Admissions

Dealing with Unusual Essay Prompts

The admissions committee at the University of Chicago has revealed their “Common” essay prompts for applicants to the Class of 2019. In a recent email message, they presented the following topics:

1.What’s so odd about odd numbers? Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009.

2. In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language. Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018.


3. Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together. Inspired by Zilin Cui, an incoming student in the Class of 2018.

4. Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!) Inspired by Joshua Harris, Class of 2016.

5. A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one). Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016.

6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. 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.

Obviously, these are not run-of-the-mill prompts. An emerging trend in college applications these days is for colleges to include “non-traditional” essay prompts among their application requirements. A “traditional” essay prompt might be something like, “Tell us about the person in your life who has been a significant inspiration to you.” Or, “What has been the most challenging problem you’ve faced in your life so far.”

While traditional essay prompts are fine and can inspire excellent essays, non-traditional prompts can be both an opportunity and a problem for applicants. For the imaginative writer, a non-traditional prompt can open the door to a flood of creative juices. For those who are less confident about their writing skills, they can prove to be beyond frustrating.

 

In order to offer some advice about dealing with non-traditional (a.k.a. “weird”) application essay prompts, should you encounter them this fall, let me offer some seeds of advice on how to approach them. For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to the University of Chicago prompts above. Feel free to borrow from or improve upon any of my approaches.

Prompt #1 is deceptively simple:

1.What’s so odd about odd numbers? Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009.

Incidentally, UChicago regularly invites its student body to submit their ideas for essay prompts. That’s why you’ll see attribution credits attached to these.

If I were responding to this prompt, I would set the stage for my “argument” in the opening sentence by making a bold statement. Maybe something like a paraphrase of a famous President Lincoln utterance: “An odd number divided against itself might not stand evenly.” Then, I would go on to emphasize the fact that odd numbers cannot be evenly divided by the Number 2.

The “Number 2” phrase could then be brought to the fore as a frustrated agent of change. “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder” was an advertising slogan used by Avis car rental company as it competed with Hertz for market share back in the ’60s. Thus, in my essay response, I would personify the hard working #2’s inability to divide odd numbers evenly, thus substantiating the odd numbers’ oddness, if you get my drift. Of course, your mileage may vary. 🙂

2. In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language. Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018.

I would choose the English word Duh. Then, I would put it in context with some of the most memorable statements from history. First, I would define Duh! (adding an exclamation mark for emphasis). Something like this:

Duh!, defined most succinctly, means Obviously, stupid! Its untranslated impact can be seen when in response to these notable phrases by famous people:

– Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.” Well, Duh!

– Galileo Galilei said, “For in the sciences the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man. Besides, the modern observations deprive all former writers of any authority, since if they had seen what we see, they would have judged as we judge.”  Duh!

– Isaac Asimov pondered, “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be. ” Duh! Isaac!

And so on …

3. Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together. Inspired by Zilin Cui, an incoming student in the Class of 2018.

Off the top of my head (threes only, you can describe the fit):

– Princeton, Harvard, and Yale (“The Big Three”) — Putting it to UChicago (if you’re fearless).

– Baseball’s Triple Crown — Mickey Mantle: 1956 (Home runs, RBIs, and batting average)

– The Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes)

– The Daily Number (three-digit state lottery game)

– Three strikes (and you’re out!)

– Three toes (as in sloth)

– Three coins (in a fountain) [That’s enough.]

4. Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!) Inspired by Joshua Harris, Class of 2016.

“Mine would be pH.D.” (How appropriate for UChicago.)

5. A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one). Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016.

– “I’d rather be here than there.”

– “Here is where the heart is.”

– “Hear, hear! Here, here! There, there.”

6. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. 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.

“What are the key differences between a thoughtful college application essay prompt and one that is purposefully posed merely to confound the majority of applicants who have a sincere desire to attend the confounding higher educational institution but are not gifted, introspective, and articulate purveyors of written articulation? Limit your response to no fewer than one thousand words.”

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.