As a college consultant, I have become intimately familiar with numerous supplemental college essay questions. While many prompts seem doomed to elicit responses that are conventional clichés, others are bound to spark creativity, and hopefully evoke genuine self-discovery, for the motivated applicant.
In no special order, here are ten of my “faves”, with musings about how I might try to respond to these thought-provoking questions:
1. Imagine that you have the opportunity to travel back through time. At what point in history would you like to stop and why?(Swarthmore College) How fun is this? It’s like Peabody & Sherman’s WABAC Machine! I want to apply to Swarthmore myself, just to write this essay. Would I wish to be among the crowd on the Via Dolorosa that fateful Friday afternoon, two millennia ago? Stand as a spectator on the Tower Green as Anne Boleyn forgives her executioner, the swordsman from France? Be aboard the ill-fated Titantic that freezing night in April, deciding whether to step into a lifeboat or remain on deck with my husband? In my family, filled with history buffs, this essay prompt could be an exciting after-dinner game.
2. Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University)
My choice would have to be David O. Selnick’s epic film that brought to life Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. I have always admired survivors of civilizations that were totally disassembled and reconstructed in a new way, such as my parents and in-laws living through the Great Depression. I occasionally wonder how I would fare if today’s way of life was suddenly forever changed. Further, Mitchell’s insightfully crafted immortal characters are archetypes that offer wisdom into the human condition; they have become lifelong tools for analyzing my own motivations and the roles others play in my life.
3. If you were to describe yourself by a quotation, what would the quote be? Explain your answer.(Dartmouth College) As a fantatical “quotaphile,” I would find this choice overwhelmingly difficult. It would be tough to select from the wise and witty sayings of Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, or Wilde. But since the quotation has to describe oneself, as a lover of the mysteries of the psyche, I would probably choose Carl Jung‘s observation: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
4. If you could go back and change one day in your life, what would you change and why?(Santa Clara University) This prompt brings to mind the intrguing award-winning movie, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which explores the concept of whether we make our fate by specific actions, or whether there is a destiny dynamic at work that prevails despite our actions. In my 56 years on the planet, I have come to subscribe to the latter view, so it would be difficult for me to answer this question. I would probably choose to discuss my ideas about free will, random events, serendipity and destiny.
5. If you had a day to spend as you wish, how would you use your time?(Carleton College) Wow. An applicant’s answer to this question would be truly revealing. I remember watching a Twilight Zoneepisode as a kid (“Time Enough at Last”), in which a bookworm is the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalpyse, finally having time enough to pursue his passion: reading (and of course, in Rod Serling‘s nightmare world, his Coke bottle thick spectacles break on the steps of the library). I would spend my “day” similarly (without the broken glasses!), either reading or writing, and I guess that reveals quite a bit about me. How your student would describe his or her perfect day would reveal much as well.
6. If you were to develop a Mt. Rushmore representing the 20th century, whose faces would you select and why?(College of William and Mary) This question reveals one’s philosophy of life, ideas on leadership and heroism, value system, and perhaps, one’s politics. Not to mention a knowledge of American history. For me, the four heroic leaders, Democrat and Republican, black and white, would be:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose bold brilliance as the architect of D-Day turned the tide of the war against Hitler; President John F. Kennedy, whose leadership during the Cuban missile crisis may have saved the world; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement ushered in a great step forward for racial equality in our nation; and President Ronald Reagan,whose assertion of his passionate beliefs in American exceptionalism, personal liberty and limited government led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and decades of U.S. economic prosperity and innovation. Whom would you choose?
7. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come? (Yale University) A dear and wise old friend, whom I greatly respect, met many of my long time friends at my fiftieth birthday party a few years ago. After the soirée, she observed, “All your friends that I met told a story of how you had helped them with something, like the courage to start a new business, or the strength to get through a personal tragedy.” Thank God. This meant more to me than any compliment on raw talent or professional accomplishment, because it affirmed my own values about helping others to find their way. If I can accomplish this goal, I will feel that my life has been a success.
8. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why?(Lehigh University) Several years ago, one of my clients answered this prompt by calling her institution “Altruism University,” requiring that all students learn about compassion and engage in community service. This exceptional young woman was of Indian descent and was a fervent adherent of Jainism, the non-violent, altruistic religion of Mohandas Gandhi. Her essay revealed much about her inspiring value system. What admissions officer wouldn’t want a student like this in the campus community?
9. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis. What does this quote mean to you?(University of Chicago) I believe this question is about uniqueness. A student’s contribution to the world is not about doing something no one else has ever done before; it is about doing what perhaps many people have done, but in one’s own special way.
10. Why did you do it?(Tufts University) Tufts always takes the prize for the most amazing, thought-provoking questions. How would you answer that?
My rule of thumb for “fave-ing” a college essay prompt is: would I myself be eager to roll up my sleeves and answer that question? Would it really make me think, look within myself, and respond from the heart? Or would I simply roll my eyes and start typing a perfunctory response, immediately knowing what the “right” answer is to a simplistic, stereotypic question?
