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Articles / Applying to College / Essay Questions You Love to Hate

Essay Questions You Love to Hate

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Dec. 13, 2013
Well, boys and girls, if you're reading this the same day as I am writing it, you have exactly two weeks left to finish up all your Regular Decision (RD) applications that are due January 1. Actually, New Year's Day is on a Wednesday this time, so you may have an extra day to sneak your application into the post office mail box, but don't hold me to that. Many colleges with a January 1 application deadline really don't microscopically examine postmarks to see who has been remiss in obeying that midnight December 31 drop-dead moment for postmarks. Anyway, I'm betting that perhaps one of the components you may have been putting off to finish up your application(s) may be your essay(s).

When I applied to college, I recall that the essay (note that I said, “the essay" not “the essays" [plural]) prompt asked “Why do you want to attend [here]?" Granted, that prompt, or some variant thereof, appears on most college applications today, but there is most always a fleet of other prompts to torture even the most gifted writers' imaginations and patience. Many rising high school seniors use the summer to ponder their essays and some are fooled into thinking that the Common Application's relatively light writing requirement is all they'll have to tackle. Then, some of those less-well-informed applicants stumble onto the dreaded Common App supplements from their candidate schools, which pile on a few more perilous prompts.

Speaking of prompts, I came across a very interesting and sometimes hilarious article about the ridiculous and sometimes pompous nature of application essay questions. Peter Jacobs, writing in Yahoo! Finance's Business Insider calls out The 15 Most Ridiculous College Application Questions. This subject has always been a pet peeve of mine. Granted, I think that's it's a good thing for a college to plumb the depths of an applicant's creativity and resourcefulness, not to mention his or her writing ability. However, sometimes the prompt itself can challenge the length of the actual essay itself. For example, check out this Common Application supplemental essay prompt from this year's Princeton University application:

Using the statement below 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. “Princeton in the Nation's Service" was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University's 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations." – Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton's president from 1902–1910. (500 words)

“Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations." – Woodrow Wilson

Fabulous! That prompt proudly presents 114 words, over 20% of the 500-word word limit for your response. Of course, the mission of the prompt is to explain exactly what the admissions people are looking for. Along those lines, I'd like to share a few of the “ridiculous" prompts from Jacobs' article. It's always good to see the writing challenges that today's college applicants will have to face. So, high school juniors, pay attention! You'll be in the ridiculous-essay-prompt barrel next year.

Check out this University of Chicago essay challenge:

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.

If that one didn't make you hungry and head to the kitchen, ponder this deeply intellectual writing requirement from Brandeis University:

If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?

I think some of the Brandeis admissions staff may be from another planet.

Not to be outdone, the University of Virginia throws out this jewel:

Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about.

Aside from ending their prompt with a preposition and exhibiting shameless redundancy (always a good example for aspiring applicants), they should expect responses along the lines of “I predict that I'll be in grad school someplace other than UVA. I know about what I'm talking about."

Johns Hopkins University:

Using a piece of wire, a Hopkins car window sticker, an egg carton, and any inexpensive hardware store item, create something that would solve a problem. Tell us about your creation, but don't worry; we won't require proof that it works!

1. Stick the sticker on the egg carton. 2. Twist the wire into a tiny ball and place it inside the carton. 3. Buy a screwdriver from True Value and poke it through the carton. And there you have it: an official JHU New Year's Eve noisemaker. 1. Grasp the screwdriver by the handle. 2. Raise the noisemaker above your head. 3. Twirl the carton around and around. 4. Listen to the muted rattle of the balled-up wire inside. 5. Celebrate the fact that you have conquered this stimulating essay.

The University of Chicago strikes again:

So where is Waldo, really?

Do you care? Really?

A tough one from Tufts University:

Create a short story using one of these topics: 'The End of MTV,' 'Confessions of a Middle School Bully,' 'The Professor Disappeared' or 'The Mysterious Lab.

How about this topic: “The end of onerous essay questions?"

Amherst College:

Sartre said, 'Hell is other people,' but Streisand sang, 'People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world.' With whom do you agree and why?

I think hell is questions like this.

Why not one more from Chicago?

Modern improvisational comedy had its start with the Compass Players, a group of University of Chicago students who later formed the Second City comedy troupe. Here is a chance to play along. Improvise a story, essay, or script that meets all of the following requirements:

– It must include the line “And yes I said yes I will Yes" (Ulysses, by James Joyce).

– Its characters may not have superpowers.

– Your work has to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of a high school student applying to the University—this is fiction, not autobiography.

– Your work must include at least four of the following elements: a paper airplane, a transformation, a shoe, the invisible hand, two doors, pointillism, a fanciful explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, a ventriloquist or ventriloquism, the periodic table of the elements, the concept of jeong, number two pencils.

You've got to be kidding.

Let's wrap up this sampling with one from Kalamazoo College:

What invention would the world be better off without, and why?

This one writes itself. Responding in the style of many an insensitive applicant: “The invention the world would be better off without is the Common Application supplemental essay."


Those are just eight of Jacobs' 15 ridiculous examples. I've been trying to get a college to accept my suggested supplemental essay prompt:

Tell us what you really think about our supplemental essay questions.

So far, no luck.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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