New College Essays Stretch, Stress Applicants
By Eric L. Wee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 1999; Page A1
• Can a toad hear? Prove it.
• Can a toad hear? Prove it.
• Name something with extraterrestrial origins. Offer a thorough defense of your hypothesis.
• Write a story that begins "Many years later, he remembered his first experience with ice," and includes references to: a new pair of socks, a historical landmark, a spork (a spoon/fork), a domesticated animal and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
There was a time when college application questions were routine, dull as tapioca and just as predictable. You jotted down "a little about yourself in 250 words" and that was it.
No more. As the authentic examples above suggest, colleges are jazzing up their essay questions to plumb and stretch students' psyches. In some cases, admissions offices say they want their questions to attract applicants by signaling a hip attitude toward intellectual life. Other times, the strange questions help identify the best writers and thinkers – or, at a minimum, keep their admissions staffs from falling out of their chairs in boredom from reading huge piles of dreck.
In the process, some students – and their parents – have been left reeling.
Liz Carr's ordeal began when she brought home a University of Virginia application this fall and showed it to her parents. The requested grades and test scores didn't give them much angst: Liz, a senior at Oakton High School in Vienna, has high GPA and SAT numbers. But when the Carrs looked at the essay topics, collective family heartburn set in.
The question that turned their lives upside down for the last two months consisted of a single sentence: "What is your favorite word, and why?"
"It's my idea of a nightmare," said Maryann Carr, who spent weeks agonizing with her daughter over the inner (hidden?) meaning of that seemingly simple query. "Even at 40 years old, there isn't one word that identifies the spark of my life. How are kids going to answer that?"
Some colleges say the new line of questions serve as a subtle marketing tool to get out the message that their school is cool, intellectual, alternative, or whatever. "Remember that this is Chicago," prompts one essay question on the University of Chicago's current application, "so it is better to err on the side of intellectual pretension than on the side of pure silliness."
U-Va. admissions officers hope a question they added this year about discrimination will even signal applicants that the Charlottesville school is minority-friendly despite having done away with a point system that used to help minorities when applying.
Although the university's topics this fall are the most unusual it has had – "What small event, either from your personal history or the history of the world, is neither 'dead' nor 'past'?" is about as wacky as U-Va. gets – they're tame compared with what some other colleges are asking.
Take the University of Chicago, the "Saturday Night Live" of the college application world. This year, applicants were asked to write a proposal for a television pilot, incorporating some of these: a German opera, Enrico Fermi's personal trainer, van Gogh's severed ear, Bill Nye the Science Guy and an evil clown.
What do you expect from a school that once asked students to explain the prevalence of Elvis sightings using "the metric system, the Mall of America, the crash of the Hindenburg, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, lint, J.D. Salinger, and wax fruit"?
Although supporters contend that off-the-wall essays offer important insight into how a person thinks, not everyone in convinced. Some schools that tried it have now reversed themselves, while others are moving toward a common application – one form, with boilerplate questions, accepted by several schools – to simplify matters.
But Ted O'Neill, Chicago's dean of admissions, says unusual essay questions spur imaginative, interesting results. Even though students can choose a more mundane subject, one-third opt for the odd and improvisational, O'Neill said.
"I think we are doing students a favor" by posing what some would deem far-out topics, he said, adding that they signal that the school is an intellectual place that also has a sense of humor. "Some students want to exercise their imagination. This gives them permission."
Julia Reischel got the message. The District senior wasn't even planning to apply to Chicago before the night in September when she pulled up its application on her computer. Then, between fits of laughter, she read the TV pilot question, and suddenly Chicago became her first choice. Any school posing questions that fun, she reasoned, would welcome her off-center view of the world.
Reischel's Harvard University application essay on a significant life experience took two months to finish; her Chicago piece took two hours and turned out far better, she thinks.
"I felt like it got at who I am," said the Georgetown Day School student. "The questions other colleges ask are so horribly watered-down; you feel the answers are fake. That's why it was so fun to answer Chicago's question. You were being asked something that makes you think."
