College Essay Prompt Pet Peeves

10/17/2016 05:49 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2016
Pen and Paper
francois schnell
Pen and Paper

One of the great ironies of applying to college is that colleges expect applicants to put tremendous thought into their application essays while sometimes they seemingly put very little thought into their own prompts.

I feel little solicitude for the Common Application prompts, contrivances that they are. I do, however, respect institutions’ right to define their curiosity and probe students accordingly. Here are some, though, that deserve a second thought.

‘Why,’ Indeed?

“Why Essays,” which ask students to explain why a college appeals to them, often to gauge applicants’ interest and see who’s done their homework. These essays are devilishly hard to write. So are the prompts, apparently.

Emory: Please describe your ideal college campus/academic environment and what you hope to gain from it.

Don’t mind if I do. My ideal campus has a water park, all-you-can eat pizza, a fission reactor, and a national champion cheerleading team.

Oh. You mean I’m supposed to write about Emory?

Kellogg (Northwestern) MBA: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (450 words) Kellogg (think bravely).

Children are dying on the streets of Aleppo and Northwestern wants applicants to be “brave” in an essay about business school?

Santa Clara Univ.: Briefly describe how you learned about Santa Clara University.

I Yelped it. Someplace called Stanford came up too, but I didn’t want to drive that far.

Many: Why college X?

Near every Why Essay prompt – some of which are phrased as simply as “Why ____ College?” – is a red herring. Colleges, especially selective ones, rarely care why you like them. Will Harvard admit you because you think it’s neat that their science building looks like a Polaroid camera? Will Duke admit you because you want to be the loudest of the Cameron Crazies? Hardly.

They’re going to admit you only if you impress them. The question, then, is not “Why are you applying here?” It is, “Why should we admit you?” Being able to figure out that distinction, contrary to explicitly questions, is one of the marks of a truly strong applicant. Why colleges can’t ask the question honestly is beyond me.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I like when colleges allow students to choose among prompts. Choice enables the colleges to have some fun knowing that they’re not forcing students to answer impossible or irrelevant questions. Some schools — most famously the University of Chicago — come up with inventive, provocative prompts. And then they undermine them with prompts that invite students to write about whatever they want. It’s an equivocation and a cop-out.

Princeton: Using a favorite quotation... tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

This prompt commits two sins at once. First, insofar as there’s a quote for literally everything, it enables applicants to write about literally anything. Second, it promotes a lousy essay-writing tactic. A disembodied quotation is a parlor trick, not an inspiration. If a writer has something to say, he should say it. If a writer wants to discuss an idea, whether a quotation or otherwise, she should do so in context. This prompt would be just fine if it started at “tell us about…”

P.S. Bonus points if you use Margaret Mead or Gandhi. Did I say “bonus points”? I meant instant rejection.

Univ. of Chicago: In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking… take a little risk, and have fun.

Chicago took a big risk with this one. Most applicants are just going to paste in essays they’ve written for other schools – as well they should when they get an invitation like this.

University of California: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Unless a student knows exactly how she is unique among the 200,000 students who apply to UC each year, this is one instance when “write whatever you darn well please” would have sufficed.

Not Getting Any Younger

Seemingly unable to ask a simple question, some schools come up with convoluted and often banal prefaces that do exactly what an essay itself should not: ramble on, provide irrelevant information, and convey trite truths that annoy and bias the writer.

Boston College: Experience teaches us the importance of being reflective when making major decisions. Share an example from a recent event when a leader or an average person faced a difficult choice…

Experience teaches us that presumptuous clichés are grating and distracting.

Dartmouth: ‘’Three things in human life are important,’’ said the novelist Henry James. ‘’The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.’’ Share a moment when kindness guided your actions.

Henry James is great and all, but if applicants needs him to wrap their minds around kindness, I question the morality of Dartmouth’s applicant pool.

Wake Forest: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon. It weaves together history with rap and hip- hop through the often overlooked story of Alexander Hamilton. Choose an unsung historical figure who deserves the “Hamilton” treatment.

I’m glad that Wake Forest is woke, but do we really need a prompt half as long as the response? And what is this “Hamilton treatment”? Are they calling for a spate of hip- hop musicals? Once I finish writing this blog I’m going to get started on “Burr: It’s Cold in Here.”

Tufts: It’s cool to be smart. Tell us about the subjects or ideas that excite your intellectual curiosity.

Whatever you say, Fonzie….

Predicting the Future

A new trend is to ask students not what activity they have enjoyed the most but rather what activity they will enjoy the most. These prompts force them to speculate on the future while forgoing the chance to discuss actual, meaningful accomplishments.

Columbia: What aspect of the Columbia community, outside of the classroom, would you most want to impact and why?

Colleges should never invite students to perpetuate clichés, “impact” being one of the most hackneyed. This prompt is especially awful because it invites wild speculation. No applicant can possibly know Columbia well enough to know how he or she could make an “impact.” What is some freshman is already founding a macramé club? What if the hip-hop troupe already has big plans for a Vanilla Ice quarter-centennial?

Michigan: If you could only do one of the activities you have listed...which one would you keep doing? Why?

This one is strange for two reasons: 1) the nonsensical hypothetical of being limited to one activity; 2) it’s not clear whether “keep doing” refers to the remainder of the high school year or to the student’s prospective college career. According the prompt, it could easily be the former. In that case, a student can just write, “I’ll keep being editor of the newspaper because… I’m already editor of the newspaper.”

Potpourri

Some miscellaneous offenders, including the prompt that inspired this blog: Barnard College’s “major in unafraid” prompt.

Chapman: Name a “hashtag” to describe you.

#stupid

Tufts: There is a Quaker saying: ‘Let your life speak.’ Describe the environment in which you were raised...and how it influenced the person you are today.

Tufts has referred to this Quaker profundity for as long as I can remember. I have no idea what it means.

Yale: What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left. (You may define community and footprint in any way you like.)

Translation: Write about something you do in some context or another.

Barnard College: Alumna and writer Anna Quindlen says that she “majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Tell us about a time when you majored in unafraid.

Quinlan mistakes lack of fear for bravery, and she mistakes boasting for candor. If Barnard wants to identify students who spout self-aggrandizement masquerading as empowerment, this prompt will suffice. And what’s with this fetish for bravery? If I want to get to know someone, I’d rather learn about a time when an applicant was afraid.

Catharsis

Now that I’m done complaining, it’s only fair that I explain why the complaints are worthwhile.

First, nobody is perfect – not even “prestigious” colleges (neither are college counselors). Applicants don’t need to be perfect either. Second, nothing ruins an essay as much as blind obedience to a prompt does. Students should always take expansive, creative views of their prompts. They should think critically. If that means that they acknowledge a prompt’s stupidity, so be it. Finally, I believe in catharsis. Applicants who are frustrated by a certain prompt should have license to complain about it – in private – if only so they can set the complaints aside and return to the business of thinking, writing, and conquering their fears (of the application process).

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