434. “What Personal Essay Topic Would You Assign to College Applicants?”

(*Borrowed lines from Reality Hunger, by David Shields)

In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.”


434. “What Personal Essay Topic Would You Assign to College Applicants?”


*In antiquity, the most common Latin term for the essay was experior, meaning “to try, test, experience, prove.” The following prompts could be assigned to any prospective student, regardless of major. 500 words max.


If money were no object, what would you study and why?

If money were the only thing that mattered, what would you study and why?

What do you imagine college life to be like?

What is perfection?

Do you live in the present, the past or the future?

What is your favorite character, in movies or in literature, and why?

What are ten things you want to try for the first time in college?

How would you design a test so that everyone failed? How would you design a test so that everyone passed?

Do you test the people around you? Describe a time you challenged a friend or family member, or a time you were challenged by a friend or family member.

Where in history do you see yourself?

It is said history swings back and forth. Are we in an up-swing or a down-swing in history?

List your senses from least to most important, and explain why.

How do you balance uniqueness and camaraderie?

How would you prove a fact to a group of people not willing to listen?

Describe three academic goals: one can achieve on your own; another you can achieve with help; and a third that you believe you could never achieve in your lifetime.

Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Explain.


*The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle form of fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning and shaping of events. The following prompts work best for Liberal Arts majors, but could be for any prospective student. 1000 words max.


Describe what a typical week would be like as one of our students.

Describe a time you helped someone close to you, someone distant to you, and some complete stranger. End the essay by explaining what ties all of those events together.

If you could, would you rather live in any country surrounded by people, or by yourself on the moon?

Describe a personal failure, but in reserve order of events.

Imagine you were assigned the easiest college application essay. Write a story about how you struggled through it until you completed the essay.

Imagine two of your role models and place them at a coffee table. Describe their conversation.

Imagine and describe your first interaction with your parents as a college graduate.

You’re in the desert walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you see a tortoise. It’s crawling towards you. You ask it, “Why am I here?” And the tortoise replies. What does it say?


Personal essay prompts give a prospective student the opportunity to be practical or experimental, engage creativity or raise self-awareness. These are the elements a university should measure in an applicant, and ultimately foster in a student. At the end of the day, we must all try; we must all form. That’s what the personal essay is all about. What personal essay topic would you assign to college applicants? Why?

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