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A Few Words about Essay Prompts

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As long as I’ve been teaching—thirty-one years now—I’ve been witness to a phenomenon that strikes me as a quintessentially human. Whenever I assign an essay, a significant percentage of my students ignore what is in the prompt in favor of what they wish were there. For the most part, it’s not that the students willfully disregard the assignment; instead, they seem to be subconsciously remaking it into something more conducive to their own interests.

The problem, of course, is that an instructor’s grading rubric is designed to respond to the prompt that’s actually there, and if the students and teacher aren’t, literally, on the same page, grades suffer and frustration is general. Moreover, I can’t help thinking that in a world where we too often look past anything we don’t want to see, carefully following an essay prompt is an excellent way to return students’ attention to the almost lost art of close and honest reading.

Consequently, I make a big deal out of scrutinizing essay prompts. In Hello, Writer (forthcoming from Bedford/St. Martins, September 2021) I ask students to read the prompt carefully, not just once or twice, but three times. On that third read-through, I encourage them to approach the prompt as they would any other assigned reading. Annotate it thoroughly: write questions in the margins for the professor, look for keywords, underline unclear vocabulary words, and make connections between different parts of the text.

I then ask students to return to the prompt yet again, this time with a specific set of goals in mind:

  • Determine the focus. Students should be able to accurately respond to someone, not in the class, who asks: “What are you supposed to be writing about in your essay?” This first step not only helps students zero in on appropriate content, it just as importantly alerts them to what’s not on the table for this assignment.
  • Pay special attention to instruction verbs. A prompt’s verbs are at the core of an instructor’s expectations. An essay asking students to “discuss” a single article is, for instance, very different than one requiring them to “compare and contrast” two articles.
  • Look for limits. Most instructors have realistic expectations about what their students can accomplish in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of knowledge. Part of the process of understanding a prompt is identifying overlapping areas between what the student finds interesting and what the instructor wants to see in the essay.
  • Know the scope. Just as the prompt sets limits, it also indicates how ambitious the essay should be. Often a word or page count indicates the scope, but there may be other markers specifying the ideal extent of the essay’s content.
  • Note any required features. This may be the most important, and most frequently ignored, element of a prompt. Students need to realize that it doesn’t matter if they “would prefer not to” address certain parts of the assignment. If something essential is left out, the instructor’s final assessment will reflect that fact.
  • Use the required style. In early-semester essays, professors may be more forgiving of formatting and documentation errors. However, the deeper the due date falls into the semester, the more insistent professors are likely to be that there are sweeping differences between, say, MLA and APA.
  • Note details about submission. This is the nuts and bolts of this assignment. Is there a late penalty? Is there a date after which the assignment cannot be submitted at all? Because due dates may seem like a long way off when the prompt is first distributed, it’s important for students to calendar those dates in a place and format they encounter frequently.
  • Ask for help. Students often don’t want to appear bashful or uninformed, but I encourage them to reach out to me directly. In a face-to-face class, I’ll ask students to write questions about the prompt anonymously, on scraps of paper, which I answer aloud in front of the class. Online, I open up a Google doc in which everyone can write questions. Ideally, by the end of the semester, students consider it only normal to have a lively and informative back and forth with the professor about every prompt they receive.

Granted, I can easily imagine a colleague thinking, So much about prompts! With all the other elements involved in the creation of an academic essay, is spending this much time and energy on them really necessary?

I think it is.

To thoroughly explore, question, and understand the prompt before a single word of the essay is written ensures that the prompt is central to the composition process. The prompt becomes the “still point of the turning world” of the assignment, the center to which students return whenever they feel lost or uncertain how to proceed.


To learn more about Hello, Writer, and opportunities to pilot in the fall, please contact or something similar.