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Talkin' About College Essays #1: Dealing with Strange Essay Questions

By Brendan Conway updated on Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Most college applications will require essays based on prompts they provide. Most prompts will be nice, tame, and reasonable. They'll take hard work and thought, sure, but they'll be nothing outside of the realm of what you've already done or what you're familiar with.

But every now and then, you'll hit a question on a college application that makes you sit back in your chair, eyes wide, for a couple of minutes. Your mind will go blank as you try desperately to wrap your brain around the question you just read.

Congratulations! You've just encountered a Strange Essay Question.

If you can get over your initial shock, these questions can be some of the most rewarding and enjoyable to answer. Though, you still have to figure out just how to answer them in the first place. Not to fret! We're here to provide you with some example questions, and tips and tricks that can help you navigate their tricky, squid-infested waters.   And if you want even more help, head on over to EssayEdge and get in touch with expert essay editors today!


Can a toad hear? Prove it.
- Bennington College

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Let's start this list off with a bang, eh? When you see a question like this, your first reaction may be confusion, or anxiety. Don't let it get to you though! The first and most important thing you can keep in mind when you receive one of these interesting questions is, as a great man once said, "DON'T PANIC!"

These questions are meant to provoke interesting, creative, unique, and fun answers. They're not here to make you crazy.

 

Using a piece of wire, a car window sticker, an egg carton, and any inexpensive hardware store item, create something that would solve a problem. Tell us about your creation, but don't worry: we won't require proof that it works.
- Johns Hopkins

If you were reduced to living on a flat plane, what would be your greatest problems? Opportunities?
- Hamilton College

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Always read these questions very, very carefully. Remember that this is a plane, we're talking about. The flat, 2 dimensional kind, not the flying through the air kind, or the "Where the buffalo roam" kind. Or, remember that your invention has to use a wire, a car window sticker, an egg carton, and the inexpensive hardware store item, all together.

On some of the more inventive questions you'll find out there, the wording can be critical to properly answering. You'll want to make sure you've got it down pat.

 

If you had the gift of telepathy, the ability to read other people's minds, would you use this gift or not? Explain.
- Middle East Technical University/93

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This gem may seem relatively simple at first. "Would you use telepathy?" Yeah, totally! "Explain." That "Explain" is the key, though. It's an opening for more than just an explanation of your personal morality with regard to thought transmission.

What would you use your telepathy for? Why? How? This is your chance to show off who you are. The way in which you tackle the question is going to tell the admissions officer as much about you as your actual answer.

An essay focused on the morality of telepathy is going to be telling in a very different way than an essay focused on the funny little things you'd do if you could read minds. Look for opportunities to expand appropriately on the prompt and demonstrate your own unique personality.


Don't play what's there, play what's not there." - Miles Davis
- University of Chicago

Are we alone?
- Tufts University

How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
- University of Chicago

Give us your top ten list.
- Wake Forest University

Why did you do it?
- Tufts University

How do you feel about Wednesday?
- University of Chicago

What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?
- University of Chicago

Find X.
- University of Chicago

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Seems like the questions above are missing some pieces, right? Like they're not full questions? Guess what? That's an opportunity, not a hurdle. "Find X"? What X? Find it how? What does it mean? How do you explain it? Every one of those questions is a chance for you to put yourself in the question and make it your own.

Maybe X is that of a pirate treasure map. Maybe X is the most important variable in your day to day life. Maybe the question is about how you struggled with some major math problem and overcame it.

Whatever you choose, make the question your own. When you're faced with a question that seems like it's not big enough, all it's doing is giving you room to play.

Most overrated superhero? Most underrated superhero? Former kindergarten fear? Advice for adults? Gadget that needs inventing?
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?
- Brandeis University

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.
- University of Chicago

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Sometimes, you'll get a question that's just plain fun. Who wouldn't want to answer a question about robots, dinosaurs, or aliens? Superheroes and gadgets? Giant jars of mustard? But the key in dealing with these questions is to strike a balance between fun and focus.

You can't really afford to go crazy on any question on a college application, no matter how fun it might be. But then again, these questions are begging for humor, for cleverness, and for just the right amount of crazy.

Finding the right mix for you is going to be a tough thing, something that you're only really going to be able to decide on for yourself. The best piece of advice to keep in mind is that you want it to be something that nearly anyone could read and enjoy. Keep it tame enough for the stricter audiences, and fun enough for the looser audiences.

 

About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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