Are you about to scour the internet for the best college personal statement examples? Don’t waste your time: my video and article give you exactly what you’re looking for in the first place! What you really want to know is how to identify the 6 recurring prompt types and how to respond to each one accordingly.
Your life is about to get a whole lot easier. After you learn from this post, you’ll be able to scan any specific prompt and to identify which recurring prompt type is below its surface. Then all you’ll need to do is follow the corresponding college personal statement template that I give you. Hence, you can skip deciphering tons of college personal statement examples in order to determine what made them successful. I’m telling you what made them successful right here!
I’ve boiled everything down for you so that you’ll know the criteria to meet for any specific prompt. So forget the daunting task of examining a million and one different college personal statement examples. Let that idea go! All you have to do is learn from this article.
You’re welcome, my friend! And don’t worry: I’ll remind you about how much time I’m saving you on that front throughout the article.
[The above video is the second in a three-part series. The below article partners with the video by adding extensive and candid supplemental material that you won’t find anywhere else. Here are the concise notes for the entire series on personal statements: Personal Statements Guide. Regardless of the way or ways in which you choose to learn, enjoy!]
HOW TO IDENTIFY AND RESPOND TO THE 6 RECURRING PROMPT TYPES
1. The Difficulty Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Difficulty Prompt under the surface of a specific prompt that you’re responding to when that specific prompt asks you about a difficult time in your life, an adversity in your life, some sort of challenge in your life, or a failure in your life. The prompt will also ask you about how it was that you responded to that trial. Whatever the focus of a specific prompt is, if a trial and your response to that trial is the prompt’s main essence, then you, sonny-boy or daughtery-girl, are looking at the Difficulty Prompt.
HOW TO RESPOND:
The essence of any successful college personal statement examples that you could find in regards to this prompt type will have several things in common. They’ll each demonstrate that their writer is a person who can handle pressure; who can use his or her brain to solve problems that don’t have obvious, correct answers; and—if applicable to the prompt—who can humbly accept and wisely learn from mistakes.
The best way to ensure that you’ll demonstrate those characteristics about yourself is to follow a pattern of storytelling that shows that you’re someone who cares: the CARES© method. The gist of this methodology is nothing new, but I’ve framed it in a way that I think best allows for students to stand out when they use it (and made it into my own memorable acronym at that!).
- Describe the—C—circumstance. What was the difficulty that you faced? Give the context; set the stage; make sense of what you’re taking about.
- Convey what—A—action or actions you took. How did you respond to the difficulty? What were the particular choices that you made?
- Tell what the—R—result of your action was. What outcome did your chosen response result in?
- Engage in an—E—evaluation of your action and its result. Why did you choose that response to the circumstance? Why did your action bring about the result that it did?
- Display any—S—shift in your personhood because of the story that you’ve thus far described. How have you changed for the better based on the experience? Would you choose the same response to the circumstance again, or would you do something differently? What aspects of the overall experience have changed the way or manner in which you’ll approach similar circumstances?
The whole purpose of using this methodology is to make sure that your story contains tension and that it results in some meaningful change that justifies its being told in the first place. Nobody CARES© about a story that lacks tension and that leads nowhere new.
2. The Beliefs Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Beliefs Prompt under the surface of a specific prompt that you’re responding to when that specific prompt asks you to describe a time in your life either where someone challenged your beliefs or where you for whatever reason questioned your beliefs, how you responded to the situation, and whether you maintained or altered your beliefs in the end and why.
HOW TO RESPOND:
Here, admissions counselors want you to demonstrate that you’re a person who values truth above all else, that you’re a person who demonstrates a first-rate intelligence (which I’m about to explicate), and that you’re a person who lives by a standard of internal integrity.
The following quote succinctly and perfectly describes what a first-rate intelligence is.
If someone can pass such tests consistently, that person possesses a first-rate intelligence. Colleges want to see that you have a first-rate intelligence because a first-rate intelligence is rare. First-rate intelligences have always been rare. That’s because it has always been very difficult to entertain ideas that promote possibilities about reality with which you (and others) are uncomfortable. Ostensibly, that’s the sort of students colleges should want.
