Let's Invent An Essay Question!

If you’re a high school senior applying to college, you’ve no doubt grimaced when faced with the prospect of writing those onerous application essays. The worst ones, in my view, are those that append their prompt with such guidelines as, “(1,000 words or less”) or “Limit your response to 2-3 typed, double-spaced pages.” First of all, I would like to inform the geniuses at the college that specifies “1,000 words or less” that it’s “1,000 words or FEWER.” But I digress.

I’ve always fantasized about writing application essay prompts. Some schools, most notably the University of Chicago, get their students involved in the essay-prompt business. This, of course, leads to all sorts of weirdness. For example, here’s an essay prompt from a recent UChicago application:

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.

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