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Posted at 2:58 PM ET, 11/ 8/2010

'Find x' and other unusual college essay questions

By Valerie Strauss

High school seniors applying to the University of Dallas have to share their favorite joke. Brown University wants to know the best advice applicants have ever given. Caltech wants the three adjectives friends would use to describe the applicant. Bard asks students to analyze Seneca, and the University of Chicago tells applicants to “Find x.”

These are just a few of the written statements and essays that students applying for college are being asked to complete, as schools try to find new ways to judge how creative an applicant really is, and how well he or she can write.

Of course, there is no real way to know if an applicant gets a lot of help on the essay. But a school can tell there's a problem if an essay from a student who practically failed English sounds like it was penned by Tolstoy.

High school seniors (and/or their parent) are now in the throes of college application essay writing, laboring over every word, punctuation and thought.

Do essays actually matter? Well, like just about everything else in life, it depends, according to college admissions directors. In some schools, not so much; in others, they can be the determining factor in an acceptance or a rejection.

There are some schools that just ask the basics -- Why do you want to come here? and What do you have to offer? -- but some seem to try to outdo each other and themselves each year with clever essay prompts.

And that means applicants have a lot of essays to write.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way anymore. The Common Application was developed in 1975 with the idea of easing the admissions process for students by reducing the number of separate applications a student applying to a number of colleges would have to complete. More than 410 schools now accept it.

Alas, many colleges still require forms and essays that go beyond those on the Common App. (You can see a list of colleges that accept the Common App but require more essays.) And even though it is discouraged, some applicants try to tailor Common App essays to particular schools.

The Common App essay prompts are straightforward: Applicants are asked to discuss their extracurricular activities, as well as select one of the following to write about:

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an
  • experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  • Topic of your choice.

Here are some of the less conventional questions students are answering:

University of Chicago

From its Web site:

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see by the attributions, some of the questions below were inspired by submissions by your peers.

This year’s essay questions:

Essay Option 1
Find x.
Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Essay Option 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?
Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

Essay Option 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?
Inspired by Greg Gabrellas, AB 2009

Essay Option 4
“Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” —Overheard in the city of Chicago
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?

Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second-year in the College

Essay Option 5
In the spirit 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.

Yale University

Yale asks applicants to write essays, plus the following questions, to be answered in 25 words or less:

1. What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?
2. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come?
3. If you could witness one moment in history, what would it be and why?
4. What do you wish you were better at being or doing?
5. If you were choosing students to form a Yale class, what question would you ask here that we have not?


University of Dallas

Along with three conventional questions, including “What influenced you most to apply to the University of Dallas?” the school also asks: “Tell us your favorite joke or humorous anecdote.

Lehigh University

Applications are to answer one of the following questions in 150 to 250 words:

1. 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?
2. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why?
3. In our ever-changing society, people have defined "equity" and "community" in many different ways. How do you define these terms and what are the implications of equity and community for our 21st century society?

California Institute of Technology

Short Answers
Limiting yourself to the space provided, please answer the following questions. Don’t overanalyze. These aren’t trick questions and there are no wrong answers. We are interested in learning more about your personality, values, and interests. We really are looking for short answers, not essays. Sometimes a few words will do, other times you may need as much as a paragraph.

1. What are three adjectives your friends would use to describe you?
2. Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. You need not confine yourself to math- or science-related texts.
3. Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline, “No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty, and integrity are sometimes challenging. Share an ethical dilemma that challenged you. What did you do?
4. Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor and creative pranks and for finding unusual ways to have fun. What is something that you find fun or humorous?


Essay
Interest in math, science, or engineering manifests itself in many forms. Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988) explained, “I’d make a motor, I’d make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I’d play around with selenium”; he was exploring his interest in science, as he put it, by “piddling around all the time.” In a page, more or less, tell the Admissions Committee how you express your interest, curiosity, or excitement about math, science or engineering.

Before answering this question, you might ask those around you—family, friends, or teachers—how they see you as a mathematician, scientist or engineer. They may offer insightful observations!

