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 Zoneepisode 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.
On November 5, 2011 / 12th Grade, College Admissions, College Essays
Updated, March 2, 2017 | We published an updated version of this list, “401 Prompts for Argumentative Writing,” as well as a companion piece, “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.”
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- Does Technology Make Us More Alone?
- Are You Distracted by Technology?
- Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smartphones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
- Will Wearable Technology Ever Really Catch On?
- Are Digital Photographs Too Plentiful to Be Meaningful?
- Do You Worry We Are Filming Too Much?
- Would You Want a Pair of Google’s Computer Glasses?
- What Role Will Robots Play in Our Future?
- How Many Text Messages Are Too Many?
- Has Facebook Lost Its Edge?
- Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
- Would You Consider Deleting Your Facebook Account?
- Should What You Say on Facebook Be Grounds for Getting Fired?
- Should People Be Allowed to Obscure Their Identities Online?
- How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
- Are the Web Filters at Your School Too Restrictive?
- Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?
- Should Tablet Computers Become the Primary Way Students Learn in Class?
- Can Cellphones Be Educational Tools?
- Should Computer Games Be Used for Classroom Instruction?
- Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face Learning?
- How Would You Feel About a Computer Grading Your Essays?
- Is TV Stronger Than Ever, or Becoming Obsolete?
- Do TV Shows Like ‘16 and Pregnant’ Promote or Discourage Teenage Pregnancy?
- Does Reality TV Promote Dangerous Stereotypes?
- Does TV Capture the Diversity of America Yet?
- Is TV Too White?
- Why Do We Like to Watch Rich People on TV and in the Movies?
- What Makes a Good TV Show Finale?
- What Makes a Good Commercial?
- Why Did a Cheerios Ad Attract So Many Angry Comments Online?
- What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
- Does Live Theater Offer Something You Just Can’t Get Watching Movies or TV?
- What Can You Predict About the Future of the Music Industry?
- What Current Musicians Do You Think Will Stand the Test of Time?
- What Artists or Bands of Today Are Destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
- What Artists Do You Consider ‘Sellouts’?
- What Musician, Actor or Author Should Be a Superstar, but Hasn’t Quite Made It Yet?
- Who Does Hip-Hop Belong To?
- Will Musical Training Make You More Successful?
- Should Video Games Be Considered a Sport?
- Should Stores Sell Violent Video Games to Minors?
- Do Violent Video Games Make People More Violent in Real Life?
- When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
- Can a Video Game Be a Work of Art?
- What Game Would You Like to Redesign?
- How Sexist Is the Gaming World?
- Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
- Does Reading a Book Count More Than Listening to One?
- To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
- Who Are the Characters That Authors Should Be Writing About?
- Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
- Can Graffiti Ever Be Considered Art?
- Do We Need Art in Our Lives?
- Does Pop Culture Deserve Serious Study?
- Where Is the Line Between Truth and Fiction?
- Should Society Support Artists and Others Pursuing Creative Works?
- Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
- Is School Designed More for Girls Than Boys?
- Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
- How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
- Do Photoshopped Images Make You Feel Bad About Your Own Looks?
- Doctored Photos: O.K. or Not?
- Is It O.K. for Men and Boys to Comment on Women and Girls on the Street?
- Do We Need New Ways to Identify Gender and Sexuality?
- What Should We Do to Fight Sexual Violence Against Young Women?
- How Do You Feel About Rihanna and Chris Brown Getting Back Together?
- Why Aren’t There More Girls in Leadership Roles?
- Why Aren’t More Girls Choosing to Pursue Careers in Math and Science?
- Should Women Be Allowed to Fight on the Front Lines Alongside Men?
- Do You Believe in Equal Rights for Women and Men?
- Are Women Better at Compromising and Collaborating?
- Do Boys Have Less Intense Friendships Than Girls?
- Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?
- Is It O.K. to Refuse to Serve Same-Sex Couples Based on Religious Beliefs?
- Should Birth Control Pills Be Available to Teenage Girls Without a Prescription?
- Should the Morning-After Pill Be Sold Over the Counter to People Under 17?
- How Should Children Be Taught About Puberty and Sex?
