Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

My Ten Favorite College Essay Prompts

As a college consultant, I have become intimately familiar with numerous supplemental college essay questions. While many prompts seem doomed to elicit responses that are conventional clichés, others are bound to spark creativity, and hopefully evoke genuine self-discovery, for the motivated applicant.

In no special order, here are ten of my “faves”, with musings about how I might try to respond to these thought-provoking questions:

1. Imagine that you have the opportunity to travel back through time. At what point in history would you like to stop and why? (Swarthmore College) How fun is this? It’s like Peabody & Sherman’s WABAC Machine! I want to apply to Swarthmore myself, just to write this essay. Would I wish to be among the crowd on the Via Dolorosa that fateful Friday afternoon, two millennia ago? Stand as a spectator on the Tower Green as Anne Boleyn forgives her executioner, the swordsman from France? Be aboard the ill-fated Titantic that freezing night in April, deciding whether to step into a lifeboat or remain on deck with my husband? In my family, filled with history buffs, this essay prompt could be an exciting after-dinner game.

2. Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University)

My choice would have to be David O. Selnick’s epic film that brought to life Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. I have always admired survivors of civilizations that were totally disassembled and reconstructed in a new way, such as my parents and in-laws living through the Great Depression. I occasionally wonder how I would fare if today’s way of life was suddenly forever changed. Further, Mitchell’s insightfully crafted immortal characters are archetypes that offer wisdom into the human condition; they have become lifelong tools for analyzing my own motivations and the roles others play in my life.

3. If you were to describe yourself by a quotation, what would the quote be? Explain your answer. (Dartmouth College) As a fantatical “quotaphile,” I would find this choice overwhelmingly difficult. It would be tough to select from the wise and witty sayings of Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, or Wilde. But since the quotation has to describe oneself, as a lover of the mysteries of the psyche, I would probably choose  Carl Jung‘s observation: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

4. If you could go back and change one day in your life, what would you change and why? (Santa Clara University) This prompt brings to mind the intrguing award-winning movie, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, which explores the concept of whether we make our fate by specific actions, or whether there is a destiny dynamic at work that prevails despite our actions. In my 56 years on the planet, I have come to subscribe to the latter view, so it would be difficult for me to answer this question. I would probably choose to discuss my ideas about free will, random events, serendipity and destiny.

5. If you had a day to spend as you wish, how would you use your time? (Carleton College) Wow. An applicant’s answer to this question would be truly revealing. I remember watching a Twilight Zone episode as a kid (“Time Enough at Last”), in which a bookworm is the sole survivor of a nuclear apocalpyse, finally having time enough to pursue his passion: reading (and of course, in Rod Serling‘s nightmare world, his Coke bottle thick spectacles break on the steps of the library). I would spend my “day” similarly (without the broken glasses!), either reading or writing, and I guess that reveals quite a bit about me. How your student would describe his or her perfect day would reveal much as well.

6. If you were to develop a Mt. Rushmore representing the 20th century, whose faces would you select and why? (College of William and Mary) This question reveals one’s philosophy of life, ideas on leadership and heroism, value system, and perhaps, one’s politics. Not to mention a knowledge of American history. For me, the four heroic leaders, Democrat and Republican, black and white, would be:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose bold brilliance as the architect of D-Day turned the tide of the war against Hitler; President John F. Kennedy, whose leadership during the Cuban missile crisis may have saved the world; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement ushered in a great step forward for racial equality in our nation; and President Ronald Reagan,whose assertion of his passionate beliefs in American exceptionalism, personal liberty and limited government led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and decades of U.S. economic prosperity and innovation. Whom would you choose?

7. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come? (Yale University) A dear and wise old friend, whom I greatly respect, met many of my long time friends at my fiftieth birthday party a few years ago. After the soirée, she observed, “All your friends that I met told a story of how you had helped them with something, like the courage to start a new business, or the strength to get through a personal tragedy.” Thank God. This meant more to me than any compliment on raw talent or professional accomplishment, because it affirmed my own values about helping others to find their way. If I can accomplish this goal, I will feel that my life has been a success.

8. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why? (Lehigh University) Several years ago, one of my clients answered this prompt by calling her institution “Altruism University,” requiring that all students learn about compassion and engage in community service. This exceptional young woman was of Indian descent and was a fervent adherent of Jainism, the non-violent, altruistic religion of Mohandas Gandhi. Her essay revealed much about her inspiring value system. What admissions officer wouldn’t want a student like this in the campus community?

9. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis. What does this quote mean to you? (University of Chicago) I believe this question is about uniqueness. A student’s contribution to the world is not about doing something no one else has ever done before; it is about doing what perhaps many people have done, but in one’s own special way.

10. Why did you do it? (Tufts University) Tufts always takes the prize for the most amazing, thought-provoking questions. How would you answer that?

My rule of thumb for “fave-ing” a college essay prompt is: would I myself be eager to roll up my sleeves and answer that question? Would it really make me think, look within myself, and respond from the heart? Or would I simply roll my eyes and start typing a perfunctory response, immediately knowing what the “right” answer is to a simplistic, stereotypic question?

Your teen may not be interested in applying to  schools that happen to write the most provocative essay questions. But it might be a thought-provoking exercise to kick around some of these questions on a long family drive, to stimulate reflection for your high school student (and everyone else in the family). Future essay writing may be easy after taking on these challenging questions!

If you have come across a provocative essay prompt you would like to share, please feel free to comment.