College Essay Prompts are Getting DEEP: Parents, Here’s How You Can Help Your Child Prepare

When I was applying to college back in the olden days (aka 2008), the college prompts were pretty basic: Who is your role model? What do you want to major in? What’s a challenge you’ve overcome? While those prompts are still around, we’ve found that colleges aren’t stopping with surface-level topics. Many colleges are asking deep, extremely thought provoking questions about complex issues – in other words, questions that students probably can’t answer on a whim. Luckily, you can help your child get the wheels turning now, so they’ll have inspiration for whatever prompts are thrown their way.

Case in point: this year, the University of Arkansas added the essay prompt, “What do you think is the greatest challenge facing your generation today?” That’s a big question, and it deserves an answer that has been given careful consideration. That’s why one of our biggest pieces of advice is actually pretty simple: talk. Have deep conversations. Carve out time for challenging and provocative debates and discussions. The more you talk about the big things, the easier it’ll be to articulate in college essays. But, where to start?

Discuss the hot topics in the news.

It seems obvious, but so many of us don’t actually get into the nitty gritty when we’re discussing everything going on in our world. Talk about the heavy stuff. Chat about the controversial stuff. Discuss the out-there stuff. Ask their opinions, and then ask them to support their opinions. Share yours! Challenge them to play devil’s advocate and take the position of a side or view they don’t agree with.

Many families have a tendency to avoid uncomfortable, divisive, complicated, or emotional topics. However, these topics are often important. Simply discussing current events regularly with your teen can generate countless college essay ideas.


Take turns answering icebreaker questions over dinner.

This is one of my favorite things to do with family and friends. (So much so that they groan when I say, “Let’s ask each other deep questions!”) Obviously, this idea will be hit or miss with teens, but if you catch them in the right mood, it’s a great family bonding exercise and an amazing way to start brainstorming college essay topics and answers. Come up with a list of “icebreaker” questions that everyone answers – luckily, there are hundreds upon hundreds online – and you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn about the people you share a roof with. Some questions include:

  • What do you think you’ll be doing 10 years from now?
  • Is it ever OK to lie? If so, when?
  • What are the three things you like most about yourself?
  • If you died today, is there anything you’d regret not doing or saying?
  • If you could live within the world of any book or movie, which one would it be? Why?
  • What is your happiest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of helping someone?


Share a GoogleDoc where you jot down ideas, topics, quotes, and any moments of inspiration.

As you have these intentional and thoughtful conversations, make sure to write down any answers, topics, ideas, wise words, etc. that you come up with together. Start a shared GoogleDoc and add things over time. Once the college list is complete and your child knows exactly what essays and supplements they’ll be writing, they have a list of inspiration to draw from!

Brainstorming for college essays doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, the best essays are ones that are born during passionate conversations or moments of thoughtful reflection. It’s pretty easy to spot an essay that was written at midnight, on a subject that your child scrambled to come up with. Talk, debate, share, analyze, and discuss those deep subjects now, and the ideas will be there when its time for them to put pen to paper.