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The Admissions Essay Is Back

September 30, 2013

Bard College announced Sunday that it will offer a new path to admission: an online essay examination in which applicants will have to submit four 2,500-word research papers. Those whose papers are judged by the college's faculty members to have produced B+ work or better will be offered admission, without any SAT scores, review of high school transcripts, or teacher recommendations.

The sample questions Bard released (see below) are not remotely like the standard "tell us why you'd like to enroll at college X" or "discuss a meaningful personal experience" essay prompts that can be found on so many applications. And most application essays have length limits at well under 1,000 words.

Bard's move, however, makes a series of essays far more important than those on other applications. A statement from President Leon Botstein described the need for change this way: "The tradition of high stakes examination, using multiple choice questions, has made the entire apparatus of high school and college entrance examinations bankrupt. Teachers, scientists, and scholars must once again take charge of the way we test. What the Bard Entrance Examination asks is that students study source materials and write comprehensively in order to show the quality of their reasoning."

The admission-by-essay approach will be an option, and Bard will continue to offer more traditional paths to admission (although the college noted that it has for years allowed those applying to do so without submitting SAT or ACT scores).

Bard's announcement comes in a year in which Tufts University was criticized for asking (in one option among a series of questions) "What does #YOLO mean to you?" As you will see from the full text of the question below, Tufts actually asked more than that in the question. But just asking about the popular Twitter hashtag for "you only live once" led to quite a lot of Internet mocking. The Hairpin suggested that Tufts also considered such prompts as "It’s Friday. Which of your mediocre talents are you going to post to the internet this weekend, and why?" and "Beyonce’s college application essay was the greatest college application essay of all time. Discuss."

Changes in the Common Application's essay prompts almost always cause angst and some criticism -- even though the ever-growing number of colleges (now more than 500) that participate in the Common Application have the option of asking their own additional questions (and many do).

When the University of Chicago moved to join the Common Application in 2006, students protested that the institution was selling out the values behind what had been called the "Uncommon Application," known for its essay prompts. The university has kept the spirit of its prompts, even as it has seen its application numbers go up after joining the Common App.

Here are some of the essay prompts discussed above.

Bard College

Applicants must answer one question from each of the three categories that follow, plus an additional essay from any of the categories. Students are encouraged to do research beyond the links to key resources that would be provided with the prompts. Here are samples from the categories.

Category A (Social Science, History, and Philosophy)

  • "On a Supposed Right to Lie" is an essay written by Immanuel Kant in response to a challenge to Kant's ethical theory posed by a critic named Benjamin Constant; it is usually appended as a supplement to Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. Constant asked if "the German philosopher" (meaning Kant) actually intended that, even if a murderer comes to the door asking for the location of his next victim, who you know to be in the next room, the right thing to do would still be to tell the truth. (This has been discussed as "the murderer at the door problem.") Constant's suggestion is that it seems obvious in this case that the right thing to do is to lie (despite what Kant's theory would dictate). (1) In broad strokes, how does Kant answer this challenge? (2) More precisely, what does Kant mean by saying that the truth-teller is not, in a real sense, free to choose his or her action? (3) More precisely still, what does Kant mean in his last paragraph when he says that "exceptions destroy the universality"? Why does Kant believe this is so important? Is it, according to you?
  • In the Analects, Confucius identifies the cardinal virtue of ren (variously translated as goodness, humanity, benevolence) with many different attitudes and behaviors. Yet Confucius also says, “There is one thread that runs through my doctrines.“ Commentators differ about what that one thread is. What, in your opinion, could that one thread be? How does that one thread tie together the wide range of moral values that Confucius celebrates in the Analects? Support your answer by interpreting specific passages from the text.

Category B (Arts and Literature)

  • “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.“ ―Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading. Read "The Pardoner's Tale." Construct an argument in favor or against Pound's statement. In writing your answer, refer to at least one other text from the period, for example, Langland's Piers Plowman, or The Song of Roland.
  • Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose" (1835) is considered one of the funniest works of Russian literature. It is the story of a man who wakes up one morning without his nose. But as its narrator quizzically puts it, "the most incomprehensible thing of all is, how authors can choose such subjects for their stories." Ever since Aristotle, students expect to glean some wisdom from literature. But then, what to make of seemingly gratuitous and absurdist stories like Gogol's ”The Nose”?

Category C (Science and Mathematics)

  • Consider the following two-player game, Don't be Greedier, that involves players taking alternate turns removing pebbles from one pile of pebbles, subject to the following rules: (1) The player to remove the last pebble or pebbles from the pile wins the game. (2) On the very first move of the game, the player to play is not allowed to remove all the pebbles and win immediately (that would be greedy). (3) After the first move, the number of pebbles removed can't be more than the number of pebbles removed in the turn immediately prior (that would be greedier). That is, the sequence of numbers of pebbles removed on each turn is a monotonically non-increasing sequence. Starting with a pile of 12 pebbles, which player would win a game of Don't be Greedier, assuming optimal play?
  • In his 1963 lecture on gravity (you can also see the video here), Richard Feynman mentions that the "weird" behavior of Uranus led to the discovery of a new planet. More precisely, the fact that Uranus's movement did not fit what was predicted by the then-current understanding of planetary motion could be explained by the existence of a not-yet-observed planet — and the planet was then observed right where predicted. Suppose that observatories had looked at the indicated position and had not actually found the predicted planet. What then? What new questions would this outcome pose for the scientific community? How could they test other explanations for the unexpected motion of Uranus?

Common Application

Colleges can add required or optional essays beyond having applicants pick from these.

  • "Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story."
  • "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?"
  • "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"
  • "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?"
  • "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family."

Tufts University

The much-discussed YOLO prompt is in a question that is among six options for one part of the application.

  • The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase "Carpe diem." Jonathan Larson proclaimed "No day but today!" and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?

University of Chicago

  • Winston Churchill believed "a joke is a very serious thing." From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City). Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.
  • In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: "Yo soy yo y mi microbioma" (2012). You are you and your...?
  • "This is what history consists of. It's the sum total of all the things they aren't telling us." — Don DeLillo, Libra. What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?
  • 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 16 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?
  • How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
  • In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

 

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