A growing number of select colleges have turned to off-kilter questions like this one, from Brandeis University: “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?” As the New York times today reports, “this year’s most-discussed question, from Tufts University, was about the meaning of “YOLO,” an acronym for “you only live once,” popularized by the rapper Drake.
“And even those are tame compared with some choices from the last few years, like “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” (Brandeis), or “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” (Chicago).
“For the colleges, such questions set them apart, though the applications invariably give a choice of subjects, including some that are closer to traditional. And at a time when some elite colleges worry that high school students are more likely to be high achievers than independent thinkers, oddball essay questions offer a way to determine which of the A-student, high-test-score, multi-extracurricular applicants can also show a spark of originality. Most elite colleges use the Common Application, which contains fairly standard essay questions, and require their own supplemental applications, with more writing exercises.
“In the day of the Common App, there’s such a sense of sameness in applying to the different schools, so we’re trying to communicate what’s distinctive about us and determine what’s distinctive about our applicants,” said Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis. A quirky essay subject can seem like a burden to students who, already stressed out by the application process, find that being diligent and brilliant is not enough — that colleges also want them to be whimsical and creative. Teenagers pepper social media with complaints about the questions, though they do not want to be interviewed, for fear of alienating their colleges of choice. But others embrace the chance to express themselves, seeing it as a welcome relief from the ordinary applications.
“Usually, the essay prompts are boring,” said Sam Endicott, a high school senior from Edmond, Okla., who said he chose the University of Chicago’s topic on explaining a joke. “They don’t inspire a whole lot of creativity. I like the ones that allow more free rein to be a little different.” Looking at the same application, Matt Bliss, a senior from Portage, Ind., seized on the invitation to make up his own topic. Recalling that one of the University of Chicago’s essay choices last year was “So where is Waldo, really?” he wrote his essay on “Can Waldo find himself?” “I see it as a way to really show the college, ‘This is me,’ to establish your voice as a writer and show that you’re willing to take a risk,” he said. Most students prefer — and are better off — avoiding the unusual questions, said John B. Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich.”