I mean? Say you’re applying to eight to ten schools. Each has anywhere from one to five (hi, MIT!) supplemental essays. Quick math tells us that’s between eight and fifty college essay prompts to respond to. And that’s after you write the Personal Statement for your Common App.

Combine+Your+College+Essay+Prompts+to+Save+20++Writing+Hours-min.jpeg

It’s ridonkeylips.

But guess what?

YOU TOTALLY DON’T HAVE TO WRITE 50 ESSAYS.

In fact, you may end up writing fewer than ten. Why?

I’ve developed a pretty simple, step-by-step process to help you see which essay prompts can overlap. Follow my lead and it may not only save you dozens of hours of writing, it could improve the quality of those essays.

How?

The secret involves doing a little bit of research and creative brainstorming before deciding on your topic.

How to answer all your college essay prompts in less time:

  1. Gather all your essay prompts (with a rad Chrome plugin that I’ll share in a sec) and put them on a single spreadsheet.

  2. Play the overlapping prompt game: read through all your prompts and decide which might potentially overlap.

  3. Brainstorm the content and structure for a few “super” essays (i.e. essays that can work for several prompts).

  4. Write your 4-6 “super” essays.


The Overlapping Game: How Combining College Essay Prompts Can Lead to Better Essays in Less Time

You know that expression, “A stitch in time saves nine?” This is that stitch.

In this post I’m basically going to ask you to gather all your college essay prompts, then spend just 10-20 minutes looking for instances where they might overlap. By doing so you’ll save tons of time and write better essays.

Why?

Because writing an essay that works for several prompts leads to essays that have much more more elasticity (as in: they can stretch to fit multiple prompts), which often means they have more depth.

For example, writing an essay about your improv comedy troupe could probably work for both of these prompts (bold emphasis below is mine):

Michigan: 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.

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.

Want to save yourself even more time? Look for MORE prompts your topic could work for. Take this one, for example:

Stanford: Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why.

That same essay could work for this prompt too, right? Plus, now Stanford is going to not only learn about why improv comedy is meaningful to you, but also how it’s created a kind of community for you (thanks to Michigan) AND how it has equipped you with a unique perspective (thanks to Duke).

Nice, right?

So what are we doing here?

We’re brainstorming what I call Super Essays.

Check it out:


Meet The Super Essay

The Super Essay not only answers the prompt, but also tells the reader something more. Here’s a Venn Diagram to illustrate based on the Michigan/Duke/Stanford example above, but remember that this can be applied to any schools that have overlapping prompts:

 
Venn Diagram of the Super College Essay for Supplemental Essay Prompts.png
 

Venn Diagram of a Super Essay Topic

How to Write a Super Essay:
A Step-By-Step Guide

Step #1: Collect all your college essay prompts in your Essay Tracker.

How?  

  1. Develop your college list. I’ve put together a few detailed resources for list development: here’s one that’s in podcast form and another is in this blog post. Once you’ve done that, come back here.

  2. Gather your college essay prompts for all of your colleges. Use this Chrome Extension to do that. (Be sure to double check the prompts are correct when the Common App is released on August 1st!)

  3. Paste them into an Essay Tracker, which is basically a simple spreadsheet with all the supplemental essays you’ll need to write.

Step #2: Choose 2-4 rockstar achievements or passion projects that might work as a potential "Super Topic."

What’s that, you ask? It’s a topic that could potentially work for multiple prompts.

How do you find a Super Topic? Look to your brag sheet, resume, or Activities List. Chances are, you’ll find a great topic there. If this isn’t working for you, choose something that:

You’ve spent a LOT of time doing

AND

Is either awesomely impressive (like a research internship) OR interesting/weird (like leading historical hikes)

AND

Is  NOT something you’ve already written about in your main statement.

That’s a potential super topic. Take a few minutes now to  come up with 2-3 options.

If you still can’t think of anything, try asking yourself these questions (which are basically the UC Personal Insight Question topics)...

