In this section, we’ll look at the Coalition Application essay prompts in more detail and look at what the questions are really asking of students.
Question 1: Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
This is, essentially, the ‘who are you?’ prompt. Colleges are asking students to show their character, to describe and analyse a moment that shaped their personality and their values.
And we should stress – students need to show, not tell. They need to pick a moment from their life that demonstrates who they are in a compelling and thought-provoking way.
It’s best to avoid cliches here. If they can, students should steer clear of making generalisations like ‘I’ve always had strong family values’ or ‘I pride myself on being a good leader’ if they don’t have the examples to back it up.
Let’s take the leadership examples. Let’s say a student has captained their school hockey team. Was there ever a time when the team lost morale, or experienced a defeat that was a blow to their confidence? What did they do to help their fellow team mates? How does this demonstrate their leadership prowess? And what does it say about their wider character?
This prompt requires students to have a lot of self-awareness about who they are, and where they’ve come from. Perhaps more than any other prompt, it requires deep self-reflection.
Question 2: Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
It might be helpful to refer to this as the ‘values in action’ prompt. Sure, a student has an impressive resume of extracurricular activities and community service – but can they demonstrate that they’ve made a real and lasting impact in something they’ve done?
Again, this essay is only as good as the story that a student chooses to tell. And a good story needs a powerful narrative, high stakes and relevant examples.
Stories about the ‘greater good’ don’t mean that students need to become shining beacons of political activism, or boast about abolishing hunger in their local area. Smaller acts of kindness, generosity or just managing a difficult situation against the odds will be enough to get an admissions officer’s attention.
For example, a student could have volunteered at a residential care home. They don’t need to have radically transformed the entire running of the organisation – but a story of making a small difference to the lives of one of the residents they met will seem genuine and individual.
Or maybe your student organised a series of events to raise money for a charity at school. As well as a dedication to a good cause, this demonstrates entrepreneurial spirit and organisation skills. But again, small, specific examples will go a long way.
Question 3: Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
Students might think they are being asked about a time they completely changed their mind about something. Again, this doesn’t need to be the story of a complete conversion from one point of view to another.
This is, in essence, another character/values prompt, and is asking students to talk about how they reacted when those values were challenged. They don’t have to come out of this story a radically different person, it’s just a prompt that is asking students to showcase a time when they had to engage critically with the world around them.
It could be a student having their political or moral viewpoint challenged. Maybe their family upbringing gave them a certain perspective of the world, and there was a moment where this perspective was radically altered. Or maybe something they saw on the news, or read in a book, or even studied at school, provoked a fundamental shift in their political beliefs.
Students shouldn’t be frightened to tackle difficult political issues in this prompt if they want to. It might be that students have particular views on abortion rights, civil liberties or international trade. US colleges love independent, engaged thinkers!