How to tackle those scary, or outrageous, college essays

Filling in the standard application questions is almost enjoyable compared to the angst many students feel when approaching the college essay.

Students struggle to write a unique essay. Most high seniors are staring at cold, gray computer screens hoping to create their ticket to Perfect U. College essay prompts vary from the typical: “Evaluate an experience, achievement, or risk you have taken and describe its effect on you.” Or “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.” Or the dreaded “diversity” question: “Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community.” To the more unusual: “What is more interesting: Gorillas or guerillas?” You can have a little fun with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s: “Tell us about a small goal you hope to achieve, whether in the next 10 days, 10 months, or 10 years.”

But the University of Chicago is the BMOC (Big Man on Campus) for creative — also know as outrageous — essay topics. In the past they have asked students to improvise a story, essay or script using the following requirements: The line “And yes, I said yes, I will Yes” (“Ulysses,” by James Joyce). Its characters may not have superpowers. The work has to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of a high school student applying to the University. This is fiction, not autobiography. The work must include at least four of the following elements: a paper airplane/a shoe/the invisible hand/two doors/a transformation/pointillism/a fanciful explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem/a ventriloquist or ventriloquism/the Periodic Table of the Elements/No. 2 pencils/the concept of jeong. Or how about this prompt from Wake Forest: “What outrages you?”

Is it possible that wild and crazy essay prompts annoy you?

Here are some ways parents can help their students: As always, the best advice is to be authentic. Students need to be true to themselves. The essay is an opportunity for students to get beyond their statistics, to show how they’ve spent their time outside high school and to share what is important to them. It is their time to put a human face on their application.

Parents can often be very helpful in the brainstorming session. You know many of their outside interests, their activities and their experiences. Sometimes just asking a probing question such as, “How did it feel when you…?” will jog their memory and send them down a fruitful path. Essays with strong active verbs are more exciting to read, but don’t overuse the thesaurus.

Begin with a bang. Think about the college admissions folks reading perhaps hundreds of essays each day. Don’t start the essay by repeating the entire essay prompt in the opening sentence. Draw the reader in with an enticing introduction.

Proofread. Proofread again. Have a few people look over the essay. Make sure it sounds like it was written by a student and not a 45-year-old lawyer.


Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;