Hard Essay Question

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.

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.
–Anonymous submission

"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
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

Find x.
–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. 
–Anonymous submission

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

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