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

  • Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

  • Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Examples of Super Topics: Robotics Club, drumming, developing an app, improv comedy, ice skating, teaching science to middle schoolers, Officer Cadet School, computer programming, working in a restaurant as a server, working in a garden, Model United Nations, art-making, Volunteering for American Youth Soccer Organization, love of History & Film, being an amazing cook, internship at local hospital, acapella singing, advocating for worker rights…

Get the idea here? In short, the range is pretty broad. Once you have 1-4 potential Super Topics in mind…

Step #3: In the “topics” column of your Essay Tracker, note which topics might work for which prompts.

Let’s say, for example,  you picked “hiking” as a potential super topic.

And let’s say your college essay prompt list looks something like this:

  • In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (1/2 page)

  • Briefly describe a non-academic pursuit (such as service to community or family, a club or sport, or work, etc.,) that best illustrates who you are, and why it is important to you. (250 words)

  • Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences (150 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. (250 words)

  • We’re seeking a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better... we encourage you to do so. (250 words)

Ask yourself: for which of these topics could “hiking” potentially work?

Take a minute to actually think about this.

The answer is: it can work for them all, of course. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

Step #4: Brainstorm and write a Super Essay, which is an essay that works for all the prompts you’ve identified.

Here’s an example Super Essay:

The Hiking Essay

I’m a history nerd, to the point where I would be that guy reading history textbooks for fun. However, reading about history can only go so far. Through Boy Scouts, I have been able to arrange and lead Historical Trail hikes, giving myself and my troop first hand perspectives on what it felt like to sleep at Valley Forge in the winter, or what the walk up Breed’s Hill along Boston’s Freedom Trail is really like. Naturally, I became the troop “story-teller” along these hikes, adding my own tidbits of information such as pointing out Eisenhower’s five-star general flag waving from his personal putting green in Gettysburg, or how Spuyten Duyvil was perhaps named following one of the first reported shark attacks in America.

Organizing these historical hikes has also given me the opportunity to teach younger Scouts about various Scouting skills, from orienteering (using a map and compass) to conservation principles like Leave-No- Trace. My troop engages in trail maintenance projects, and we actively monitor a trail we adopted from the NY/NJ Trail Conference.

I especially relished the opportunity to apply what I had learned in AP Biology towards actually helping preserve the environment. It is one thing to learn about pollution, global warming, and invasive species in a classroom; it is another thing entirely to see the biodiversity of an ecosystem quickly succumb to man- made pressures.

Finally, hiking with the Boy Scouts has given me the chance to help others experience the beauty of the outdoors. On a recent hike, a new Scout, Louis, confided in me how disconnected he felt away from his video games. I stayed with Louis for the remainder of the hike and pointed out everything from milkweed stalks to coyote scat. After the hike, Louis was exhausted but had a glimmer of excitement towards the environment around him, and could even tell the difference between poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Louis is currently one of my troop’s most active younger Scouts.

When I’m hiking, I’m not merely a hiker; I’m a historian, a conservationist, and a teacher all in one.

- - -

I love this essay. Notice how it answers all the prompts above.

This wasn’t by accident. Here’s how he did it:

College Essay Prompts

Here are some tips for each column:

College Application Essay Prompts

25 Questions to Help You Brainstorm Content for Your Super Essay

What I Did (Day-to-Day):

  • Did I list all my tasks, or just a few? What’d I forget? Go back and check.

  • Did I list things I did that may have been outside the scope of my responsibilities?

  • Did I leave off any awards? Any uncommon achievements?

Problems I Solved:

  • Did I consider the internal problems I solved--any personal challenges?

  • Did I name the external problems I solved--for my friends or family? School? Community?

  • Was I tackling a much larger (perhaps global) problem?

Lessons I Learned & Values/Skills I Developed:

  • What were some of the soft skills I learned (patience, communication, etc.)?

  • Did I learn any specific software (Photoshop, Final Cut Pro)? Languages (Spanish, C++)? Survival skills (how to start a fire or clean a fish)?

  • What am I better at now than I was before?

  • What would I have done differently?

Impact I Had (On Self, School, Community and/or Society)

  • Did I consider the impact this had on my family? Friends? School? Who else benefited?

  • What impact did this have on me personally? Did this change my life/perspective? How?