So, that’s the gist of the Beliefs Prompt and what its premise is, and you now can answer it based on that format if you choose to do so.
However, I’d recommend that you be very wary of this prompt. You might look at the prior paragraph and say, “That seems like a good way to stand out.” But I caution you: rarely will real first-rate intelligences be strategic to show in this context…
Nowadays, many (most?) colleges and universities spend their time upholding a pathetically fragile paradigm of modern ideas on their campuses. Admissions counselors are the gatekeepers of the campus, so have no doubt that they’ll reject any “dangerous” entity. They’re like the white blood cells congregated around a cut, if you will. If your Beliefs Prompt answer has teeth, they’ll likely fear your presence, and reject you. Yet, if it’s toothless, they’ll likely be unmoved, and reject you.
I would say that unless your essay is about beliefs concerning your own character, you should avoid this prompt type. No religion. No politics. Nothing like that. An admissions counselor might read this and say, “That’s not true: we love a diversity of beliefs!” Correction: they like a diversity of sterilized beliefs. If your beliefs lead you to contradict the beliefs of others, your beliefs don’t make the cut. Judge by deeds not claims.
Far more often than not, the Beliefs Prompt merely pays lip-service to an intellectual rigor that was once sought by universities. Now, however, in tragically ironic fashion, that level of intellectual rigor needs to be smuggled into many campuses.
Avoid the Beliefs Prompt except for beliefs with which anyone can agree…which should probably be avoided, because they’re dull.
3. The Future Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Future Prompt under the surface of a specific prompt that you’re responding to when that specific prompt asks you to name a problem that you wish you could solve and, often, how you or others could go about solving that problem.
The problem to be solved might be framed in the context of goals that you have (where the problem is that you want to be at Point B, but you’re currently at Point A), issues that need to be fixed (where the problem is that something doesn’t meet a standard that it should be meeting), or improvements that could be made (where the problem is that something is all right but could be made even better than it is now).
Hence, I’ve found that the specific prompts for this particular foundational prompt type can have a bit more nuance to them compared to the specific prompts associated with some of the other foundational prompt types. That being said, let me say again (Now there’s an interesting turn of phrase, no?) that all you need to be able to do is identify these foundational prompt types underneath the specifics of any prompts, and then, based on the guidance I’m giving you, you’ll know exactly how to effectively construct the foundation to your response to that specific prompt.
No need to start flipping willy-nilly through college personal statement examples though! Just remember that, at the most fundamental level, a specific prompt that asks you about some problem to be solved in the future means that its the Future Prompt underneath the specifics.
HOW TO RESPOND:
In regards to the Future Prompt, admissions counselors want you to demonstrate that you’re a person who aspires to provide solutions to needs in the world, that you’re a person who can accurately and fully identify a need from its symptoms to its causes, and that you’re a person who can strategize how he or she should approach the overall endeavor of providing a solution for that need.
You can answer using the CARES© method, except now you’ll do so in the context of looking forward. So the methodology will be tempered by that reality and will also be rearranged because of it. Thus, our new acronym: CREAS©. She’s ugly, but she’s useful.
- Describe the—C—circumstance that you want to see changed and why you want to see it changed.
- Convey the—R—result that you want to see come to fruition by the changing of the circumstance.
- Show that and how you—E—evaluate the circumstance, the differences between its current state and its projected end state.
- Delineate the concrete—A—action that’ll be needed to shift the circumstance from its current state to that projected end state.
- State any—S—shift in your thinking that this overall process has caused. Do you now think about this problem in a different way? Will you now act differently in your own life based on what it’ll take to make changes to the future?
