On January 25, 2012, someone on the College Confidential discussion group posted this thread:

Did you ever dump a college from your list because of the type (or number) of essays?College Essay Writing

Responses flooded in, mostly from parents of students who had indeed given up on an application because they were intimidated by the essay questions, and many from the students themselves.  One woman’s daughter dropped three applications and added one that had easier essay requirements. One aunt reported that her nephews applied to one school only – Iowa State – because the school did not require essays. And another self-proclaimed lazy procrastinator chose her colleges based on the ease of their essay requirements.

Colleges dropped by students ran the gamut and were headed up by Wake Forest and U Chicago:  Barnard, Brown (2x), BU, Bryn Mawr, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago (8x), Claremont McKenna (3x), Columbia University (3x), CMC (2x), Cornell, University of Delaware, Duke, Elon, Georgetown, Grinnell (2x), Marquette Honors Program, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, MIT (2x), UNC (3x), Northwestern, Notre Dame (2x), NYU (2x), U Penn (3x), Princeton, Puget Sound, Rice (3x), Rutgers, Tufts (2x), Stanford (2x), Syracuse, UVA, Wake Forest (8x), and Yale (2x).

Why the aversion to unique essay topics?

I could rant about how students are lazy or haven’t received sufficient training in thinking for themselves or thinking creatively.  I could suggest that if our educational system did a better job on these fronts, and with teaching writing in general, students would not avoid writing essays that challenged them to invest time and thought.  I could also suggest that students don’t start their application process far enough ahead of time to ensure they have the time and attention for some uncommon essay questions.

All of those things might be true, but I am more interested in the schools’ logic behind asking unusual question such as “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” (U Chicago), “What is your favorite ride at the amusement park?  How does this reflect your approach to life?” (Emory University), “Imagine you have to wear a costume for a year of your life.  What would you pick and why?” (Brandeis University), and “What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?” (Yale).

Why the inclination toward unique essay topics?

Colleges may be showing themselves to be current with the times, as suggested in The new college-admission essay: Short and tweet(ish).  Some applications ask for short essay answers of 25 words, such as “My favorite thing about last Tuesday” (University of Maryland), perhaps catering to the Twitter generation.  Tufts, George Mason and the University of Dayton allow prospective students to submit a video essay instead of a written one.  Students might jump at the chance to communicate in ways that are spreading like wildfire in the world of social media.

The right fit

In the College Confidential discussion, most students reported that they dropped schools not simply because of the essay requirements but because there was an additional reason the school was not a good fit.  Some were not excited about their on-campus visit.  Some realized when they were asked why they wanted to attend a particular school that they had no good reason.  Conversely, some students reported taking on writing difficult essays because a school was their clear first choice.  Some loved writing the very same essays that sent other students away (Wake Forest and Chicago essays included).  And one student actually rejected a school (Wash U in St. Louis) because they did not ask a supplemental essay question!  He thought the school was trying to increase its U.S. News rankings by encouraging applications.  Not surprisingly, two other students applied to Wash U (as well as to many other schools – Dartmouth, Harvard, and William & Mary to name a few) because of the simplicity of their essay requirements.

Perhaps colleges like Wake Forest and U Chicago are shooting themselves in the foot.  Several anecdotes appeared in the College Confidential discussion about students who got accepted into one school with a simple application (Harvard, for instance) while they were still working on essays for another school.  Schools with longer or more complex essay requirements might be losing some qualified and motivated students in addition to the ones who just don’t care enough to jump through the hoops.

Yet for most schools, it appears that they are doing a good job of weeding out applicants.  If an Honors application intimidates you, that’s a very good sign that you are not meant to be in that program.  If an essay challenge makes you realize that you’re not up for that challenge, regardless of the reason, then that school has done you and itself a favor.  What a great strategy for winnowing down the number of applications to a pool of students who will face an extra challenge or two because they want so much to go to a particular school.

As one member of College Confidential, stated, “Frankly, there are too many well-rounded, excellent students applying to the best universities to distinguish a select few without asking stranger, creative questions. It’s there that you begin to see a student’s personality and that’s what gets you in.”


Are essay questions scaring you away from a school?  Maybe it’s time to get some help.  If you want to brainstorm with a professional about what you could write in response to some of these wacky questions, contact The Essay Expert.  We’ll be happy to help.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t image answering some of those questions. I always thought that there was enough creativity encouraged in the questions asked before. I thought that this was where a creative mind showed forth. I guess that’s what I get for thinking. Thanks for sharing.

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