Applications to Other Parts of School/Life:

  • What skills did I develop and lessons did I learn that will make me a better X (tutor, debater, advocate, volunteer, programmer, fill in the blank)? How so?

  • What did I do to build on and take what I learned to the next level?

  • What surprised me about this experience?

Okay, your turn.

Instructions: Choose a potential Super Topic and spend 10-15 minutes filling out a BEABIES chart using the questions listed above. By the end you should have enough content for a Super Essay.

Essay Prompts

Here’s one more BEABIES example:

Prompts

Are you with me so far? Moving on.

You won’t know for sure which topic is your “best” topic as this process is more art than science. As I mentioned above, you’re looking for the topic that is most elastic (i.e. - fits several prompts). Here’s one way to do this:

Spend 10 minutes doing the Essence Objects exercise and ask yourself:

Could any of these objects or topics potentially connect to multiple themes?

For example: Maybe you wrote down “ballet slippers.” Maybe that makes you think of all of the time you’ve spent not only training, but also learning about the cultural origins of ballet... Not only that, but how might you track the intergenerational history of ballet dancers in your family?

See what we’re doing here? Trying to make those essence objects (and the topics they represent) more elastic to fit a greater range of prompts.

So try this quick exercise: go through your most meaningful essence objects hashtag them with as many values as you can think of.

Example: ballet slippers #hardwork #culture #family #nopainnogain #health

Another example: Paul Farmer’s Mountains Beyond Mountains #internship #inspiration #career #community #failure #humor

If you’re having trouble thinking of values, here’s a list to get you started.

Now do this: Look over each of your prompts and ask, “Could my favorite topic [whatever you’ve decided that is] work for this prompt… or this one… or that other one?”

For example, if you wrote solar panel software for a project in a water-scarce community in Libya, there might be connections to any prompt that has the word “culture” or “challenge” or, of course, “extracurricular” and voila: you can write one essay for all three (or four, or six) prompts.

Have fun with this! See how many you can make one topic work for. And spend as much time as you need to do this because this is what will save you the most time in your college essay process.

But wait.

You might be thinking:

What if I’m stretching too far?

What if the topic I’m choosing connects to the theme but, like, in a really weird way?

Fair point.

I believe that unusual connections are okay. But your connection to the prompt--to each prompt, in fact--has to be super clear. This may mean tweaking a sentence or two to clearly answer each different prompt. (Fun fact: usually those tweaks make the essay better anyway. That’s like the whole thing we’re doing here.) But make the tweaks so you’re clearly answering the prompt. If you can’t, your topic may not be elastic enough. So try another topic for that prompt; the goal here isn’t to find a single topic for every single prompt, but to find one that works for several.

An exception to this game is if the topic is extremely specific, as can sometimes be the case for college essay prompts that ask you to reflect on a quotation or questions like U Chicago’s supplemental essay prompts or Virginia’s “Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are” (although that one can double with MIT or Caltech).

In short, making unusual connections will make your topic stand out, flex your creativity, and show multiple sides of you at once.

Examples of College Essay Prompts That Could Potentially Overlap:

Below are some more examples of prompts from past years that students could have answered using the same Super Essay.

IMPORTANT: The prompts below may not be the same for this year, so be sure to check the Common App or particular school’s website after Aug. 15 (by which point most prompts are usually released for that year).

POp QUIZ! Play the Overlapping Game!

Instructions: Below are a few more prompts. Which ones could you imagine overlapping with the prompts above, or with your own potential “super” topic?

  • Think about a disappointment you have experienced. What was your response? -Yale University

  • Do you believe your academic record (transcript information and test scores) provide an accurate representation of you as a student? Why or why not? -University of Texas

  • Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. -UC Personal Insight Question

  • Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. -Stanford University

  • What is something you have taught yourself in the last year? How did you teach yourself this new skill or concept and what was the result? (500 word limit) -Emory University

  • If you could have any career, what would it be? Why? Describe any activities you are involved in, life experiences you’ve had, or even classes you’ve taken that have helped you identify this professional path. -University of Texas

  • Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. -UC Personal Insight Question

Oh, and you know those “Why us” essays? You can also re-use content for those, but how to do that is the topic of a completely separate post.

