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Open Ended College Essay Topics

College application essays don’t have to be a drag – and these schools prove it. They’ve created some of the most outlandish, thought-provoking and original essay questions out there.

Here are the 15 schools that think outside the box, when it comes to admissions essay, with some examples of our favorite questions they’re asking on The Common Application this year.

Now, it’s up to you to impress admissions officers with a response that measures up.

Amongst the schools with the most create assortments were Lehigh University, Tufts University and Wake Forest, though we’ve decided to remain (sort of) impartial and list the schools with the most creatively candid questions in alphabetical order.

The following 15 schools had some of our favorite imaginative college admissions essay questions begging the question: how would you answer?

1. Brandeis University

“You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”

Leave it to the liberal arts colleges to come up with something thought-provoking. This private research university, located in Waltham, MA, is sure to get your creative juices flowing!

Learn more about Brandeis University.

2. Bucknell University

“Pick a movie or novel where the protagonist makes a difficult choice. Do you agree or disagree with the decision he or she made?”

Another private liberal arts university, Bucknell is located in the central part of Pennsylvania in the town of Lewisburg. If you’re looking to bring unique perspectives to a university, this may be the one for you.

Learn more about Bucknell University.

3. Hampshire College

“Create two questions that drive you.”

This private liberal arts school, located in Amherst, MA, is so outside of the box, they got rid of the box (i.e. questions) all together. If you’re up for the creative challenge, seize it!

Learn more about Hampshire College.

4. Kalamazoo College

“Let’s go back to a time when learning was pure joy. Please tell us your favorite childhood book and why.”

Also dubbed “K College” or “K,” this Kalamazoo, Michigan school produces more Peace Corp volunteers than any other U.S. academic institution!

Learn more about Kalamazoo College.

5. Lehigh University

“What is your favorite riddle and why?”
“Describe your favorite \”Bazinga\” moment.”
“You’ve just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about?”
“If your name were an acronym, what would it stand for and how would it reflect your strengths and pesonality?”

When it comes to originality, Lehigh definitely took the cake. Believe it or not, we had to narrow our choices down to the above questions! But this Bethlehem, PA, university is also known for academics and landed on the Top Party Schools list. Talk about well rounded!

Learn more about Lehigh University.

6. Stanford University

“What matters to you, and why?”

Stanford left the essay open to interpretation for the scholars applying to the university, which is considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States and the world.

Learn more about Stanford University.

7. Texas Christian University

“Take a blank sheet of paper. Do with this page what you wish. Your only limitations are the boundaries of this page. You don’t have to submit anything, but we hope you will use your imagination.”

This optional “assignment” from the university, located in Forth Worth, TX, must leave a blank stare on students faces all the time. Who else wonders what types of submissions (and how many paper airplanes) they get?

Learn more about Texas Christian University.

8. Tufts University

“Celebrate your nerdy side.”
“What makes you happy?”
“What does #YOLO mean to you?”

Competing with Lehigh, Tufts University had quite the array of unique questions, so we had to pick favorites. Tufts is known as a Little Ivy and a “New Ivy,” so we imagine that those applying to this school, which ranks amongst the top in the nation, appreciate the chance to speak their minds via the college application essay. Learn more about Tufts University.

9. University of Chicago

“Winston Churchill believed ‘a joke is a very serious thing.’ Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
“How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?”

The University of Chicago cleverly takes essay questions suggested by students. So if you find the questions a little too peculiar, blame your peers. If you can take on the essays, you can join the nearly 15,00 students that attend the school – which is another ranked as one of the most prestigious, both nationally and worldwide.

Learn more about University of Chicago.

10. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“What do you hope to find over the rainbow?”

This public research university is consistently ranked among the highest in the United States and is one of eight original Public Ivy schools. Perhaps the answer to the essay question should be: an Ivy League education with public university tuition prices?

Learn more about University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

11. University of Notre Dame

“By the end of the college application process, you will have probably written dozens of essays and responded to a multitude of questions. Use this opportunity to try something new.”

If you want to become one of the 8,000 undergraduates who identify as the Fighting Irish, you’ll need to plan and strategize to impress admissions officials at this private Catholic research university.

Learn more about University of Notre Dame.

12. University of Virginia

“To tweet or not to tweet?”
“What’s your favorite word and why?”
“Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.”

Located in Charlottesville, VA, this public university was conceived and designed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. We cannot help but wonder, which side of the “tweet” or “not to tweet” spectrum do you think he’d land?

Learn more about University of Virginia.

13. Villanova University

“What sets your heart on fire?”

Founded in 1842, this private university is the oldest Catholic university in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named for Saint Thomas of Villanova, but we’d advise against answering in any way that may suggest he sets your heart ablaze. That’s just …awkward.

Learn more about Villanova University.

14. Wake Forest University

“Some say social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”
“Give us your top ten list.”

Wake Forest is a private university with its main campus located in Winston Salem, NC. The original location was in Wake Forest, hence the name. What would be on our top ten list? How about these school facts? The school has 93 percent retention rate and an 85 percent four-year graduation rate – not bad!

Learn more about Wake Forest University.

15. Yale University

“You have been granted a free weekend next month. How will you spend it?”
“What is something about which you have changed your mind in the last three years?”

You may have heard of Yale University – it’s a private Ivy League research university in Connecticut? It’s also the alma mater of five U.S. presidents, among countless other scholars. With a retention rate of 99 percent, we’re guessing most students don’t answer, “Going to Yale,” as what they’ve changed their minds about.

Perhaps which side of a legal issue you fall on would be a safer answer, especially since Yale Law School is the most selective within the United States.

Learn more about Yale University.

