Interesting College Application Essay Prompts

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Newsletter

December 2010 Newsletter

Once you’ve finished writing your personal statement and activity essay for the Common Application, you breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief. Then, you take a look at the Supplemental Applications for the colleges on your list and you see even more essay prompts! You read the questions several times and think there’s no way that you can write some of these essays. But, if you like to use your imagination, you realize that you actually love these questions because finally you can do what you love best – you can be creative!

Known for its “Uncommon Application,” when the University of Chicago joined the Common Application three years ago, it was a difficult decision for the school. Like most colleges that subscribe to the Common Application, Chicago wanted to increase its applicant pool. Having to complete the “Uncommon Application” inherently deterred applicants who didn’t want to have to fill out additional forms that could only be used for one school. And yet the university also wanted to hold onto its fun, wacky, and thought-provoking essay questions that make its application unique. After much thought, the University of Chicago ultimately decided to join the Common Application but to keep their supplemental essay questions intact. It was a decision that generated increased applications without the cost of eliminating the school’s most unique questions.

We’ve gone through this year’s supplemental essay questions for the colleges that subscribe to the Common Application and have come up with a list of essay questions that can either be viewed as “no-way-am-I-applying-to-this-college” or “this-is-going-to-be-a-fun-one-to-write.” For colleges that care more about an applicant pool of students who can think outside-of-the-box, some of these supplemental essay questions can actually inspire you to write imaginatively.

So read through these questions and, just maybe, you’ll view essays that may at first seem challenging but, in the end, may in fact be rather fun to write.

  1. Find x. [University of Chicago]
  2. 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? [University of Chicago]
  3. Salt, governments, beliefs, and celebrity couples are a few examples of things that can be dissolved. You’ve just been granted the power to dissolve anything: physical, metaphorical, abstract, concrete…you name it. What do you dissolve, and what solvent do you use? [University of Chicago]
  4. “Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favor, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be “conveniently honest,” what other virtues might we take more lightly? [University of Chicago]
  5. In the interest of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk and have fun. [University of Chicago]
  6. Design an experiment that attempts to determine whether toads can hear. Provide the rationale for your design-explain your reasons for setting up the experiment as you did. Strive for simplicity and clarity. [Bennington College]
  7. French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know? [Brown University]
  8. Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.” [Amherst College]
  9. Imagine looking through a window at any environment that is particularly significant to you. Reflect on the scene, paying close attention to the relation between what you are seeing and why it is meaningful to you. [Williams College]
  10. One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Austrian writer and social critic Karl Kraus, famous for his provocative aphorisms, wrote “Civilization ends, since barbarians erupt from it.” Write a short commentary on what you think this might mean from your perspective 100 years later, and whether it makes any sense. [Bard College]
  11. Using the following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world: “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.” [Princeton University]
  12. It’s been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. History is filled with such linchpins – small events or decisions that have huge effects on the future. Make your own change somewhere in history and show us the effects on the world. [Tufts University]
  13. Alumna and writer Anna Quindlen says that she ‘majored in unafraid’ at Barnard. What does that mean to you? [Barnard College]
  14. Imagine that you are the director of admission at a highly selective liberal arts college and you had to choose from among a group of very well-qualified applicants. Aside from excellent academic performance, what one characteristic would be most important to you in making your decision? Why? [Smith College]
  15. One of the core values of Villanova, as an Augustinian university founded on the teachings of St. Augustine, is that students and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Villanova community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others? [Villanova University]
  16. Write a letter to your first-year roommate at Babson. Tell him or her what it will be like to live with you, why you chose Babson, and what you are looking forward to the most in college. [Babson College]
  17. At Bucknell, students are free to take creative and thoughtful risks. In fact, we encourage them to do so, and we support them along the way. As students realize their own potential through risk, so, too, do they better understand how valuable risk can be in understanding – and making a difference in – the world. We’re interested in the kind of positive risk-taking energy you would bring to our University. Please describe a time when you found the courage to step outside of your comfort zone to do something unexpected and completely unlike you. Why did you take this risk? What have you learned from the experience? `[Bucknell University]
  18. Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging. [Stanford University]
  19. Given the dynamic nature of the Honor Code and the opportunity you will have to shape and change the Code if you come to Haverford, what issues and ideas do you think are essential for an Honor Code to focus on, and how should an Honor Code address them? [Haverford College]
  20. It’s easy to identify with the hero-the literary or historical figure who saves the day. Have you ever identified with a figure who wasn’t a hero-a villain or a scapegoat, a bench-warmer or a bit player? If so, tell us why this figure appealed to you-and if your opinion changed over time, tell us about that, too. [University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill]
  21. Imagine it is the eve of your graduation from Lafayette and you are reading what the yearbook says about the impact you have had on the College during your four years as a student. What might the yearbook say? [Lafayette College]
  22. Please share an example of an instance when you feel creative thought really did matter. [Skidmore College]
  23. People face challenges every day. Some make decisions that force them beyond their comfort levels. Maybe you have a political, social or cultural viewpoint that is not shared by the rest of your school, family or community. Did you find the courage to create a better opportunity for yourself or others? Were you able to find the voice to stand up for something you passionately supported? How did you persevere when the odds were against you? [Lehigh University]
  24. If you had the opportunity to bring any person — past or present, fictional or nonfictional — to a place that is special to you (your hometown or country, a favorite location, etc), who would you bring and why? Tell us what you would share with that person. [New York University]
  25. Prepare a one-minute video that says something about you. Upload it to an easily accessible Web site and give us the URL and access code. What you do or say is totally up to you. [Tufts University]