Brown University

Brown, among other things, asks applicants to respond to one of the following in no more than 500 words:

A. Tell us about an intellectual experience, project, class, or book that has influenced or inspired you.
B. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and why?
C. 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?


Smith College

An essay of no more than 150 words:

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?

Bard College

Choose one of the following essay options:

*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.
* The Roman philosopher Seneca, writing in the first century, wrote a set of letters of advice to a young friend. In the 23rd letter he wrote, "Make this your business: learn how to feel joy...true joy, believe me, is a serious thing.” Write a short response to these thoughts, indicating if you wish, the extent to which you may have come to realize that Seneca was right.
* Submit a graded analytical paper (a thousand words or less) written in your junior or senior year (transfer candidates: from a college class). The submitted paper must include the teacher/professor comments, grade, and assignment.


Williams College

A required personal statement in no more than 300 words:

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.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 8, 2010; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  brown university, caltech, college admissions, college applications, college essays, essays, great college essays, how to write an essay, university of chicago, williams  
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Comments

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Posted by: morse99 | November 8, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

How do you forget about Tufts University for this topic? Tufts got lots of publicity last year for accepting video essays for incoming students--I hear "math dance girl" is a celeb on campus this year. For more, see this article in the campus newspaper: http://www.tuftsdaily.com/thinking-outside-the-essay-tufts-admissions-adds-new-video-option-to-application-1.2140795

Posted by: EducationIs | November 8, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

What these essay topics have in common (most of them) is that they cater to the ability to present oneself as fascinating and unique. The ability to make oneself appear that way, and the reality, are not necessarily the same.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 8, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I really like the "video essay" idea. This would ENNSURE that there is not anyone from home helping the student, and that it is their own work. Or it would at least make it more apparent that it isn't their own. Each student's uniqueness could shine.

Posted by: cmoore1028 | November 8, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I think the different essay questions were definitely unique and really give a way for any student to express themselves. I agree with cmoore1028 that the video essay may be more authentic and would ensure that the student provided their own work. I worry though for the judgment that an application committee may have... A students appearance may lead to biased judgment that could prevent the student from getting into the college of their choice. So I think that sticking to paper essays and admissions is the best way to go.

Posted by: mckinneys2 | November 8, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

It makes sense that many schools require separate essays on top of the Common Application. They are already flooded with applicants as it is. If they made it even easier to apply by removing the extra essays, they'd have even more to sift through. Ideally I imagine admissions officers would like to only get applications from kids who only want to go to their school. And kids would like to be able to prepare one awesome application and send it to all the schools, to see where they get in before deciding. The current setup is somewhere between the two.

Posted by: JapanKate | November 8, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant and writer myself, I love to brainstorm topics for students to consider in answer to some of these questions. I think the essay is a chance for students to show a school who they really are. It's too bad that not enough students spend the time on the essays as they should. If they only knew the positive effect their essay could have on a college admissions committee. It can be the real highlight on a college application.

Posted by: collegedirection | November 8, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

While the Common App essay prompts are all entry ways into the personal experience and growth of a student, these "unusual" college essay prompts serve as a personal invitation into the gear twisting minds of students. Colleges create an opportunity to meander around the critically thinking mind and unique personality of the proposing student. As numbers of college graduates increase and the job market decreases or stays relatively the same competition greatly inclines as does a demand for unique critical thinking human beings. Perhaps these essays are designed to magnify the prototype.

Posted by: douglask11 | November 9, 2010 1:55 AM | Report abuse

For the record: Brown asks students to relay the best piece of advice they RECEIVED ("been given"), not, as the second sentence of the article states, the best piece of advice they've given.

The quote from the Brown application is accurate.

Posted by: RebYStarr | November 9, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I think that theses unsual essay prompts are ammusing to some aplicants, but frustrating for others. They already have to work so hard ot impress people with their grades and extracurriculars, but now we are asking students to be witty on paper. This is just putting more pressure on applicants who might not have the strongest writing skills. I would have no problem with them, but people like my best friend who can barely speak clearly would be dicouraged to even try and apply.

Posted by: cookn21 | November 9, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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