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Imagine your college application landing in the lap of the admissions committee at your dream school. It’s the end of a long day, and the eyes that gaze upon your application have already scanned through dozens before yours. They glimpse at your transcripts and test scores. They skim through a recommendation. You’re confident you’ve done everything in your power to guarantee you get accepted, but how do you ensure that a tired admissions committee is interested and enthusiastic about your application when it arrives before them at 4:55 PM on a Friday?

 

Your college essay is your chance to set yourself apart from the hundreds of applicants who will likely be submitting academic portfolios similar to yours. It should provide insight into who you are as a person, conveying your unique personality and reflecting what really makes you tick. To make sure that the admissions committee does more than just skim through yours, you’ll need an opening that grabs their attention. You’re going to need a great hook.

 

A hook is an engaging introduction to your college essay that captivates the reader and inspires him or her to keep reading. Put simply, it makes your audience hungry for more.

 

To learn how to craft the hook for your college essay and create an opening that leaves your readers wanting more, read on for our top college essay-opening hooks.

 

Choosing a Topic

Of course, before you can write your hook, you’ll need to know what you’re writing your essay about in the first place. While some students might know their topic right off the bat, others will need more time to reflect. In our post, How to Come Up With an Idea for a Personal Statement, we outline a few different strategies for developing your outline. If you’re still stuck, check out our post Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises to get your creative juices flowing.

 

It’s helpful to keep in mind that your personal statement doesn’t have to be about some incredible, earth-shattering experience. Some students get caught up in trying to detail their most impressive achievements or are tempted to exaggerate when they describe the adversity they have faced, but these pressures are actually unwarranted.

 

Instead of writing about something extreme, many students have had success writing about more mundane topics. Think you don’t have anything interesting to write about? Think again. One Yale admit wrote about her love for Papa John’s pizza, earning herself not only a place in the class of 2021, but also a handwritten note from the impressed admissions committee. If you need some more inspiration, check out our post, What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?

 

Ultimately, the best essays are the ones that reflect an interesting, funny, insightful, or inspiring aspect of your personality in a way that engages the audience. 

Developing Your Hook

You’re going to need to start strong if you want to really grab the attention of the admissions committee. When it comes to college essays, first impressions are everything. In fact, there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to read more than your first sentence if you bore them to tears within a few words. But you can grab your reader’s attention right away if you craft an effective and engaging hook.

 

Many times, you won’t get a feel for how to best implement a hook until you have fully developed the rest of your essay. At the very least, you should have a detailed outline of your essay before writing your hook. Some students even find that it’s easiest to write a hook last, after writing the body of the personal statement.

 

For example, let’s take a closer look at a hypothetical essay. Let’s say that after some careful consideration, Jane Doe has decided to write her personal essay about her experience running canine obedience classes. She isn’t quite sure how to start her essay, so she’s practicing with some proven essay hooks. If you’re ready to develop your own hook, check out our six favorite college essay hook strategies and how they work for Jane below!

 

1. Set the Scene

One strong way to get your essay moving and to draw your reader in is to open in the middle of an important scene, diving in with descriptive details and dialogue. Make the reader feel like he or she is watching a movie from your life and has just tuned in at a critical scene.

Then, once you close the scene, go back and explain its significance or give the reader the background necessary to fully understand its relevance.

 

Example:

I jumped back as the dog lunged for my leg, teeth bared and snarling. “It’s okay, Smokey, it’s okay,” I soothed as I tried to maneuver closer to the post where I had tied his leash. In the back of my head, I heard my brother’s taunts swirling around.

“A dog trainer?” he had scoffed. “What kind of person would hire you as a dog trainer?!”

I pushed the thoughts away and grasped the leash, pulling it tightly to my side as Smokey, surprised by my sudden confidence, fell into stride beside me. 

 

2. Open with an Example

If you’re describing how you developed a certain skill or a quirky achievement, consider opening with a specific example. Then, much like the scene setting above, you can go back and describe its relevance later in the essay.

 

Example:

When Smokey arrived for his first day of obedience training, he was scared of leashes, cats, and pick up trucks. Even the slightest loud noise would cause him to bolt, scampering for the closest hiding spot. He was skittish and wild-eyed, and his owner Maria was at the end of her rope.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to keep him much longer if we can’t work this out,” she confided in me. But Maria had nothing to worry about. I was ready for Smokey.

 

3. Open with an Anecdote

Detailing a relevant anecdote also provides good context for your essay and can give the reader an idea of what you are up against if you’re overcoming an obstacle or rising to a challenge.

 

Example:

On the day that I told my mother I wanted to start my own canine obedience school, she smiled and muttered something beneath her breath about the irony of my youthful disobedience and my newfound passion for enforcing rules. What she didn’t know then was that it was not in spite of, but rather because of, my tendency to push the boundaries that I was confident in my ability to succeed.

 

4. Ask a Question

Asking a question at the beginning of your essay can activate your reader’s critical thinking and get them hungry for the answer that you won’t offer until later. Try to come up with a question that is broad enough that they won’t know the answer right away, but specific enough that it isn’t a generic hook that could work on just any college essay.

 

Example:

How do you respond when you’re faced with a very real physical threat to your safety, yet you literally can’t afford to back down? This is the question I faced on my very first day as a dog trainer.

 

 

Writing a strong hook is the best way to guarantee that your college essay will be reviewed in its entirety and will be an engaging and exciting read for its audience. Taking the time to craft a well-founded and intriguing hook is a smart investment for any college applicant. To learn more about planning your personal statement or writing the best hook possible, consider CollegeVine’s Essay Editing service, which provides personalized help for every step, from brainstorming to final draft.

 

For more about the college essay, check out these important CollegeVine posts:

5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Good Personal Statement Topic

What Is The Appropriate Tone for a College Essay?

Application Ethics: The Importance of Writing Your Own Personal Essay

Whom Should I Ask for Help with My College Essay?

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine

Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.

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