As the college application essay writing season draws to a close, with only a short time left before most regular applications are due, I'm looking back on some of the most interesting -- and most annoying -- essays prompts I've seen this year.
I'm also taking a moment to marvel at how revealing the essay prompts are about what kind of students the colleges are looking for when they devise the questions that help them distinguish between tens of thousands of applicants. Precisely because there are so many hugely accomplished, talented students, and because the Common Application has devoted itself to making it easy to apply (and increasing its own coffers in the process, let's not forget), the essays are one of the tools used by the schools to make distinctions. And the essay questions, which vary enormously from institution to institution, tell us some of what each institution values in its applicants.
The University of Chicago's famously demanding, quirky prompts are there to help them select the kind of students who would thrive in this highly cerebral atmosphere. By the same token, the essay prompts are information for the applicants, too. If you're not comfortable writing an essay inspired by this prompt: "Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location or occupation, and tell us their story," it's a safe bet that this isn't the right university for you. I frequently have clients who are eager to apply there, until they read the prompts.
Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences, by contrast, asks a straightforward question that is demanding in a very different way. It requires a lot of intellectual curiosity and deep study of Cornell's course catalog and curriculum, and it can be up to 650 words long, not the 100 or 150 words that the usual Why This College question usually is. The word count is a tip-off that Cornell wants a thorough answer: "Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?"
Tufts' several supplementary essays are demanding in an entirely different way. Pomona's prompts are looking for precise evidence of critical thinking, while Barnard's are going in search of a candidate's fearlessness and interest in women of accomplishment.
It's hard to choose my favorite of the essay prompts I encountered this year, but easy to choose the one I thought the most off-putting. That prize goes to the University of Rochester: "Students here who thrive in white winters wonder how can you make Rochester 'ever-cooler'?"
In general, I'm partial to accentuating the positive in these matters, but it rankles me every time I read it. It sounds as though whoever came up with it -- a dean, a PR firm? -- was working too hard to make the University of Rochester sound "cool." The idea that "students" are looking for the "ever-cooler" applicants, rather than the Office of Admissions, is condescending.
And who cooked up the hopelessly uncool expression "ever-cooler"? It's not in the Urban Dictionary. None of the students I worked with had ever heard it, and they all scratched their heads about how to answer. As with most of these questions, the universities want to know what makes you stand out, what you'll bring to the place that's unique, what might be your best qualities or your most passionate interests. Let's just say that that's probably what they're getting at. My suggestion was to answer by talking about a unique quality or interest you have -- never mind who thinks it's "cool" or "ever-cooler."
Why does a university end up with a question like this? They admissions people want to attempt to stand out by asking a slightly off-beat question. They want to see what kind of answer a student will give to a question that isn't straightforward. Perhaps they even want to limit applications, by asking a question that might turn applicants off -- and thereby keep only the most serious students applying. It's hard to know. I'll be looking next summer to see if they keep this prompt.
My favorite prompts go to Barnard, Colorado College, Lehigh, Tufts, University of California and the University of Chicago, and I'm fond of Prompt 4 on the Common Application Essay. I like them because they're open-ended inquiries that students can make their own. They can answer in ways that reveal who they are, whether they're highly academic, highly creative, science nerds, music lovers and anything in between. I also want to single out a few top colleges and universities that have figured out how to distinguish between students without using any supplementary essays at all: Middlebury, Wesleyan and Washington University.
Here are my favorites, in alphabetical order:
Barnard: "Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about?"
Colorado College: "Design your own three-and-a-half week course and describe what you would do."
Lehigh: "What do you and Lehigh have in common?"
Tufts: "What makes you happy?"
University of California: "Describe the world you come from -- for example, your family, community or school -- and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations."
University of Chicago: "Orange is the new black, fifty's the new thirty, comedy is the new rock 'n' roll, ____ is the new ____. What's in, what's out and why is it being replaced?"
Prompt 4, Common Application: "Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma -- anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution."
I'd love to hear from you about what prompts have been your least favorite and your most favorite from this year or previous years -- and why?
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder of Don't Sweat the Essay and the author of five novels and a classic book on writing fiction. She tweets at @ElizBenedict.
Follow Elizabeth Benedict on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ElizBenedict
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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