College essay prompts can be strange

September 20, 2012|Lisa Prejean

The ninth-graders in my English class will soon have the pleasure of writing an in-class essay.

A day or two before this assignment, the students will be given a "prompt," a question or imperative statement that will provide them with the focus of the essay.

As the year progresses, and they are assigned other in-class essays, students won't know the prompts in advance. For this first one, though, they will. I like to ease them into the art of writing an essay.

The prompt that I often use goes something like this: "If you could travel to any time period in history, where would you go and why?"

The students are instructed to write an introductory paragraph with a thesis statement, two to four body paragraphs and a concluding paragraph that includes a restatement of the thesis.

I've been very pleased with the results of their in-class essays. Some students write about traveling back to the Wild West ... some would like to live in the antebellum South ... some want to go back to biblical times.

Whatever the time period, the students always seem to come up with creative responses.

I have thought that this assignment would help them once they start applying to colleges. Perhaps this prompt might even be on some of the colleges' applications.

However, because my son has started completing college application forms, I'm beginning to wonder about that assumption.

Some of the essay prompts are rather strange. Perhaps they were written by a 20-something recent graduate who is tired of the old hum-drum topics.

Just for giggles, I thought I'd share some of the prompts with you:

 You just put a message in a bottle and threw the bottle out to sea. What is the message?

I'd write about the advances in the communications business in the last 200 years.

I know. Boring. What can I say? I'm an English teacher.

 What is your comfort food and why?

Do I have to pick just one? There's pizza and lasagna and ice cream and chocolate .... Why are they comfort foods? Because they comfort.

 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?

Twenty loads of laundry in one weekend ... because my family needed uniforms and practices clothes and dress clothes ... Oh, my!

 Tell us about a time when you changed your mind about something that mattered to you. What led to that change?

Would you like to hear about yesterday's mind change or the day before or the day before that or the day ....?

With these prompts, I know the colleges are looking for creativity and focus. Plus, they probably want to see if a potential student can come up with an idea that is truly unique.

I think my time travel prompt would accomplish the same goal, but consider the source.

Anyone who mentions pleasure in reference to essay writing would be considered odd in most circles.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send email to

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