- Is Dating a Thing of the Past?
- Is Hookup Culture Leaving Your Generation Unhappy and Unprepared for Love?
- Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage?
- Could Following These Directions Make You Fall in Love With a Stranger?
- How Should Educators and Legislators Deal With Minors Who ‘Sext’?
- How Should Parents Address Internet Pornography?
- If Football Is So Dangerous to Players, Should We Be Watching It?
- Should Parents Let Their Children Play Football?
- Should College Football Players Get Paid?
- Is It Offensive for Sports Teams to Use Native American Names and Mascots?
- Are Some Youth Sports Too Intense?
- Should There Be Stricter Rules About How Coaches Treat Their Players?
- Do Sports Teams Have a Responsibility to Hold Players to a Standard for Their Personal Conduct?
- Should Athletes Who Dope Have to Forfeit Their Titles and Medals?
- Do Fans Put Too Much Pressure on Their Favorite Professional Athletes?
- Does a Championship Game Always Need to Have a Winner (and a Loser)?
- Should Sports Betting Be Legal Everywhere?
- Should Colleges Fund Wellness Programs Instead of Sports?
- Where Should Colleges and Sports Teams Draw the Line in Selling Naming Rights?
- Has Baseball Lost Its Cool?
- Is Cheerleading a Sport?
- How Big a Deal Is It That an N.B.A. Player Came Out as Gay?
- Would You Want a Bike Share Program for Your Community?
- How Young Is Too Young to Climb Mount Everest?
- Do You Trust Your Government?
- If You Were Governor of Your State, How Would You Spend a Budget Surplus?
- What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
- Should Rich People Have to Pay More Taxes?
- What Is More Important: Our Privacy or National Security?
- Do Leaders Have Moral Obligations?
- Do Great Leaders Have to Be Outgoing?
- Is It Principled, or Irresponsible, for Politicians to Threaten a Shutdown?
- Should the U.S. Be Spying on Its Friends?
- When Is the Use of Military Force Justified?
- Should Countries Pay Ransoms to Free Hostages Held by Terrorists?
- Should the United States Stop Using the Death Penalty?
- When Should Juvenile Offenders Receive Life Sentences?
- What Do You Think of the Police Tactic of Stop-and-Frisk?
- Do Rich People Get Off Easier When They Break the Law?
- Should All Police Officers Wear Body Cameras?
- Will What Happened in Ferguson Change Anything?
- Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote After They Have Served Their Time?
- How Should We Prevent Future Mass Shootings?
- Would You Feel Safer With Armed Guards Patrolling Your School?
- What Is Your Relationship With Guns?
- Where Do You Stand on Unconcealed Handguns?
- Should Guns Be Permitted on College Campuses?
- Did a Newspaper Act Irresponsibly by Publishing the Addresses of Gun Owners?
- Should Millions of Undocumented Immigrants Be Allowed to Live in the U.S. Without Fear of Getting Deported?
- Are Children of Illegal Immigrants Entitled to a Public Education?
- How Much Freedom Should Parents Give Their Children?
- How Should Parents Discipline Their Kids?
- When Does Discipline Become Child Abuse?
- Do ‘Shame and Blame’ Work to Change Teenage Behavior?
- Do We Give Children Too Many Trophies?
- Are Adults Hurting Young Children by Pushing Them to Achieve?
- Is Modern Culture Ruining Childhood?
- How, and by Whom, Should Children Be Taught Appropriate Behavior?
- Are ‘Dark’ Movies O.K. for Kids?
- Should Halloween Costumes Portray Only ‘Positive Images’?
- Are Parents Violating Their Children’s Privacy When They Share Photos and Videos of Them Online?
- Should Children Be Allowed to Compete on TV?
- How Young Is Too Young for an iPhone?
- Should Parents Limit How Much Time Children Spend on Tech Devices?
- How Should Parents Handle a Bad Report Card?
- How Important Are Parent-Teacher Conferences?
- Who Should Be Able to See Students’ Records?
- Would You Want to Be Home-Schooled?
- Should All Children Be Able to Go to Preschool?
- How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
- Does Keeping a Messy Desk Make People More Creative?
- What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
- Does Your Generation Have Too Much Self-Esteem?
- Is Your Generation Really ‘Postracial’?
- When Do You Become an Adult?
- When Should You Be Able to Buy Cigarettes, Drink Alcohol, Vote, Drive and Fight in Wars?
- When You Are Old Enough to Vote, Will You?
- Can Money Buy You Happiness?
- Does Buying and Accumulating More and More Stuff Make Us Happier?
- Are We Losing the Art of Listening?
- Do People Complain Too Much?
- Which Is More Important: Talent or Hard Work?
- How Important Is Keeping Your Cool?
- When Should You Compromise?
- Is Your Generation More Self-Centered Than Earlier Generations?
- Do You Believe That Everything Happens for a Reason?
- How Much Control Do You Think You Have Over Your Fate?
- Can You Be Good Without God?
- How Important Do You Think It Is to Marry Someone With the Same Religion?
- Does Suffering Make Us Stronger and Lead to Success?
- Do Bystanders Have a Responsibility to Intervene When There is Trouble?
- When Is Looting Morally O.K.?
- Can Kindness Become Cool?
- Have Curse Words Become So Common They Have Lost Their Shock Value?
- What Words or Phrases Do You Think Are Overused?
- What Words or Phrases Should Be Retired?
- Do Laws That Ban Offensive Words Make the World a Better Place?
- Should Newspapers Reprint Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad That Some Deem Offensive?
- Is It Wrong for a Newspaper to Publish a Front-Page Photo of a Man About to Die?
- Do Teachers Assign Too Much Homework?
- Does Your Homework Help You Learn?
- What Are You Really Learning at School?
- Does Class Size Matter?
- Do We Need a New Way to Teach Math?
- Does Gym Help Students Perform Better in All Their Classes?
- Should Reading and Math Be Taught in Gym Class Too?
- What Are the Best Ways to Learn About History?
- What Is the Right Amount of Group Work in School?
- What Do You Think of Grouping Students by Ability in Schools?
- How Important Is Arts Education?
- Do Schools Provide Students With Enough Opportunities to Be Creative?
- Does the Way Your Classroom Is Decorated Affect Your Learning?
- What Are the Best Teaching Methods for Getting Students to Behave Well in Class?
- How Does Your School Deal With Students Who Misbehave?
- Should Schools Be Allowed to Use Corporal Punishment?
- Is Cheating Getting Worse?
- Should Schools Put Tracking Devices in Students’ ID Cards?
- Should Middle School Students Be Drug Tested?
- Should Students Be Barred From Taking Cellphones to School?
- How Big a Problem Is Bullying or Cyberbullying in Your School or Community?
- How Should Schools Address Bullying?
- How Should Schools Address Cyberbullying?
- What Should the Punishment Be for Acts of Cyberbullying?
- When Do Pranks Cross the Line to Become Bullying?
- How Should Schools Respond to Hazing Incidents?
- Should the School Day Start Later?
- Is Your School Day Too Short?
- Do You Think a Longer School Calendar Is a Good Idea?
- Should the Dropout Age Be Raised?
- Should We Rethink How Long Students Spend in High School?
- Should Students Be Allowed to Skip Senior Year of High School?
- Should Kids Head to College Early?
- Class Time + Substitute = Waste?
- Do Kids Need Recess?
- Should Students Be Able to Grade Their Teachers?
- Does Your School Hand Out Too Many A’s?
- Do Girls Get Better Grades Than Boys in Your School?
- Does Separating Boys and Girls Help Students Perform Better in School?
- Why Do Boys Lag Behind Girls in Reading?
- Should Discomfort Excuse Students From Having to Complete an Assignment?
- How Well Do You Think Standardized Tests Measure Your Abilities?
- How Seriously Should We Take Standardized Tests?
- Do You Spend Too Much Time Preparing for Standardized Tests?
- Should Schools Offer Cash Bonuses for Good Test Scores?
- Would You Rather Attend a Public or a Private High School?
- How Much Does It Matter to You Which High School You Attend?
- Are Small Schools More Effective Than Large Schools?
- Should Home-Schoolers Be Allowed to Play Public School Sports?
- Should All Students Get Equal Space in a Yearbook?
- Should School Newspapers Be Subject to Prior Review?
- Is Prom Worth It?
- Is Prom Just an Excuse to Drink?
- How Necessary Is a College Education?
- Is College Overrated?
- Should a College Education be Free?
- What Is the Perfect Number of College Applications to Send?
- Should Colleges Find a Better Way to Admit Students?
- Should Colleges Use Admissions Criteria Other Than SAT Scores and Grades?
- Do You Support Affirmative Action in College Admissions?
- Does It Matter Where You Go to College?
- Do College Rankings Matter?
- What Criteria Should Be Used in Awarding Scholarships for College?
- Should Engineers Pay Less for College Than English Majors?
- Do Fraternities Promote Misogyny?
- Should Colleges Ban Fraternities?
- Would You Quit if Your Values Did Not Match Your Employer’s?
- Should Employers Be Able to Review Job Applicants’ SAT Scores?
- Do You Worry Colleges or Employers Might Read Your Social Media Posts Someday?
- Would You Rather Work From Home or in an Office?
- Is ‘Doing Nothing’ a Good Use of Your Time?
- Is Smoking Still a Problem Among Teenagers?
- Are Antismoking Ads Effective?
- Is Drinking and Driving Still a Problem for Teenagers?
- Should Marijuana Be Legal?
- Should Students Be Required to Take Drug Tests?
- Why Is Binge Drinking So Common Among Young People in the United States?
- Do You Think a Healthier School Lunch Program Is a Lost Cause?
- Should French Fries and Pizza Sauce Count as Vegetables?
- How Concerned Are You About Where Your Food Comes From?
- Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?
- Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day?
- Do You Prefer Your Tacos ‘Authentic’ or ‘Appropriated’?
- Should Sugary Drinks Be Taxed?
- Should the Government Limit the Size of Sugary Drinks?
- How Should Schools Handle Unvaccinated Students?
- Should Physician-Assisted Suicide Be Legal in Every State?
- Should Texting While Driving Be Illegal in Every State?
- Should Terminally Ill Patients Be Allowed to Die on Their Own Terms?
- Should Children Be Allowed to Wear Whatever They Want?
- What Are Your Opinions on Cosmetic Surgery?
- Do ‘Saggy Pants’ Mean Disrespect?
- Should You Care About the Health and Safety of Those Making Your Clothing?
- How Concerned Are You About Climate Change?
- How Should Nations and Individuals Address Climate Change?
- Should Developers Be Allowed to Build in and Near the Grand Canyon?
- Should Scientists Try to Help People Beat Old Age So We Can Live Longer Lives?
- Given Unlimited Resources, What Scientific or Medical Problem Would You Investigate?
- When Is It O.K. to Replace Human Limbs With Technology?
- Should Fertilized Eggs Be Given Legal ‘Personhood’?
- Do You Think Life Exists — or Has Ever Existed — Somewhere Besides Earth?
- Do You Believe in Intelligent Alien Life?
- Will Humans Live on Mars Someday?
- Would You Want to Be a Space Tourist?
- Should Certain Animals Have Some of the Same Legal Rights As People?
- Is It Unethical for a Zoo to Kill a Healthy Giraffe?
- Should You Go to Jail for Kicking a Cat?
- Should You Feel Guilty About Killing Spiders, Ants or Other Bugs?
- How Do You Think Dinosaurs Went Extinct?
- Should the Private Lives of Famous People Be Off Limits?
- Do You Think Child Stars Have It Rough?
- Should the United States Care That It’s Not No. 1?
- Is It Possible to Start Out Poor in This Country, Work Hard and Become Well-Off?
- Do Poor People ‘Have It Easy’?
- How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
- Should Charities Focus More on America?
- What Causes Should Philanthropic Groups Finance?
- Is Teenage ‘Voluntourism’ Wrong?
- Do You Shop at Locally Owned Businesses?
- Is Amazon Becoming Too Powerful?
- Should Companies Collect Information About You?
- What Time Should Black Friday Sales Start?
- How Long Is It O.K. to Linger in a Cafe or Restaurant?
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