So, that’s how you can CREAS©. Now don’t raise your eyebrows and crease your forehead at me… I know it’s a weaker acronym than CARES©. But it’s in the right order for discussing the future, and that’s what matters most! By the way, isn’t it so nice that your future doesn’t include decoding slews of college personal statement examples? 😀
4. The Definition Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Definition Prompt under the surface of a specific prompt that you’re responding to when that specific prompt asks you to define yourself in one way or another. It could be asking you about your interests, what activities you engage in, what talents you have, what your background is, or what identity you ascribe to yourself. You’re being asked to show some attribute about your life that makes you unique.
HOW TO RESPOND:
If you answer a Definition Prompt, admissions counselors want for you to demonstrate that you’re a person who possesses a zeal for some figurative well of inspiration from which you can constantly draw and thereby become a fuller person over time. They’re looking for a sign that you have something in your life that provides constant value to you. Something that you can always rely on. Something that you can go back to again and again in order to make yourself a fuller person.
This is another prompt of which I’m wary. Why? Because it’s very easy with this prompt for you to end up focusing on the wrong things. You want to focus on your character. You don’t want to focus on your traits. Focusing on your character will earn you an acceptance. Focusing on your traits, a rejection.
You first should agonize to write about your character—such as your capacity for leadership, your resilience, your integrity, your vulnerable honesty, and your passion—and then, only if it’s too difficult to write about your character, should you resort to writing about your personality, your quirks, and other traits over which you have little to no control.
Why do I urge you to do this?
Because there’s a chasm of difference between the person who says, “I became,” and the person who says, “I’ve always been.” The first is a story. The second is trivia. Becoming is inspiring and engaging for whoever learns about it, because it pulses with universal applicability. Always having been is flat and lifeless to whoever learns of it, because oftentimes it stinks of a coddled ego. It’s the emphatic, “Oh, that’s great!” versus the cloying, “Oh…that’s great…”
I have more to say on that in the above video. But, suffice it to say, when answering the Definition Prompt, write about your character, not mere traits.
5. The Commitment Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Commitment Prompt when a prompt questions whether or not you’re sincerely interested in a given school. It’s very easy to identify, to the point where, if you can’t identify this type of prompt, you shouldn’t be applying to college…but, if you can’t identify this prompt type, you wouldn’t know that you can’t identify it, so you wouldn’t know that you shouldn’t apply to college…a catch-22! That might take you a second to figure out. At least you don’t need to figure out on your own what countless college personal statement examples have in common.
HOW TO RESPOND:
Admissions counselors want you to demonstrate that you’re a person who is genuinely motivated to attend their college or university.
This situation is analogous to how a man and a woman should properly date. And I say properly to denote that it’s this form of dating that won’t leave you emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. Don’t be surprised that I’m about to contradict everything the world is incessantly and cruelly telling you. There’s a massive war for your mind right now. If you don’t know that, you’re losing the battle.
When a man goes on a first date with a woman, he might compliment her on her smile. On her eyes, her hair, her clothes, her demeanor, her interests. On other equivalent superficial things. (Now, the man might be making these compliments guilefully, or he might indeed be making these compliments sincerely, or he might even be making these compliments self-deceivingly, but, whatever is the case, that’s not the issue here.).
If the woman hasn’t learned how to value herself, the man’s superficial compliments could be enough for her to give an undeserved amount of trust to that man. Young women, beware of this, despite your rarely, if ever, being told to beware of this.
However, if that woman has learned how to value herself, such superficial first-date-type compliments will be only niceties that she appreciates. They’ll hardly win the man her cherished, sacred trust—as it should be. To earn such a woman’s trust, the man will have to spend a lot more time with her. He’ll do this so he hopefully can learn the actual nuances of who she is. Then, again hopefully, he’ll appreciate those actual nuances. Finally, once more hopefully, he’ll express his appreciation for her actual nuances in ways that resonate with her as truthful. And he’ll thereby earn her cherished, sacred trust.
The same concepts apply to your answer to the Commitment Prompt. Admissions counselors are like a woman who knows her own value. They’re protecting that which is of supreme value to them, and they trust a person with that supreme value only when that person has completely earned their trust.
