How to tackle a writing prompt

Posted by Emily K. on 10/21/20 8:50 AM

Title_ How to Study Efficiently for Hours On End (With the Help of a Tomato) (14)Students are accustomed to learning and analyzing a variety of written genres—plays, poetry, novels—yet one extremely common genre is usually left for students to analyze blind. This genre is the writing prompt.

The writing prompt is indeed an art form with one primary goal: to invite the writer to demonstrate the skills or qualities that the instructor or reader is looking for. Furthermore, there is a secondary goal: to be somewhat interesting or novel so that neither the writer nor the reader wants to doze off in the process. These are both noble pursuits, but they can often leave the writer wondering, “This prompt is weird—what do they want?”

What, indeed! If you’re feeling stuck about an inscrutable prompt, here are some tips to getting started:

a. If this is for a course, ask your instructor for clarification!

If you have a question about the given writing prompt, chances are another student does too. A prompt is not a trick from your teacher; it’s a chance for you to show your stuff! Help your instructor help you by asking clarifying questions about the prompt.

b. If you don’t have access to the prompt-writer, think about the skills or qualities that the reader is looking for.

This tip works best for prompts like admission essays or supplements. If this prompt is one of many, ask yourself: “What does the reader need or want to know that I haven’t already told them?”

Let’s take this medical school supplemental prompt from Duke University as an example:

Tell us more about who you are. You may provide additional information that expands your self-identity where gender identification, racial and/or ethnic self description, geographic origin, socioeconomic, academic, and/or other characteristics that define who you are as you contemplate a career that will interface with people who are similar AND dissimilar to you. You will have the opportunity below to tell us how you wish to be addressed, recognized and treated. (500 words)

Since you don’t have access to the prompt-writer, you should first ask yourself, “What does the reader need or want to know that I haven’t already told them?” This is a supplemental prompt, so the school has already read the all-important personal statement. This additional prompt asks for more, for you to expand on what you’ve already told them. Specifically, they want to know more about how you self-identify. Easy! Churn out those 500 words on your existential being!

Just kidding. No one’s self-identity easily fits into 500 words. However, when you think of the goal of the prompt—to invite you to demonstrate your aptitude for medicine—the question becomes more specific. “Tell us more about who you are” becomes “tell us more about how who you are will help you be a successful medical school student and physician.” This prompt gives you an additional clue to an even more precise goal: they want you to tell them who you are as a future doctor “as you contemplate a career that will interface with people who are similar AND dissimilar to you.” So, Duke is most interested in the qualities that affect how you relate to other people. You could ask yourself: how have you learned to navigate conflict within your community or between your communities? What challenges have made you more empathetic to others, or helped you understand barriers to medical care? When your patients meet you for the first time, what do you hope to outwardly project about yourself? These questions are still open-ended, but your task becomes more directed.

This principle applies to many more prompts: a college application essay wants to know you as a potential college student, and a class assignment wants you to show your skills as a member of that class. The more you can see the prompt for what it wants, the more control you have to fulfill those wants in your own unique way.

Happy writing!

Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.

We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.

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Check out some other blog posts regarding writing below!:

Betwixt and between: difficult grammar rules explained

Five strategies to improve your writing

It’s All Greek to Me—How to Build Vocabulary from the Ground Up

Tags: English, expository writing, college, high school, college admssions