 

As an aside to Question #25 – For someone who can demonstrate a particular talent, a YouTube video may have its benefits, but what does a student who’s involved in science research do? Does this student have to stand at the lab table behind some bubbling gases and sing “Monster Mash”? I can just see it – “I was working in the lab late one night when …” Will a YouTube video make this potential cancer researcher a stronger candidate? I think not! Read our March 2010 Newsletter on YouTubing the College Admissions Rapids and our March 8, 2010 Blog on More on YouTubing the College Admissions Rapids.

Students prepare for applying to selective colleges by taking rigorous courses, participating in extracurricular activities, studying for standardized tests, and more. All of this preparation, however, can distract attention from one of the most notorious sections of the college application: the essays.

The essay is both the most and the least visible part of the competitive admissions process. Everyone knows that the essay is critical, but few actually get to see what “successful” essays look like. Some online resources, like The College Board, post examples of college application essays, but they often lack the necessary context for a reader to truly assess how accurately that essay conveys a student’s personality and interests.

When choosing a topic for an essay, students need to consider what the essay prompt is asking, the universities to which they’re applying, their goals, and, ultimately, what the essay says about them as a student and as a person.

Why the Essay Matters

Before you can choose a compelling essay topic, you first need to understand why there’s an essay in the first place. When evaluating college applications, most colleges use a “reading rubric” to evaluate the different components of each application. Aside from the “hard factors,” like grades, GPA, and test scores, colleges also look at the “soft factors,” such as extracurriculars, recommendation letters, demonstrated interests, and essays. The point of evaluating all these factors is to enable colleges to holistically build a well-rounded class of specialists. The essay (or essays) is a great way to learn more about an applicant, her motivations, life experiences, and how she can contribute to the campus community.

According to NACAC, 83 percent of colleges assign some level of importance to the application essay, and it’s usually the most important “soft factor” that colleges consider. The essay is important because it gives students the chance to showcase their writing and tell the college something new. It also allows admissions officers to learn more about students and gain insight into their experiences that other parts of the application do not provide. Just like any other admissions factor, a stellar essay isn’t going to guarantee admission, but students do need to craft compelling and thoughtful essays in order to avoid the “no” pile.

