Let’s say you are confronting one of the most important decisions of your life. But first, you must answer this:
My favorite thing about last Tuesday?
And do it in 25 words or less.
The query may seem like it’s taken from Twitter or an online dating survey, but it is designed for a match of a different sort: Getting into college.
The essay question is new for 2012 applications to the University of Maryland and is just one example of a wave of quirkiness and brevity that has swept the usually staid world of college admissions essays in recent years. Some colleges have added questions that might elicit answers more suitable for a text or Tweet, and others have introduced video to the process.
With deadlines looming at numerous top-tier schools, many high school seniors who have struggled with writer’s block are now in official panic mode. The traditional “Why this school?” treatise is still a fixture on most applications, but today’s high school seniors also are grappling with:
Imagine you have to wear a costume for a year of your life. What would you pick and why? ― Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
What is your favorite ride at the amusement park? How does this reflect your approach to life? ― Emory University in Atlanta.
“Colleges have really thrown us a curveball,” said Eric Apgar, director of guidance at Sandburg High School in Orland Park. “In years past, we would tell students not to veer too far from the middle, to not be too strange...but it seems like that’s exactly what post-secondary institutions want.”
It’s not just content that has undergone a makeover, but the format, as well. Along with the usual essay, many campuses have added short takes of 20 to 25 words, such as:
The best movie of all time ― Columbia University in New York City.
It’s not just about appealing to the text/Twitter/YouTube generation, but about taking another opportunity to get acquainted with the applicant, said college consultant Katherine Cohen and founder of IvyWise.com.
“You really get a totally different feel for who that person is, especially with the short takes. It allows colleges to learn things they may not get from a transcript and a resume,” she said. “That’s why they’re fun.”
Such questions irk Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“It just reinforces that there’s some secret code that needs to be cracked to gain admission,” he said. “How angry would an adult be if we had to answer these kind of bizarre questions on a job application?”
While other schools may just be retooling, the University of Chicago has long taken great pride in its provocative essays. Over the years, the application has asked students to reflect on everything from “How do you feel about Wednesday?” to the massive jars of mustard at warehouse stores.
Shepard High School’s Shea Schaaf (center) prepares for a Mathletes competition at Oak Lawn Community High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Dec. 7. (Chicago Tribune/MCT)
“There’s no right or wrong answer ... we’re looking for students unafraid to talk in their own voice,” said Evan Cudworth, assistant director of admissions.
The eccentric prompts have become such a hallmark of the U. of C. application that the admissions office annually solicits suggestions from incoming students and alumni.
The condiment question, for example, was submitted about six years ago and elicited a wide range of responses, from rants on consumerism to a physics equation, with one student calculating how fast a swimmer could travel in a pool of mustard.
“What it says is, ‘I am a physicist who sees the world through a math lens,’” Cudworth explained.
The most popular selection on this year’s form: What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?
Colleges are entering the offbeat realm for a variety of reasons, say experts. As more have signed on to the Common Application ― the online admissions form that can be sent to multiple schools and was meant to streamline the process ― they’ve added supplemental questions as a way to get beyond the generic and stand out from the crowd.
“It’s put great stress on kids, who now have a lot more questions to answer,” said Marybeth Kravets, a long-time college counselor who retired from Deerfield High School.
That sentiment is echoed by Susan Van Horn, whose twin daughters are seniors at New Trier High School. The queries have been markedly different compared to when her son went through the process just four years ago.
“Some schools are asking for 250 words, but then others are asking for 250 characters, so you find yourself counting characters and editing ‘do not’ down to ‘don’t.’ It gets that silly.”
In yet another nod to social media, this is the first year that the University of Dayton prospects have the option of submitting a video essay in lieu of a written one, joining Tufts and George Mason Universities.
Dayton applicants will answer the question “What does it mean to be a servant leader?” and then share their videos through Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Students who garner the most votes will receive a $40,000 scholarship over four years.
“We can’t just do things the same old ways,” said Sundar Kumarasamy, a vice president at the Catholic school, adding that applications are already running 30 percent ahead of last year.
Cudworth confirmed that unique questions also spare his colleagues from mind-numbing piles of what he called “deep-dish pizza essays” where students wax poetic about Chicago’s most famous food.
Josh Skwaczyk of Sandburg is applying to a half dozen schools. He recalled perusing the topics and being stumped. Even the standard “How did you find out about our school?” left him scratching his head about the best approach.
“Should I send it in declarative or quirky? Is this an opportunity to show some flair? I’m at this fork in the road, where I could go in one direction or the other...where I have to do all this internal analysis,” said the senior.
Shea Schaaf, who ranks first in her senior class at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, tried to not get too frazzled by the application process, nibbling away at the topics a little bit at a time.
“Once you get into it, it’s easier to be creative...I just tried to see it as a way to tell them a little bit more about me...to leave my mark,” she said. “You don’t want to be just another student who writes cliches.”
Schaaf is juggling six AP classes, sports and other activities. She applied to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Chicago and Northwestern Universities and also Yale, which asks a question of pure fantasy given her busy schedule:
What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?
By Bonnie Miller Rubin
(MCT Information Services)
Few words can mean a lot
Examples of essay questions on 2012 college applications that ask for short answers:
University of Notre Dame
You have 150 words. Take a risk.
Brown University (25 words or fewer)
If I could do something with no risk of failing, I would ...
I felt like I truly belonged when ...
University of North Carolina (20 words)
Most overrated superhero:
Most underrated superhero:
Former kindergarten fear:
Gadget that needs inventing:
Yale University (25 words or less)
Recall a compliment you received that you especially value.
Elon University (Two sentences)
It would surprise my friends to know that I ...