Four Top Colleges, 21 Quirky Admissions Essay Questions


A key element of the college admissions process is the application essay, known as the personal statement. As if asking a 17-year old to be introspective and interesting isn’t challenging enough, many colleges require supplemental essays to help them learn even more about you beyond GPA and test scores. Some are straightforward, like “Why our school?”. Others really push students to think outside the box. University of Chicago is famous for this and just posted their questions for 2016-2017. Here they are, along with other notable prompts from Tufts, Stanford and Wake Forest.

It's a good idea to research what supplemental essays are required by the schools on your list so that you're not surprised when you open their applications. If you're going to be applying in the fall, ponder these at the beach this summer...

The University of Chicago is known as an intellectual -- some would say quirky -- place. Their admissions office follows suit. Just look at the postcards they send to prospective students (click on each to see the mini-essay on the back). Here are the UChicago supplemental application essays for the upcoming 2016-2017 admissions season (all suggested by admitted students, by the way).

1. What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?

2. Once, renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.” Whether it’s Georges Seurat’s pointillism in “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, quantum physics, or any other field of your choosing, when can the parts be separated from the whole and when can they not?

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. It has been said that it is unfortunate that mathematicians do not have any procedures in place for revoking theorems once their validity is established because sometimes our results would be nicer without them. If you had the power to obliterate any known truth for the sake of getting nicer results, what truth would you choose to obliterate and why? This power cannot be used as a Ctrl-Z on events in your own life.

6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. 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. View past prompts.

Tufts University asked students applying in 2015-2016 to respond to one of the following six questions (200-250 words). I wonder how many students choose #2 or #6 vs. the other options…

  1. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — the first elected female head of state in Africa and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize — has lived a life of achievement. “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough," she once said. As you apply to college, what are your dreams?

  2. What makes you happy?

  3. Science and society are filled with rules, theories, and laws such as the First Amendment, PV=nRT, Occam’s Razor, and The Law of Diminishing Returns. In baseball, three strikes and you’re out. A green light on a roadway means "go." Pick any law and explain its significance to you.

  4. It's cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.

  5. Nelson Mandela believed that "what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead." Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference.

  6. Celebrate the role of sports in your life.

Stanford University required applicants in 2015-2016 to reply to all three of these prompts. Wonder if they post the responses to #2 for their admitted students to help match up roommates?

  1. Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.

  2. Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

  3. What matters to you, and why?

A student has to be serious about Wake Forest to respond thoughtfully to all of these questions.

Help us get to know you better by responding briefly to these questions. No need for research, just be creative and enjoy the process.

1. List five books you have read (with authors) that piqued your curiosity. Discuss an idea from one of these works that influenced you.

2. We want to know what makes you tick intellectually. A paper? A project? An academic passion? Describe it.

3. Hashtags trend worldwide. Give us a hashtag you wish were trending. Why?

4. Give us your top ten list.

5.There is a nationwide dialogue about cross-cultural interactions. Like most college campuses, Wake Forest is currently in a place of conversation about what it means to engage across difference. As a country, why do you think we have reached this point?

6. Right now, what is uniquely you?

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