There is no shortage of wise advice on how to tackle a college essay. “Use your authentic voice.” “Write what you know.” “Be specific.” “Tell your truth.” And yet, when you sit down to write, that blank page just stares back at you. When tasked to tell your story in 500 words, it’s hard to know where to start.
And then along comes The University of Chicago asking:
What advice would a wisdom tooth have?
If this weird essay prompt scrambled your brain, that’s the point. There is no conventional college-essay way to approach it. Rather it invites you to get loose, consider the question from different angles, and say something new. What does that tooth-voice in your head tell you to write about? Mindfulness and flossing? The importance of self-care? Beware of unpopped kernels?
You get one chance to tell your story, share your core values, and demonstrate why you’re a great fit. And yet, admissions officers must plow through thousands of life stories every year. They’ve read more than enough essays on winning the big game, losing the big game, and learning in the age of COVID. Their weary eyes are glazing over.
So some admissions departments ask you to tell them something they haven’t already heard. The Common App has you covered with conventional prompts about your achievements, beliefs, and triumphs over adversity. But some colleges shake things up with wackier questions for their supplementary essays and personal statements. They still want to hear what makes you tick, but from a more creative perspective.
The problem with the advice to “use your authentic voice” is that you don’t have just one voice. You present different facets of yourself when hanging out with friends, speaking in class, or filling out your application to a highly selective college.
So Princeton wants to know:
What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
They want to see how you think, and what matters to you outside the context of school and college applications. So don’t write what you think they want to hear. Let the other applicants bore the admissions officers to tears. Instead, be bold and tell them what you really think.
Give the admissions officer a reason to advocate for you. The fact is, grades, test scores, and activities count the most towards whether you get in or not. And those things are already covered elsewhere on your application.
The essay is where you get to speak for yourself and fill in the story. A solid, straightforward essay will probably not tilt the scales either way. But a vivid and revealing personal statement can connect with the reader on a deeper level and get people on your side.
Here are some more examples of prompts that defy conventional responses:
The University of Chicago:
Was it a cat I saw? Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo (Japanese for “the world is a warm place”). Moze jutro ta dama da tortu jezom (Polish for “maybe tomorrow that lady will give a cake to the hedgehogs”). Share a palindrome in any language, and give it a backstory.
Reading this prompt, you may wonder who hacked the admissions website. The University of Chicago is famous for bizarre essay questions, and this one’s a real head-scratcher. A palindrome is a phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards, like “Madam, I’m Adam.” This prompt invites free association to find meaning in nonsense. The readers want to see your beautiful mind in action. Or maybe they’re just crowdsourcing cool palindromes.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—get to know you better.
We love this sideways approach to the “tell us about you” question. It gets to the “authentic voice” question by inviting the writer to open a conversation with a peer, rather than addressing the Stanford admissions officer. Your future roommate is going to know “the real you” eventually, so you might as well put it all out there from the start.
University of Pennsylvania
Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge. (We encourage you to share this note with that person, if possible, and reflect on the experience!)
Clearly Penn AO’s are doing their gratitude meditations, and would be thankful for some inspiration on your application. We appreciate this approachable framework to write about big-deal material. You don’t need to be a phenomenal writer to write a thank-you note. Plus, it’s a rare prompt that encourages you to actually do something meaningful, not just reflect on a past experience.
University of Virginia
What website is the internet missing?
This question demands a specific answer. And ideally one that reveals something about your personal obsessions. Here again we have a fairly standard question about what you value, but framed in a way that defies obvious answers. There is already a website for almost everything, so you’re going to have to dig deep.
University of Southern California
Describe yourself in three words (25 characters).
Less is more. USC is asking for the shortest of short stories here. Just, who are you? Simple, direct, honest.
What is the first song you would play for your roommates on move-in day? (150 characters)
This one seems simple at first glance. But Princeton’s “soundtrack to your life” prompt is actually much easier, because you’re not also worried about impressing your roommates. So that Taylor Swift weeper might not work here. But we like how this prompt provokes questions about how you present yourself to the world.
There is insight to take from these prompts, even if a school plays it straight with the same old “Why you? Why here?” Colleges are begging to be surprised and delighted by your unique voice. It’s natural to gravitate towards a safe essay that won’t raise any eyebrows when the stakes are so high. But admissions officers will only fight for you once you show them who you are.