“Find X.” “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?”
For Georgetown students who applied to many different colleges, these real questions on college applications might trigger unpleasant memories. As noted Saturday by The New York Times, oddball college application questions are trendy these days at competitive universities. Admissions offices claim that, amid a sea of nearly identical application prompts on the Common Application, these quirky questions help set their college apart from the rest of the pack.
But while off-kilter prompts can be appealing on the surface, they have little value for either applicants or application readers. Questions with such restrictive parameters can constrain students’ ability to fully convey their merits. In fact, there seems to be an almost inverse relationship to the quirkiness of the question and the ability to respond creatively or substantively. Because these questions do not facilitate writing about unique experiences, students run the risk of parallel thinking, or coming up with similar responses, even when their essays adequately address the prompt.
On the other end, admissions offices stand to gain little from quirky questions. The goal seems to be to gauge how an applicant responds when presented with an unusual prompt. But there is precious little space on a college application — a pivotal document in the life of many teenagers — and questions must be given an equal level of seriousness. A majority of worthwhile applicants will be able to convey their unique way of thinking better when presented with a more open-ended question.
Georgetown commendably keeps its essays fairly broad, requiring a creative personal essay, a community service experience description and one school-specific response. Our admissions department does well in bypassing what’s trendy. It is a waste of application space to throw in unorthodox prompts simply for the sake of branding.