Lost in Translation: The Most Challenging College Essay Prompts of 2013

It's November and all across the country many a parent of a high school senior is going through the Common Application, reading the supplemental essay prompts required by their child's prospective universities, rubbing their exhausted eyes in disbelief, and collectively uttering a simple, yet disquieted,  "What...???" 

Yes, if you have a child applying to college, you've seen them: those seemingly nefariously written college essay prompts, so challenging in nature even Einstein might not know what to make of them.

So how can parents avoid the time sink involved in helping their children write these essays?

And more importantly, how can they avoid having it take over their sleep...their lives...their jobs?

The trick to answering a challenging or cryptic admissions prompt is to think about what colleges need to glean from an essay.  They're looking for information about students as academics as well as contributing members of the world around them be it the student's school, community, work, or family.  They want to know a student's goals and aspirations.  Stray too far beyond that, and the student risks veering off-topic.  Bottom line: don't get lost in translation.

To save yourself from too much head scratching (or head banging), the College Coach experts have banded together to conduct an exhaustive search  of  the trickiest essay prompts and to decrypt them for families.

So here, in no particular order, are the most challenging college essay prompts of 2013:

The Distracting Sideshow

"You are walking down the street when something catches your eye.  You must stop and stare for a long while, amazed and fascinated.  What are you looking at?"

No idea? Hint: this is not a prompt about a sideshow. Remember, colleges use the personal statement to learn more about their applicants' accomplishments, goals, and dreams. The prompt is about what role The Student plays in the stopping and the staring.  What does the student value that's important enough to make her stop?  As the main character in this scene, the student is the focus, not a long-winded description of what the student sees.

The Not-Too Imaginary Scenario

"You just made the front page of the New York Times for doing something important that no one before you has ever thought to do. What did you do and why did you do it?"

Colleges admit real students, not figments of the imagination.  While it's okay to dream,
this essay should be 10% fiction and 90% non-fiction.  Here's the trick: the student should write about the present, or in the above scenario, how the student got his "start."  How did his "past" experiences and goals lead him to that futuristic accomplishment?  Did her undergraduate years at her prospective college play a role in getting her there?

The Curve-Ball

"Ben Franklin once said, ‘All mankind is divided into three classes:  those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.'  Which are you?"

Here are the traps:  if the student picks "immovable," he might come off as stubborn and obstinate; pick "movable," and she's a malleable flip-flop; and if he picks "those that move," well, he could be perceived as full of himself.  Definitely have an objective third party read the student's response to check for tone before the student presses "submit."  Or better yet, have the student explain how she's more than just one classification.  At any rate, the student should answer the question.  No dodging allowed!

The Deceptively Light

"Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it's important to you."

This prompt is akin to the "what do you do just for fun" question.  It doesn't mean a student has to pick something that goes completely "unnoticed."  Remember, if it's important to the student, he's probably developed a talent for it there just might not be any official framework for earning distinctions.  Try not to be too literal with this one.

The Deceptively Confounding

"Our mission of Scholarship in Action, education for the world in the world, extends beyond the classroom to include engagement opportunities with our campus community, the City of [X], and locations across the globe. Based on your interests, tell us what real-world experiences you might pursue during your education at [X University] as part of this mission."

Don't get it? You're not alone:  most families get lost at "Scholarship in Action."  Here's the CliffsNotes version:  "How do you plan on engaging in the world outside the classroom?"

  Got the gist? You're student is good to go. Ready, set...write.  

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