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
Some classic questions from previous years…
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.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16
Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020
What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09
Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020
In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
– Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018
Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018
The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15
The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)
"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.
Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07
Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16
So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006
How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10
Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel
"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves
University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric
"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold
People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube