College Application Essay Prompts 2009

Some classic questions from previous years…

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16

Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
– Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018

Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15

The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07

Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
–Anonymous submission

"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16

So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16

Find x.
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10

Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical. 
–Anonymous submission

UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves

University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric

"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski

Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold

People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube

Attention Juniors: The 2016-2017 college application season has officially begun. The Common Application, otherwise known as the Common App, released its list of essay prompts.

The application doesn’t go live until August, but this is your one chance to tell the colleges your “story,” and we encourage you to start thinking of an answer now.

Overall, admissions offices are looking for you to reveal something that distinguishes you or sets you apart from others in your own voice. The current word count on the essays is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length.

Families working with International College Counselors will work directly with their counselors on the content and editing of the essays, so there is no need to worry. For families interested in essay editing only, please visit our sister company, Edit The Work.

PROMPT #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This first question is broad and gives you a lot of latitude. The prompt asks you to write about either a passion or something that defines you as a person. This means write about something unique and specific to you and no one else. The best essays include a story you need to tell in order for people to understand you. A “background” central to your identity can include your religion or ethnicity, living in a foreign country, experiencing a challenging issue growing up, or a unique family situation. Make sure you describe how your background affected who you are, what you value, and how you approach your life. If you choose to write about an “interest” or “talent,” (i.e. sports, the arts, speech and debate, stamp collecting, bird watching, performing magic tricks, etc.), make sure you reflect on how it shaped you on a deep level. It’s critical that you reveal more about you than what you like to do or how good you are at doing it. Make sure the story you choose is one you haven’t told elsewhere in your application.

PROMPT #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Admissions doesn’t really want to hear about your failure, rather, they want to know how you thought you failed, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned. A good answer to this question will reveal how you deal with and overcome hardship. A great essay will show that you are the kind of person who can bounce back and learn from an experience. Do not choose a trite failure like losing a race. Also, do not draw attention to something you did that was illegal or dangerous, like distracted driving. If you can’t keep your essay positive, do not choose to answer this question.

PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

“Challenged a belief or idea” means that you took some kind of action either on your own behalf or on the behalf of someone or something else. In this essay then, you need to speak passionately about a belief or an idea, in a compact story with a beginning, middle and end. In the essay you also need to express what you learned from the experience. Responses are supposed to be personal, but make sure your idea of belief is not controversial. You do not know who will be reading your essay and you certainly do not want to turn anyone off to you. It is better to show that you are open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others. And don’t preach. The admissions committee includes this prompt for students who define themselves by what they believe in and/or what they are willing to stand up for. Some ideas: An essay about pursuing an activity even though an adult told you wouldn’t be successful in it; an essay about challenging a group of friends who told you to do something that you thought was wrong; an essay about standing up for someone you saw being treated unfairly — perhaps even yourself.

PROMPT #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

If you choose to answer this essay, you need to identify a problem with meaning and importance to you. This can be any problem “no matter the scale.” One variation of this is a community service project. Other variations include not eating meat, bullying, not having money, school tests, etc. So don’t stress about not having a significant issue to write about. Even an everyday problem with significance to you can be turned into a great essay. Colleges like to see how the thinking, so include your decision-making process. It is also very important to choose a problem that is specific and meaningful and can end with you providing a solution – as the prompt asks. Do not choose a problem that is superficial or generic. This essay should tell the colleges what you value and give them an idea of your outlook on life. If you elect to tackle this particular question, take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate creative and critical thinking skills.

PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In this prompt, both “accomplishment” and “event” leave themselves open to interpretation. This means, you can write about anything from a formal event to a very small happening. However, remember that the admissions reader is looking for a moment in your life that really changed you as a person. Everyone is different so an event or accomplishment might encompass anything from birthdays and weddings (formal), to achievements like earning an award or winning an election (informal). Other topics can be something as simple as working with a mentor, visiting a relative’s old neighborhood, or eating a particularly meaningful meal. You know you found the right story when it has the element of transition and transformation. The event or accomplishment you discuss should be something that helped you understand the world around you in a more adult way or forced you to “grow up.” In other words, choose an event, challenge or experience where you learned something that made you feel more capable and grown up.

IMPORANT SUMMARY NOTE: Admissions wants a glimpse of your personality, your values, your interests and your passions. They want to get an idea of what kind of attitude and energy you will bring to the classroom and campus life.

Do not have someone else write your essay, and do not wait to write your essay. Our favorite essays always took a lot of time and effort!

Filed Under: College Essays, International College Counselors blogTagged With: 2016 common app essay, 2016 common application essay, 2017 common app essay, 2017 common application essay, common app essay, common app prompt, common app question, common appellation question, common application essay, write common app essay

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