Every year colleges and universities ask applicants to write essays to explain who they are and to show how they think and write (assuming that the students actually write the essays themselves). Even many of the hundreds of schools that accept the online Common Application still require supplemental writing samples. Most of the essay prompts are predictable — but not all. Here are some of the more unusual ones for the 2013-14 college application season.
The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonathan Larson proclaimed “No day but today!” and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?
The University of Chicago prides itself on its provocative essay questions, inspired by newly admitted students who are asked to contribute ideas for new prompts. Here are the ones for this admissions cycle:
Essay Option 1.
Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).
Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.
Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016
Essay Option 2.
In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).
You are you and your..?
Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016
Essay Option 3.
“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.
What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?
Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010
Essay Option 4.
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, Class of 2016
Essay Option 5.
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, Class of 2015
Essay Option 6.
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.
Here are some of the supplemental essay prompts from the 2013-2014 freshman application. Limit: Half a page or roughly 250 words.
–You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?
Imagine that you are backpacking through a country you have never been to before. You are interested in engaging with the local population and your backpack includes three items that will help them learn about your family and culture. What are those three items and how do they represent your background?
Choose one and respond in an essay of 400-500 words.
Most of us have one or more personality quirks. Explain one of yours and what it says about you.
What do you hope to find over the rainbow?
Why do you do what you do?
If you could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, where would you go and why?
Tell us about a time when your curiosity led you someplace you weren’t expecting to go.
Give us your top ten list.
There’s a difference between being busy and being engaged. Lafayette comes alive each day with the energy of students who are deeply engaged in their academic, co-curricular, and extracurricular explorations. In response to the … prompt, keep it simple—choose one activity and add depth to our understanding of your involvement.
What do you do? Why do you do it? (Optional and 20-200 words in length)
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:
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.
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
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.