Your teen may not be interested in applying to schools that happen to write the most provocative essay questions. But it might be a thought-provoking exercise to kick around some of these questions on a long family drive, to stimulate reflection for your high school student (and everyone else in the family). Future essay writing may be easy after taking on these challenging questions!
If you have come across a provocative essay prompt you would like to share, please feel free to comment.
On November 5, 2011 / 12th Grade, College Admissions, College Essays
Sample Scored Essay: 5
Question: Music often plays an important role in our lives no matter whether our tastes are classical, country, jazz, rock, or rhythm 'n blues. This music may merely be in the background when we drive or study, provide a refuge from our problems, offer a trigger for our memories, or be an integral part of our lives, memories, and culture. Write an essay of approximately two pages in which you explain the role that music plays or has played in your life.
Score: 5 (Untitled)
Everyone knows that music can set the mood in various settings. Music also has the power to help in studying for some, and even sleeping, or both for people like me. Music plays a bit of a bigger role for me, it was one of the main factors that helped me get through a tough situation about two years ago. Music is probably one of the most influential things throughout my life.
Music helped me through my high school years and is still helping me in college. I have ADHD, and if I’m studying in a room with silence, I have to do something to stir things up a bit. I’ve found that I don’t like taking medication for this problem, and listening to music helps take my mind off of everything else.
Another way that music helps me through life is it helps me sleep better. For some reason, if I have something playing in the background, I can fall asleep in about ten minutes. There is some scientific reasoning behind this; scientists have found that rock music makes you mentally tired. Unfortunately, if you would have music playing all night, most people would not go into the NREM sleep cycle, or deep sleep. Fortunately for me, Apple has my back by making the iPhone, which turns off after a designated time, helping me fall asleep and reach the deep sleep cycle.
Also, music has helped me through some rough times. I hit rock bottom about two years ago. I reached the most amount of debt in my life. I worked a job I hated and my girlfriend left me after being together for about five years. To me, it didn’t seem like anyone around me knew what I was going through. I kept having the same old crap about how it was going to get better. That’s when I started listening to the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. Before, I more or less listened to the catchy beat and the chorus. I became less self-centered when I found that a lot of people went through this, and in most cases, it was a lot worse.
Sometimes music can bring up memories, some happy, some sad. When I hear “Bad Moon Rising” by Credence Clearwater Revival, I remember the drives I went on with my dad to some land we own. I always remember the vivid fall colors out on the farm as we would go scout for deer. Music can also bring up tough times in my life. A lot of the songs I listened to when I had a “rough spot” in my life I can’t listen to anymore. Almost every time I hear one of those songs, I go right back to how I felt at that moment.
Even though there are some negative aspects of music, I believe the good far surpasses the bad. Without music, this world would be a horribly dull place. Music stands to be one of the most significant things in my life. I’m not sure where I would be without it; with the way that I was thinking, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.
Strengths: Like the “ essay, this essay is adequately focused and organized. In the introduction, the writer presents the points of the “case” he will make for the importance of music in his life, and he follows the same order of those points in the body that follows, with a separate paragraph for each point. (This is not to imply that such introductions are always the best way to begin, of course. Writers often state the thesis at the end of the introduction, and appropriately so, because this is a position of emphasis, and the thesis should be clear, but writers can do more in this paragraph than simply state the ideas they will develop below. For suggestions about writing introductions, click here.) Development is better in this essay than in the one scored “ When explaining how music helps him get to sleep, for example, the writer refers specifically to the NREM sleep cycle and to his use of the iPhone, details that are informative in themselves and improve the writer’s credibility (and thus, his argument), since we trust that this writer has actually experienced what he is talking about; he isn’t speaking in generalities that everybody already knows. And when he discusses how music can trigger memories, he includes a concrete example, explaining that listening to Credence Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” triggers memories of the drives he took with his father. He begins each section in a way that achieves coherence (“Another way that music helps me . . .” and “Also, music has helped me . . .”), and he varies the patterns of his sentences to good effect (“Even though there are some negative aspects of music, I believe the good far surpasses the bad.”). He uses signal words effectively (e.g., “Unfortunately,” “Before,”). There are few, if any, errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and the style is highly competent. In summary, the essay is competent in terms of focus, organization, development, style, and correctness. Compared to the essay scored “ this essay is better in terms of development, style, and correctness. It received a “
Weaknesses: Development could be improved. For example, after stating that listening to music helps him study, the writer might have given an example of the music that helps him study or possibly refer to a specific time he studied while listening to music. Discussing how listening to music helped him recover from the pain of breaking up, he might have given an example of one of this “favorite songs” that helped him realize he was not alone in this experience. It is not possible to go into great detail about every point, of course, but good writing achieves an effective balance between generalizations that present ideas and specific details that back them up. The details make for vivid and interesting writing. In deciding which points to bring up, writers should also consider whether they have enough to say about them—in terms of specific detail—to fill a complete paragraph.
Method | Criteria | Scale | Sample graded papers