How to Write the Coalition Application Essay 2019-20

The questions for this year's Coalition Application essay have been released. We discuss how students should approach each of the 2019-20 essay prompts.

When it comes to applying to university in the United States, it’s important to note that the Common App isn’t the only game in town.

The Coalition Application is a newer (and smaller) application platform, through which students can apply to over 100 US colleges, both state and private. Like the Common App, students can submit their applications to multiple colleges at once.

Specifically, students can use the Coalition Application to:

  • Submit their basic information, like name and address, school grades and GPA and relevant test scores.
  • Store relevant information in the Coalition Application ‘Locker’ that allows students to keep all their application materials in one place.
  • Keep supporting audio and visual files that might help their application to stand out from the crowd.

Note: The Coalition Application might be a more suitable application platform for students interested in arts and creative subjects. The ability to submit audio/visual material means that a US college applicant can really showcase their creative portfolio. 

Like the Common App, the Coalition Application asks students to submit an application essay, that is then sent to all of their prospective colleges. And, also like the Common App, students must respond to one of several essay prompts that are designed to give universities a comprehensive picture of who they are, what drives them, and their ambitions for university and beyond.

Recently, Coalition for College released the essay prompts for this year’s Coalition Application Essay.

What are the Coalition Application Essay Prompts? 

For the 2019-20 application cycle, Coalition for College are asking applicants to answer one of the following five questions. 

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it. 
  • 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
  • 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?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Each of the prompts above are suitably open ended, and designed to give students the space and the flexibility to fully showcase their positive personal and academic qualities. 

But the freedom and flexibility of five such open prompts (particularly no.5!) also bring with them certain drawbacks. Students might come to their guidance sessions with you and ask how they’re supposed to brainstorm and plan a response to such open-ended questions. 

Some of the prompts listed above will make students think (wrongly) that they need to have lived the life of an action hero, or be a tech entrepreneur before the age of 15. Nothing could be further from the truth! 

In the next section, we’ll look at some of the techniques for planning the Coalition Application essay before writing it. 

Bonus Resource – If you’d like more information on the Coalition Application and the other application systems in the USA, our ultimate guide to US college admissions should be your first port of call. Click here to download

How to help students plan a Coalition Application essay

Before students set to work writing their Coalition Application essay, it’s worth holding a one-to-one session to help them strategise. There are two key planks of a Coalition Application essay strategy that it’s worth working through with students. 

Logistical planning 

By this, we mean making sure that every student who is applying through the Coalition Application has a full overview of what the individual requirements are for each university they’re applying to. 

For example, some colleges will only require students to submit a single essay through the Coalition Application. Meanwhile, others may also require students to submit additional supplemental essays about why they want to study at a particular institution. 

Supplemental essays are a different beast to the main Coalition Application essay, and will require a subtly different approach. So if students need to submit these as well, this logistical planning is an important first step. 

Creative planning 

Make no mistake – the Coalition Application requires students to be extremely creative. 

They will need to use all their critical and lateral thinking to ensure that they draft the best possible response to whichever essay prompt they opt for. The natural first move for most students will be to just pick a prompt, and go from there. 

But just going straight to answering the prompt is arguably great tactics but bad strategy. A better approach is for students to brainstorm and strategise their personal and academic qualities first, and choose their essay prompt from there. 


Because fundamentally, all the five essay prompts are asking students to explore variations on the same theme. Let’s look at a few examples of what we mean. 

A student’s character 

Fundamentally, US universities want to know about who a student is, their values, how they cope in the face of adversity, how they respond to a challenge to their sense of themselves. When you strip away all the window dressing, the Coalition Application essay prompts are essentially asking – ‘who are you?’ 

A student’s worldview 

Each of the five prompts will ask a student to explain something about their worldview, or how they interact with the world around them. Nearly all of the Coalition essay prompts ask students to expand on a political, social, or moral viewpoint, or tell a story that relates to it. 