Don’t scan the school’s website and then pepper into your essay facts that you copied and then merely reworded. That will speed your application to the rejection pile. You have to actually spend time studying and thinking about the school. Then convey that you’ve done so in a genuine way that rings true to the admissions counselor’s figurative ear.
6. The Creative Prompt
HOW TO IDENTIFY:
You can identify the Creative Prompt because it asks you to respond with an essay that has a focus of your choosing. It’s completely open-ended: the topic of your essay is completely up to you. Hence, this prompt is a risky one, but it also can be a very rewarding one!
HOW TO RESPOND:
Let me first say that if you just submit any old essay that you wrote for English class for the Creative Prompt, you’re acting incredibly foolishly. Remember, you’re not looking for the easy way out of writing your personal statement: you’re looking to write the absolute best personal statement that you possibly can. Don’t be a sluggard. Don’t disregard the high stakes and high potential of the Creative Prompt.
So, how should you answer it, then?
I think the best way to explain how to answer the Creative Prompt is first to show you what it is that you’re really being asked to show about yourself in all of the different prompt types. What question does every college admissions counselor want you to answer for them, regardless of whichever prompt you’re responding to? What question gets answered by every one of the successful college personal statement examples that you don’t have to analyze because you found this article? 😉
“Are you a good neighbor?”
What do I mean by that? I mean that you contribute value to the world in one way or another. You do things that make other people’s lives better. They want to see that you’re not a self-absorbed deadbeat who isn’t really going to contribute anything to their college or university. They want to make sure that if you come you’re going to be worthwhile to have around.
- The Difficulty Prompt asks if you’re a good neighbor in terms of if you’re someone who’s reliable, who other people can lean on, and who can be trusted to take care of himself or herself.
- The Beliefs Prompt asks if you’re a good neighbor in terms of if you’re somebody who isn’t completely outrageous to be around because you can accept that other people have different ideas and beliefs.
- The Future Prompt asks if you’re a good neighbor in terms of if you’re somebody that looks forward to making the world around himself or herself a better place.
- The Definition Prompt asks if you’re a good neighbor in terms of if you define yourself by something that constantly adds value to you as a person and thereby makes you a better person to be around.
- The Commitment Prompt asks if you’re a good neighbor in terms of if you actually even care about the community that you’re trying to join.
So the Creative Prompt is of course also asking whether you’re a good neighbor, whether you’re a worthwhile person to have around. However, the Creative Prompt boasts a very intriguing difference…
All the criteria of the above prompts ask you to demonstrate that you’re a good neighbor explicitly. Yet the Creative Prompt lets you show you’re a good neighbor not just explicitly but also implicitly.
What do I mean by showing that you’re a good neighbor implicitly?
I mean that with the Creative Prompt you can do something really unique. Here, you can write an essay that doesn’t show a clear, explicit story about how you’re a useful person. With the Creative Prompt, you can make admissions counselors say, “Wow, that’s really meaningful!” or, “Wow, that’s really interesting!” By doing so, you’ll implicitly demonstrate that you’re a meaningful or interesting person to have around. If admissions counselors read something that’s really powerful or influential or intriguing, it has a big effect on them.
And that big effect implicitly shows that you’re somebody who’s worthwhile to have around, for one reason or another.
If you’re uncertain what it means for you to be a good neighbor, I encourage you to read Luke chapter 10, verses 25-37.
Those are the recurring types of prompts you will see over and over and over again. Now you know how to identify any of those prompt types below the specifics of whatever prompt you’re facing: you have “x-ray vision.” And now you know how to answer each of those prompt types effectively based on what college admissions counselors are looking for you to show them.
Make sure to check out the next post: “How to Write a Personal Statement for College.”
By the way, can you see how much time I just saved you? Could you imagine trying to discern all this information by yourself? How many college personal statement examples would you have had to analyze before you reached these insights? Don’t worry: I got you! 🙂 You’re quite welcome. Now imagine how much I could help you if I was your writing tutor! Your parents can sign you up for lessons with me here.
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