Quirky questions in the quest for college

The "common application" certainly has made life easier for high school seniors. Gone are the days when applying to eight colleges meant writing eight different essays on topics ranging from "discuss a time you failed," to "describe someone who has profoundly influenced you." Now, applicants can simply write one "personal statement," and send out multiple copies.

Unless they're applying to the University of Chicago, that is. Chicago, along with a small number of other holdouts (mostly in the Ivy League), still refuses to accept the common application. "We want [students] to write directly to us," says Chicago's dean of admissions, Ted O'Neill.

The common application may appeal from a practical standpoint - most public universities, as well as many private ones, have recently opted for it. But Dean O'Neill argues that the generic "tell us something about yourself" question is hard to answer, as it's so shapeless and can lead students toward self-aggrandizement.

That can be a problem for what is a significant part of a student's portfolio, he adds. Long an important assessment tool at highly competitive colleges, the admissions essay is becoming even more so, since transcripts routinely sport high grades and lofty test scores. The essay is one of the few things that shows Chicago how a student thinks.

Nevertheless, the school's admissions committee tries to signal to students "that they can have a little fun" with what they've dubbed their "uncommon application."

Students applying to the University of Chicago face questions such as:

"Having observed the recent success of television shows about young people, the University of Chicago has decided to pitch a pilot proposal to the networks. That is as much as we are sure of now, so we are taking this opportunity to get help from the intended audience: you."

Applicants must come up with a proposal for a series that incorporates:

1. A genre from the following:

(a) a German opera, (b) a soap opera, (c) MTV's "The Real World," (d) PBS's "Bill Nye the Science Guy," or (e) NBC's "Friends."

2. A character from the following:

(a) Godot, (b) Enrico Fermi's personal trainer, (c) a starving investment banker, or (d) an evil clown.

3. A prominent prop from the following:

(a) Cliff Notes for "Finnegans Wake," (b) Van Gogh's ear, (c) a proton accelerator, or (d) Muddy Waters's guitar.

Chicago isn't the only school encouraging students to be creative. The University of Pennsylvania's quirky essay topic has become something of a minor classic: "You have just completed your 300 page autobiography. Please submit page 217."

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., presents its applicants with a literary reference: "A stone, a leaf, an unfound door," from "Look Homeward Angel," by Thomas Wolfe. Mirroring this quote, students are asked to: "Write about three objects that would give the admissions committee insight into who you are."

And Princeton University has its applicants fill out a section called "Hodge-Podge." Students are required to list their favorite book, recording, movie, TV program, source of news, pastime, time of day, food, place to get away from it all, academic subject, and word.

Although the admissions committee tells applicants not to "lose any sleep" over these questions, many students wind up spending far more time on this section than they do on the rest of the application, weighing the pros and cons of "Pride and Prejudice" vs. "The Catcher in the Rye," and trying to come up with a favorite word that isn't either pretentious or too cute.

In contrast, Princeton's essay question: "Discuss something (anything) you just wished you understood better," seems positively easy.

Of course, for those students who find creative essay questions more daunting than liberating, most of these schools also offer more analytical options.

The essay "doesn't have to be funny," Chicago's O'Neill says.

Students should view the essay as a "conversation" between them and the admissions committee, he continues. "We're looking for people who are thoughtful, who have a love of learning. And the best way to identify these qualities, in his opinion, is "through the student's own words."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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