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The Cardinal Rule for Writing a Perfect College Essay

cardinal for perfect college essay

Answer the Prompt

That’s right.  Pretty simple.

Answer the prompt.

Colleges and university admissions committees—as well as the members of the Common Application—spend a lot of time crafting the essay prompts.  They are looking for answers to specific questions.  So give them the answer.

The Prompt

cardinal for perfect college essay
What does this bird have to do with a “cardinal rule”?

Before you start, you should carefully analyze the promt.  Look at the key words.  What are the individual elements of the assignment? How can you address each element? What are you being asked to do?  What does the reader want to know about you? Physically underline the key words, and jot down a few notes as you go.  For more on how you can analyze the key words of the 2014 Common Application prompts, you can check out this series of posts.

But don’t try to over-analyze things.  Don’t assume there is a right or a wrong answer to the question, or a right way or wrong way to address the prompt.  They are looking for your answer, your response, your reflections.

However, answering the prompt does not mean you have to write a boring, conventional essay.  You may be able to figure out a way to bend the prompt a bit.  Words and concepts are open to interpretation, and sometimes you can open up a whole new world of ideas by simply defining the terms of the prompt in a creative way.

cardinal for perfect college essay
What does this bird have to do with a “cardinal rule”?

For example, one of this year’s Common Application prompts asks you to reflect on an event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood.  This seems very straightforward—getting your driver’s license, celebrating your Bar Mitzvah, or getting your first job.  These are fairly standard responses, and you might find these ideas boring.  But once you reflect upon the deeper questions of what constitutes “childhood” or “adulthood,” interesting new transition points may begin to emerge.  By finding ways to interpret these two stages of life, you can perhaps come up with a very unusual, very personal transitional event that will serve as the focus of this essay.

So the Cardinal Rule is to answer the prompt.  Don’t hesitate to look for ways to twist the prompt to fit your own circumstances and life experiences.  You can bend the prompt, but you can never, ever ignore it.


What do we mean by “cardinal rule”?  The word comes from the Latin and means “of foremost importance.”  So we can speak of the “cardinal point” of the compass (that’s north, south, east, and west), and the “cardinal virtues” (justice, prudence, fortitude , and temperance), and even your “cardinal numbers” (remember those?).  There you have it:  an SAT vocabulary lesson rolled into a discussion of how to write the perfect college essay!
For more on writing the perfect college essay, have a look at these general guideline
How To Write the Perfect College Essay:  Consider Your Audience
How To Write the Perfect College Essay:  Grab Some Attention
And: How To Write the Perfect College Essay:  Paint a Picture
Along with: How To Write the Perfect College Essay::  Tell a Good Story


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