Click here to learn how to write your “Why us” essay.

And if you’re confused, I’m basically talking about prompts like these:

‘Why This College’ Essay Prompts

  • What in particular about Yale has influenced your decision to apply? -Yale University

  • If you selected one of the computer science or engineering majors, please tell us more about what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in computer science or engineering, and what it is about Yale’s program in this area that appeals to you.(Please answer in 500 words or fewer). -Yale University

  • Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. -University of Southern California (USC)

  • How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago. -University of Chicago

  • With the understanding that the choice of academic school you indicated is not binding, explain why you are applying to that particular school of study. -Rice University

  • What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified? -Northwestern University

  • 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? -University of Michigan

  • What influenced you to apply to Harvey Mudd College? What about the HMC curriculum and community appeals to you? -Harvey Mudd College

  • Beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech? (150 words) -Georgia Tech

  • If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences as a first year applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (Please limit your response to no more than 150 words.) -Duke University

  • Please tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why. (300 words or less) -Columbia University

  • Why you have chosen Carnegie Mellon and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s). This essay should include the reasons why you've chosen the major(s), any goals or relevant work plans and any other information you would like us to know. -Carnegie Mellon University

  • Please tell us why BU is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission. -Boston University

  • How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying. -University of Pennsylvania

Extracurricular Essay College Essay Prompts

  • Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. -Stanford University

  • Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. -Rice University

  • If you could only do one of the activities you have listed in the Activities section of your Common Application, which one would you keep doing? Why? -University of Michigan

  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time? -UC Personal Insight Question

‘Design a Course’ College Essay Prompts

  • You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called? -Yale University

  • Pomona's Critical Inquiry course is required of all first-year students, and is designed to be highly interdisciplinary and engaging. Recent class titles include: 'Molecules of the Mind', 'The Economics of Sin', and 'Punk: Poets, Politics and Provocation'. Imagine you were hired to design and teach a Critical Inquiry course. Describe the title of the class, its contents, and why you chose it. -Pomona College

Describe Yourself / Values-Based College Essay Prompts

  • What is something about yourself that is essential to understanding you? -University of Southern California (USC)

  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? -UC Personal Insight Question

  • What matters to you, and why? -Stanford University

Community College Essay Prompts

  • Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community? -Yale University

  • What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person. -University of Texas

  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  -UC Personal Insight Question

  • Tech's motto is progress and service. We find that students who ultimately have a broad impact first had a significant one at home. What is your role in your immediate or extended family? AND how you seen evidence of your impact on them? -Georgia Tech

  • 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. -University of Michigan

Diversity College Essay Prompts

  • The quality of Rice's academic life and the Residential College System are heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and traditions each student brings. What perspective do you feel that you will contribute to life at Rice? -Rice University

  • The late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Notre Dame's president from 1953 to 1987, served as a trusted adviser to U.S. presidents and popes. A champion for human rights, Fr. Hesburgh was one of the architects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Reflect on the current state of civil rights, the progress that has been made, or the problems still being faced today. -University of Notre Dame

  • SMU is a diverse learning environment shaped by the convergence of ideas and cultures. How will your unique experiences or background enhance the University, and how will you benefit from this community? -Southern Methodist University

  • 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. -Harvard University

  • Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. -Duke University

  • Reflect on your unique background and tell us about a time when you had to relate to someone whose life experience was very different from your own. How did you approach the difference? If put in a similar situation again today, would you respond differently? If so, how? -University of Colorado

  • Nelson Mandela believed that "what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived.  It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead." Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference. 200-250 words. -Tufts University

Campus Life College Essay Prompts

  • Suite-style living - four to six students sharing a set of rooms - may be an integral part of your Yale College experience. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? -Yale University

  • Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate -- and us -- know you better. (250 word limit) -Stanford University

  • List a few words or phrases that describe your ideal college community. -Columbia University

Leadership College Essay Prompts

  • How do you show leadership in your life? How do you see yourself being a leader at UT Austin? -University of Texas

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.  -UC Personal Insight Question

Wanna know more about how to answer all the supplemental essays for your application? Check out my video course.