Johns Hopkins University asks students to write about a problem-solving creation that uses a piece of wire, a Hopkins car sticker, an egg carton and an inexpensive hardware item. American University poses: "Imagine you are the editor of a major national news magazine. Write the cover story . . .for the issue [of] January 1, 2010." Vermont's Bennington College, as befits its alternative personality, asks the can-toads-hear question.
Richard Fuller, dean of admissions at Hamilton College, said the Upstate New York school devised one unusual question, partly in response to the proliferation of Internet sites where students can buy "answers" to old-chestnut essay questions. Hamilton's asks: "If you were reduced to living on a flat plane, what would be your greatest problems? Opportunities?"
The University of Pennsylvania helped launch the quirky question movement in the late 1980s with this one: "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217." The topic proved such a humdinger that the school still uses it, and about 70 percent of applicants tackle it each year.
"You want [the question] to be challenging and inventive without being too oblique," said Dean of Admissions Lee Stetson. "You don't want to deviate too far . . . and be a negative reflection on the university."
But that's exactly what some critics contend colleges are doing, going too far in an effort to solicit essays that amuse. Admissions work, they say, is about selecting the right student, not about being entertained, and they question the relevance of bizarre topics in determining whether a student is a good fit for a particular institution.
Amherst College, for one, has reconsidered. Four years ago, the Massachusetts school posed a topic that's destined for the Weird Essay Question Hall of Fame: "Sartre said, 'Hell is other people'; but Streisand sang, 'People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world.' With whom do you agree and why? Don't be icky."
That's right – Sartre, Streisand and icky, all in one.
After two years, Amherst ditched the question. The responses were too maudlin and trite, said Director of Admissions Katie Fretwell, and some faculty members didn't feel that mixing existentialism with "Funny Girl" was helping the school's image.
Fretwell also worries that oddball questions only increase the pressure on already stressed-out 17-year-olds who may feel that there's a "right" answer. "For some, applying to Amherst is a big step," Fretwell said, explaining why she doesn't plan to resurrect Jean-Paul and Barbra in the same sentence any time soon. "They may be the first in their family to apply to Amherst, or [any] college, and to pose a question unlike any question they've ever encountered . . . could scare them off."
But the biggest drawback, said Sarah Myers McGinty, author of the book "The College Application Essay," may have to do with perception. Many applicants and parents already think the admissions process is totally random, she said; questions about Elvis sightings and living in a two-dimensional world could fuel such thoughts, she worries.
Certainly, that's how Maryann Carr felt when her daughter, Liz, squared off with that U-Va. essay on her favorite word, one of five writing topics the school offered. Neither mother nor daughter could understand what the college was getting at. Maryann wondered whether the "secret" was in the selection itself: Pick the right question and you're in; pick wrong and it's hello, community college.
As her tormented family began to view the dreaded essay as the only thing standing between Liz and the house that Jefferson built, Liz finally settled on "frontier" as her favorite word.
Her mother looks back on the experience as a two-month-long hassle that the family could have nicely done without.
"What is that going to tell them about her being a student at U-Va.?" she asked, just days before Liz learned she had been accepted. Maryann Carr believes a student's grades and test scores should be sufficient. "It's the relevance that puzzles me," she said. "I can't imagine how putting us through this . . . benefited anyone or did any good."
Of course, it's not an ordeal for everyone. Maren Spaldo, of Nokesville, completed her favorite-word essay in an hour, describing watching "Wheel of Fortune" on television one night with her parents and successfully figuring out the word "toboggan" before they did, with few clues.
Maren has been accepted at U-Va. Her 4.4 grade point average and 1540 Scholastic Assessment Test score didn't hurt, but her essay – dubbed original and confident by Assistant Dean of Admissions Parke Muth – has made her a top candidate for the school's honors program next fall.
Even as U-Va. gets bolder with its essays, some universities that have ventured down that road have found out, as Amherst did, that clever questions don't necessarily lead to impressive responses.
Penn's Stetson remembers a call his office got one January several years ago. An applicant's father wanted to know if his son could have more time to submit his application. His son, he said, hadn't finished writing his 300-page autobiography and didn't know what was on page 217 yet.
He didn't get in.