Quirky works for answering unusual college essay questions

When asked an unusual question, it is OK to give an unusual answer. With tens of thousands of college applicants, a quirky essay prompt encourages the student to set themselves apart from the competition.

The 2023-24 college application season had an abundance of unexpected essay questions with different word counts. Four colleges rose to the top of asking uncommon prompts within a set word limit: Columbia University, Wake Forest University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Vermont.

Since the Supreme Court affirmative-action ruling last year, which eliminated the consideration of race on college and graduate school applications, essays have expanded their role in learning about a student’s life experiences. Essays are a creative way for students to share their background and interests beyond the typical college application data points such as geography, family or academics.

Colleges include quirky prompts for a purpose: They are an engaging way for a student to talk directly to the admissions committee. Their responses, tone and ideas can illustrate how they will engage in the campus community. The essay topic and writing style can create a memorable impression beyond the required Common Application’s essays, recommendations and other materials.

First, Columbia University asks in 100 words to list the information sources that have contributed to the applicant’s intellectual development beyond academic coursework. The essay format requires using commas or semicolons to separate each item on the list. There cannot be a thematic sentence to set the stage for the information. Rather, the way a student organizes the listing can shed insight into how they present ideas.

Colleges are building a diverse community of students. This listing can be expansive beyond books, videos and podcasts. Influences can include artistic and musical performances, museum visits and professional journals. Each student brings unique perspectives that have been shaped by outside sources throughout their life.

Second, Wake Forest requests a Top Ten List that includes writing a title. Each entry is allowed 100 characters with spaces, which are around 15 to 20 words. The selected topic introduces their passion. This informal format encourages the student to highlight an interest that sets them apart from the crowd.

A list is a quick-take approach, introduces a theme and engages the reader as additional details unfold. In choosing the main idea and supporting points, the student shares how an activity has defined them. Colleges learn how the student dived deep into an area that could become a springboard for the future.

Third, the University of Pennsylvania asks to write a thank-you note to someone you have not thanked and want to acknowledge. In just 200 words, this is an opportunity for the student to consider who may have impacted their life with everyday occurrences or a moment that has been taken for granted.

This unique essay format illustrates how a student approaches the structure of a personal note and their unique writing style. How the applicant expresses gratitude shows the admissions committee who has inspired the student and how the writer is motivated to pass that impact forward.

Also, the prompt specifically asks the applicant to thank someone who has not been acknowledged in the past. The writer should address the time lapse and reflect on how their life has changed since those events.

The thank-you note format is an opportunity to show empathy. The message reveals how this experience was important to the writer’s personal development. This thoughtful reflection can foreshadow future interactions in college.

Finally, the University of Vermont asks the student to choose from five prompts in writing an optional 500-word essay. The fifth prompt asks them to identify one song that represents the soundtrack of their life and explain its personal relevance.

This creative prompt allows the student to share artistic symbolism and self-examination. The longer essay can elaborate how the song connects to the writer’s experiences and brings perspective to the writer’s outlook. Overcoming challenges or sharing happiness brings context to a student’s growth.

The student’s activities and interests are essay fodder. Showing imagination in choosing a topic is essential. Reflecting on past experiences can become a time capsule for the writer.

Quirky essay prompts might appear random or silly; however, this creative approach can share the student’s unique voice. An unpredictable response can add further dimension that might otherwise have been overlooked in the application. Nobody wants to read a boring story.

(Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.)