Cracking the College Essay: How to Combine College Essay Prompts

One of the most daunting aspects of applying to college is the sheer number of essays you have to write.

What do I mean? Say you’re applying to 8-10 schools. Each has anywhere from 1-5 or more supplemental essays. Quick math tells us that’s between 8-50 college essay prompts to respond to! And that’s after you write the Personal Statement for your Common App.

Good news: you totally don’t have to write 50 essays. In fact, you may end up writing fewer than 10. Why? 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 and put them on a single spreadsheet.
  2. Play the Overlapping Prompt Game: read through all your prompts and decide which might potentially overlap. Are there any that are basically asking the same thing?
  3. Brainstorm the content and structure for a few of these “Super Essays” (i.e. essays that can be used for several of the prompts).
  4. Write your 4-6 “Super Essays.”

The Overlapping Prompt Game
Combining college essay prompts can lead to better essays in less time.

  1. Writing an essay that works for several prompts can lead to essays with more depth and reach of topics.
  2. Want to save yourself even more time? Look for even MORE prompts your topic could work for.
  3. The Super Essay not only answers the prompt, but also tells the reader something more.

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

Step #1: Collect All Your College Essay Prompts.

  1. Develop your college list.
  2. Gather your college essay prompts for all of your colleges. Hop onto the Common App to do that. Paste them into a simple spreadsheet with all the supplemental essays you need to write.

Step #2: Choose 2-4 Rockstar Achievements Or Passion Projects That Might Work As A Potential "Super Essay 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 write a list of your favorite activities. 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.

If You Still Can’t Think Of Anything, Try Asking Yourself These Important Questions:

  • 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. It could be learning English or a new language, keeping up grades for a scholarship, doing extracurricular activities, or whatever is true to your experience.
  • 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 or neighborhood a better place?
  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Once you have 1-4 potential Super Topics in mind…

Step #3: Note Which Topics Might Work For Which Prompts. Here Are A Few Examples Of Prompts:

  • In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (150 words)
  • Briefly describe a nonacademic 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, class, 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)

Heads-up:This technique of writing essays for multiple prompts works for scholarship essays too.

Step #4: Brainstorm Your Super Essay—and check your work!

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?

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Posts in This Series

  1. For High School Students: Become College Ready