Grading College Admissions Essay Questions.

As second son applies to  college, the applications have exposed me once again to the college admissions racket. The process is broken beyond recognition. We would probably be better off pooling students that meet threshold requirements and assigning them randomly to colleges.

The experience has a musical chairs quality to it, but the music keeps getting faster. To appear more selective, every college wants more applicants. So instead of every kid applying to three schools and the average school admitting one in three, every kid applies to ten schools so that the average school can now brag that it admits one in ten. When the music stops, most kids get a chair — but the process is much more stressful for students and families than it needs to be. I develop some additional thoughts on why colleges behave this way and how schools are using early admissions and other tactics to deal with it here.

College have embraced a Common Application to enable students to more easily apply to more schools. Colleges add their own essay topics. These essays help colleges differentiate between applicants, but they can also help applicants to differentiate between colleges. In other words, smart essay questions are a great way for colleges to differentiate themselves. Essay questions are part of how smart colleges market themselves. Better colleges should ask smarter or at least more provocative questions. Kids notice — and so do parents.

Most colleges ask boring questions. Many require little more than the common application essays. I have reviewed the 2009 and 2013 supplemental essay questions for about 75 colleges that ask for extra essays. Most of them are dumb as a stick — variations on “why do you want to come here?” and “how will you contribute to our campus?” — questions that the average 16 year old or anyone else cannot do much with.

Most college admission essay questions would limp home with a gentleman’s C or less if submitted for a course. So in the spirit of public service, here are the best and worst college essay questions, presented alphabetically by college. (I have mercifully edited some of the questions for brevity.)


Kenyon College: “Neuroscientists have recently discovered the part of the brain most active in decision-making. What human trait would you most want to understand and what makes it significant to you?”

Lewis and Clark: “Describe how Lewis and Clark will help you explore your academic and personal goals.” Explore, get it?

Princeton: outstanding use of jumpiness for “Using the statement below as a jumping off point, tell us about… “Using the quotation below as a jumping off point, tell us about… “Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book as a jumping off point, tell us about…

Stanford: A gratutious piling on award for requiring separate essays on “Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists”, “What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?” What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?”, “How did you spend your last two summers?”, “What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, sporting events, etc.) this past year?”, “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?”, “What five words best describe you?”, “Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging.”, “What would you want your future roommate to know about you?”, “Tell us something about you that will help your future roommate — and us — know you better.”
“Tell us what makes Stanford a good place for you.”

Gonzaga University: The Love Minus Zero Award for “..Success lies just the other side of failure. What has been your most significant failing and what did you learn from the experience?”


Brown University: “What don’t you know?”. Please limit your essay to 500 words. (The restriction gets the prize, not the question).

Harvard University: “Write whatever you want us to read. Possible topics include unusual circumstances in your life, travel or living experiences in other countries, books that have affected you the most, an academic experience (course, project, paper, or research topic) that has meant the most to you, or a list of the books you have read during the past twelve months.” “Please tell us how you spent your most recent summer vacation.” “If you had the opportunity to spend one day in New York City with a famous New Yorker, who would it be and what would you do?” “In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line.”

Tufts: “Do you surf or tinker? Are you a vegetarian poet who loves Ayn Rand? Do you prefer YouTube or test tubes? Are you preppie or Goth? Use the richness of your life to give us insight: what voice will you add to the Class of 2014”
Pick one: “… Imagine history without the United States as we know it.” “Kermit the Frog famously lamented it’s not easy being green. Do you agree?” “Texting, cell phones, blogs, and tweets are redefining the way we communicate. Facebook is the new playground while print newspapers are dying. As thumbs replace tongues, does this shift in human expression enhance or limit social interaction and dialogue? Why?” “Use an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper to create something. You can blueprint your future home, create a new product, draw a cartoon strip, design a costume or a theatrical set, compose a score, or do something entirely different. Let your imagination wander.” “Share a one-minute video that says something about you. Upload it to YouTube or another easily accessible Web site, and give us the URL. What you do or say is totally up to you. (Unfortunately, we are unable to watch videos that come in any form other than a URL link.)” “People face challenges every day. Some make decisions that force them beyond their comfort levels. Maybe you have a political, social, or cultural viewpoint that is not shared by the rest of your school, family, or community. Did you find the courage to create a better opportunity for yourself or others? Were you able to find the voice to stand up for something you passionately supported? How did you persevere when the odds were against you?


The much-coveted award for Best Questions on a College Application goes to…..

The University of Chicago for “How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be).” “Would you please tell us about a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, magazines, or newspapers? Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.”

“…George Lichtenberg wrote, “Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, etc. . . . at times before they’re worn out and at times – and this is worst of all – before we have new ones.” Write an essay about something you have outgrown, perhaps before you had a replacement – a friend, a political philosophy, a favorite author, or anything that has had an influence on you. What, if anything, has taken its place? ”

“From game theory to Ultimate Frisbee to the great Chicago Scavenger Hunt, we at the University of Chicago take games seriously. We bet you do, too. Even if “just a game,” sport, play, and other kinds of games seem to share at the very least an insistence that we take seriously a set of rules entirely peculiar to the circumstance of the game. You might say, in order to play a game we must take it seriously. Think playfully – or play thoughtfully – about games: how they distract us or draw us into the world, create community and competition, tease us and test us with stakes both set apart from and meaningful to everyday life. Don’t tell us about The Big Game; rather, tell us about players and games.”
“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.”

Note that Chicago did something that very few schools do: they took the admissions essay questions seriously enough to ask current students and alumni for suggestions. Nearly all of these questions were inspired by the results.

Colleges should take their application essays much more seriously if they expect their applicants to do the same. College is a valuable luxury and can be a very helpful one. At a minimum, you are likely to learn that good questions are even more valuable than good answers.