A student’s background 

We’ve discussed before how US universities are huge fans of the origin story. The five Coalition essay prompts will encourage students to open up about their past, their family history or their cultural roots.  

Are your students stuck? Try these quick exercises

As we mentioned above, a student might look at these criteria and think that they’ve got nothing interesting to say. So here are a couple of quick exercises (let’s call them the Brainstorming Prompts) you can give students to help them plan their Coalition Essay. 

  • Go home and pick out a family heirloom, or object that you hold dear. What’s the story behind it? Why does it matter to you? What thoughts, feelings or memories does it evoke? 
  • Think about a trip you took, or a city/town/country you’ve visited. What was the reason for your trip? Did you learn anything from your visit? Who did you travel with? And, perhaps most importantly, how did it affect your worldview? 
  • Is there a member of your family, or a relative that you admire? Why? What’s their story? 
  • Is there a recent historical event that has affected you? Where were you when it happened? How did you feel? How did it affect your worldview? 
  • Have you taken part in an extracurricular activity that has had an impact on you? How has it affected your perception of yourself? Has it helped to shape your ambition? 

These are just five ideas. Variations on these questions are great too! The point is to unlock your students’ sense of themselves, and to encourage them to be creative with their own back story. 

How to write the Coalition Application essay

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! 

Top tip:The Common App has also been known to ask students questions about a time when their beliefs were challenged. It’s something that US colleges are really interested in. To see further examples of how to answer this type of question, read our companion article on writing a Common App essay here

Question 4: What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?

This is possibly the most deceptive essay prompt. It may seem like it’s asking students to be deeply introspective, and share all their teenage hopes and fears. 

But read the question again. Specifically, look at the first sentence. 

What is the hardest part of being a teenager now

This is also a question that is inviting students to think about bigger questions about the world around them. What kind of world are they growing up in? What kind of world do they foresee on the horizon? 

This prompt presents a great opportunity for students to talk about the political, economic and social issues of their time. Maybe your student thinks teenagers are fearful about climate change, or about having their political voice heard. Maybe they’re worried about the future job market they’ll graduate into. You may have teenagers at your school who are worried about the impact of social media and what it means for wider society. As with Prompt 3, it’s a chance for students to critically engage with the modern world. 

The beauty of this prompt is it there’s no right answer. What’s more, students will have very different takes on this, depending on where in the world they live. It’s probably why the Coalition has seen fit to set this question – it allows colleges to see the diversity of potential applicants, especially if they’re international students. 

Question 5: Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

The open question might seem like the most tempting. Students have a wide range of options here. 

But it might not be the best option for everyone. For some, the open essay prompt is a risk. This prompt is perhaps best suited to students who have a strong opinion on viewpoint on something, or who feel like they have a really interesting story they want to tell, free of any specific prompt. 

A student tackling Prompt 5 could, theoretically, tackle a topic or issue we’ve explored in our discussion of the previous four essay prompts. Or, alternatively, they could opt for something completely different. 

The sheer range of options is such that we couldn’t possibly hope to cover them all here, but here are a few things that students answering Prompt 5 could think about: 

  • Talk about a time when they have experienced severe failure or setback, how they dealt with it, or what they learned. 
  • Tackle a famous quote, be it philosophical, historical, scientific or literary. Explain why they agree/disagree with it. 
  • Take a position on a political or economic argument, and where they stand in relation to it. 
  • Write about a piece of culture or literature that means a lot to them. Why? How did it change their worldview? 

See what all these ideas for Prompt 5 have in common? They are still ways for students to explore their character, their background and their politics. They still offer students avenues to stretch their critical and analytical muscles and paint an interesting picture of who they are. 

So whilst this fifth Coalition prompt may seem open ended, students will ultimately still need to demonstrate the same qualities as in the other four. 

For more information on the Coalition Application and sending supporting essays and documents to colleges in the United States, download our free Ultimate Guide to Studying in the USA. 

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