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Articles / Applying to College / Let's Invent An Essay Question!

Let's Invent An Essay Question!

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 14, 2014

If you’re a high school senior applying to college, you’ve no doubt grimaced when faced with the prospect of writing those onerous application essays. The worst ones, in my view, are those that append their prompt with such guidelines as, “(1,000 words or less”) or “Limit your response to 2-3 typed, double-spaced pages.” First of all, I would like to inform the geniuses at the college that specifies “1,000 words or less” that it’s “1,000 words or FEWER.” But I digress.

I’ve always fantasized about writing application essay prompts. Some schools, most notably the University of Chicago, get their students involved in the essay-prompt business. This, of course, leads to all sorts of weirdness. For example, here’s an essay prompt from a recent UChicago application:

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.

After some serious thought and careful consideration, my response to this prompt is an inspired, “Huh?”

Here’s another one:

Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)

Surprisingly, UChicago publishes the identity of the student who authored this prompt. I’m wondering if they increased his tuition as punishment for some of the lamest puns of the 21st Century. Geez.


The University of Chicago isn’t the only school with odd essay prompts. Here are some others:

“What does #YOLO mean to you?” — Tufts University

“Describe your favorite ‘Bazinga’ moment.” — Lehigh University

“Anna Quindlen says that she ‘majored in unafraid’ at Barnard. Tell us about a time when you majored in unafraid.” — Barnard College

“What matters to you, and why?” — Stanford University

“To tweet or not to tweet?” — University of Virginia

“What do you hope to find over the rainbow?” — University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Describe yourself as fully and accurately as possible in 140 characters.” — Wake Forest 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.” — Texas Christian University

Well, you should be getting the idea by now. So … Let’s invent an essay question of our own.

Yes, this is an official Admit This! contest! Deadline for submissions is November 1, 2014. Send your entries to daveb@collegeconfidential.com. I will review all submissions and publish the best prompts in a future Admit This! posting for you to select a winner by popular vote. I will then publish the winning prompt in a special thread on the College Confidential discussion forum for all to see and comment on.

To get your creative (and weird) essay-prompt juices flowing, here are a couple ideas that popped into my head:

Imagine that you are a Cheerio. You have been trapped inside the sealed darkness of your cereal box for a long time, relegated to the back of a low supermarket display shelf. One bright sunny day, you feel yourself being pulled from your former hard-to-see location and taken home by a hungry shopper. You feel the rush of fresh air roll over you as your purchaser rips open the bag inside of which you have been patiently waiting for what seems like years. As you tumble into a deep cereal bowl, describe your feelings as you await the cold rush of skim milk from above. Is this, indeed, how you imagined your future?

A simpler prompt:

If you were a molecule, with which element would you choose to be associated and why?

Just for fun:

Fill your mouth with dry oatmeal, then whistle and record the first 16 bars of the Colonel Bogey March from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Submit your recording in either .wav or .mp3 format.


Okay, then. I hope that I have stimulated your essay-prompt creativity. I’m looking forward to your submissions. Remember: Deadline is November 1!


Check College Confidential for all my other admission-related articles.

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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