Related: How a Great College Essay Can Make You Stand Out

Types of Essays

Let’s talk about the different types of essays that a college may require applicants to submit. Over 500 colleges and universities use the Common Application, which has one required essay, called the personal statement. There are five new prompts to choose from, and this essay can be used for multiple colleges.

Related: Why I Love the New Common Application Essay Prompts

Beyond the Common Application essay, many colleges also have supplements that ask additional, university-specific questions which applicants must respond to with shorter-form essays. While topics vary from supplement to supplement, there are a few standard essay formats that many colleges use:

Personal Statement

This is the most common essay and is used for the main Common Application essay. In this essay, the applicant talks about a meaningful life experience that helped shape who she is today. The book “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College” has a great section on the personal statement and how students can craft effective essays.

“Why This College?” Essay

Many colleges, including Columbia University and Duke University, use the supplement to ask applicants to explain why they have chosen to apply to this particular college. In this essay, students need to be detailed and offer specific examples for wanting to attend this school. Not only does it help students reiterate their passions, it also serves as a gauge for demonstrated interest and a vehicle for students to better articulate how they will contribute to the campus environment.

Activity Essay

In this essay, students write about an extracurricular activity or community service project that was especially meaningful to them. This essay was previously on the standard Common Application, but was removed starting in the 2014–15 application season. Instead, some colleges, like Georgetown University, choose to include a variation of this essay among their supplements by asking students to discuss an activity and its significance to their life or course of study. In this essay, students should choose an activity they’re most passionate about and include details about how they expect to continue this activity at the particular college.

Related: Using Your High School Internship as Inspiration for Your College Essay

Quick Takes

In an effort to challenge students to think creatively, some colleges include short, “quick take” prompts that require only a few words or sentences for the response. Some examples include University of Southern California’s “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” and University of Maryland’s sentence completion prompts like “My favorite thing about last Wednesday…”

What NOT to Write About

In order to stand out, it’s important to realize that there are a number of essay topics that are cliché and overused. Avoid writing about things like scoring the winning goal, topics of public consciousness like natural disasters, or something that happened to you in middle school. Also, avoid gimmicks like writing in a different language, presenting your essay as a poem, or anything else that is stylistically “out of the box.” Your focus should be on the message rather than the presentation.

It’s also important to avoid inappropriate or uncomfortable topics. Some students choose to write about things like sex or romantic relationships in order to stand out; yet, these topics fail to add substance or depth to an application. There’s a fine line between interesting and trite — don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

Successful Essay Topics

A successful essay will reveal something about you that the admissions reader may not have already known, and will show how you interact with family and friends and demonstrate your beliefs or explore your passions. This doesn’t mean you have to regurgitate your resume — in fact, you definitely shouldn’t.

For example, a student whose number one extracurricular activity is swimming should not write an essay about “the big meet.” Instead, she could explore a more personal topic, such as something she is learning in class that conflicts with her religious beliefs. She can discuss the intersection of religion and education in her life and how she reconciled the differences — or didn’t.

A great essay also provides readers with a vivid picture. When crafting an essay, think of it as offering admissions readers a window into a certain event or story. Focus on the most meaningful moments, not the irrelevant background details.

For example, a student once wrote an essay about feeling out of place culturally during an internship. Instead of giving a general description of the internship and his conflicts, he opened the essay with a vivid description of what he saw when he first arrived, and used this scene to frame the feelings of alienation he underwent — giving the reader a striking image of his experience in great detail.

Remember, your college application essay is about you. There’s a lot of pressure to be “unique” and “interesting,” but at the end of the day, the key to standing out is to just be yourself. Admissions officers can tell when students are embellishing or being insincere in their essays, so it’s best to keep it simple and tell a story about you and the person you are today. In the end, with careful planning, research, and a thoughtful essay, you’ll get into the best-fit college for you!

For further guidance and examples, check out Noodle's collection of expert advice about college essays.

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