7 Surprising College Application Essay Prompts

With the 2019-2020 application season winding down, here are seven surprising and thought-provoking college application essay or short answer prompts (in random order):

  1. “What is the most compelling thing you have ever read, and how has it changed you or inspired you to take action now, in the past, or in the future? This could be an entire book, a passage or chapter, a poem, an article, graffiti- anything written.” George Mason University Honors prompt 
  2.  Seattle has a rich musical history and SU students love discovering new Seattle music. Tell us: what five songs would be the soundtrack to your perfect college experience? (two to three sentences for each song is appropriate)” Seattle University prompt
  3.  “At USC Viterbi, we endeavor to engineer a better world for all humanity. This vision goes hand-in-hand with the objectives of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges. Engineers and Computer Scientists are challenged to solve these problems in order to improve life on the planet. Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenges at http://engineeringchallenges.org and tell us which challenge is most important to you, and why.” University of Southern California prompt
  4. “There are approximately 171,476 words in the English dictionary. Pick your favorite word and tell us why you picked it.” Brandeis University prompt
  5. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” Stanford University prompt
  6. “Who does Sally sell her seashells to? How much wood can a woodchuck really chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Pick a favorite tongue twister (either originally in English or translated from another language) and consider a resolution to its conundrum using the method of your choice. Math, philosophy, linguistics… it’s all up to you (or your woodchuck).—Inspired by Blessing Nnate, Class of 2024” University of Chicago prompt 
  7. Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?” Yale University prompt 

Which of these prompts do you think is the most challenging? The most creative?

What prompt did you encounter that you consider thought-provoking?


Babson College

Overview – Babson College is a private business college with a focus on entrepreneurship in Wellesley, MA, only 10 minutes from Boston. The college has 2300 undergraduates with an average class size of between 20 and 25 students and no TAs teaching. Classes are capped at 40 students.
Academics – The following makes Babson different:
  • Everyone is involved in entrepreneurship
  • There is a focus on thinking globally (30% of students are international) and innovatively
  •  Students need to be willing to be creative, take risks and be able to fail
  • There is an emphasis hands-on learning.

There are required business and liberal arts classes including rhetoric, quantitative classes and a business foundation in finance, accounting and marketing.
Everyone takes a yearlong foundations of entrepreneurship where they start a company to solve a problem, they pitch an idea to get funding for their idea and launch the business. At the end of the year, students liquidate the business and donate the profits to a local charity.
Students can have 0, 1 or 2 concentrations (like majors at other colleges).
All freshman get a laptop with needed software loaded.
There are no classes on Fridays.
Babson has partnerships with Olin College (which is their next door neighbor) and Wellesley College. Students can take 1 class per year at these 2 other colleges. The three schools also have a shared makerspace.

Study abroad – Over 50% of students have a global abroad experience that is over a break or a semester in length. There is also a yearlong partnership with the London School of Economics.

Post-Graduation – Students can work with the center for career development from day 1. Over 500 employers come to campus to recruit. Most students have at least one internship, although an internship is not required. 99% of graduates are placed in a job or a graduate program.

Housing – 85% of students live on campus all four years. Students can choose to live in a Living and Learning Community or Greek Housing if they like.

Extracurricular activities – There are 22 NCAA Division III athletic teams, as well as intramural and club sports. Babson has Greek life and lots of clubs for students to join (or students can start a new club).

Applying – Students can apply Early Action, Early Decision or Regular Decision. Admissions are holistic with an average SAT score of 1360 or ACT score of 31. All applicant must have pre-Calculus in high school, although Calculus or AP Statistics are encouraged.

ZeeMee Intro

What is ZeeMee?

Lynn University is a ZeeMee partner
ZeeMee lets students use images and videos to let others get to know them for free. It can be used as part of a college application, to find a college roommate, or to provide information to a counselor or teacher writing a letter of recommendation. Currently, over 190 colleges are partnered with ZeeMee.

What are the parts of ZeeMee?

ZeeMee has three sections:
  • Meet Me – a video, ideally between 30 and 90 seconds in length to introduce you
  • My Story – an elevator pitch limited to 300 characters.
  • My Activities – Three to five of your most important “activities” that you share with pictures, video and/or documents. These can be activities in your Common App or something totally different (e.g., family stories, personal challenges, talents, passions, interests).

What does ZeeMee look like?

Here are several ZeeMee samples.

How long does it take to set up a ZeeMe?

ZeeMee can be set up in as little as 30 – 45 minutes.

Who can see my ZeeMee?

Your ZeeMee link can be public (i.e., anyone can see it and it is searchable) or private (e.g., you send the link only to those you want to see it; it is not searchable).

Do colleges look at ZeeMee?

Brittany Werts, an Elon University Admissions Counselor said she spends 2 to 5 minutes reviewing the ZeeMee of Elon applicants, who she is on the fence about admitting.

What should I do if I have ZeeMee questions?

Check out the ZeeMee FAQ.

College Admissions Trends 2013 – Part 1 of 4

On February 26th, I attended a workshop at Rutgers University featuring a panel of college admissions and high school guidance personnel. They reviewed college admissions issues, concerns, and trends for members of the NJ Association of College Admission Counseling (NJACAC). The common themes were increased applications, more applications from international students, more demand for certain majors, continued building on-campus, and NJ state colleges looking for students from outside of NJ. Do any of these trends surprise you?

Some questions discussed included the impact of the economy on colleges and financial aid. Some private colleges are offering additional financial aid, with some discounting up to 50%. The panelists didn’t see how that could be supported on a long-term basis. Parents are asking more questions on college completion rates; it is taking students 5.6 years to graduate on the average. Some colleges are seeing the willingness to pay for college going down among those who can afford to pay. There is also an increase in families appealing financial aid awards. As parents, how has the economy impacted how you view a college education for your son or daughter?

In my next post, I will review the comments from the admissions personnel from Rider University, Fordham University, and The College of NJ (TCNJ).

Albright College, Reading, PA

The Basics – Albright is a small college in Reading, PA. Most of the classes have 15 to 25 students; only 2 classrooms hold more than 40 students. Two thirds of the students take a dual major and 1 in 3 students is a minority or international student. Albright is known for its business and arts programs.

Academics – The school is on a 4-1-4 calendar and has a new Gen ed (general education) requirements. Gen ed requirements include a first year seminar class of 15-18 students with lots of reading and writing, a composition class, a foreign language requirement, foundations (i.e., one course in each of five areas), connections (i.e., two classes on cultural or biological diversity), synthesis (i.e., a class with two teachers) and experience events (e.g., study abroad, study off-campus, internship, research or service learning). Students can study abroad after two semesters and there are some scholarships available for study abroad. Some majors require an internship.

Extracurricular Activities – Greek life and athletics, especially Division III football, basketball and swimming are important here. 12% of men and 18% of women go Greek. There is a great health and wellness building. Popular activities are ultimate Frisbee, rugby, and the comic club. One school tradition is to throw you in the pond, which is more like a fountain, on your birthday.

Admissions – The school has rolling admissions with decisions starting on October 1. Students generally hear if they have been accepted two weeks after they apply. This year there were 1500 applications by Labor Day. The school uses the Common App without a supplement. The mid 50 % for GPA was 3.1 to 3.7. The mid 50% score for the SAT (for Critical Reading and Math was 1000 – 1170. The school is test-optional.

Building on Campus – The college is building a new $30 million science facility, is doing a $5million upgrade to the building that houses business, accounting and political science, and is doing a $10 million library renovation.

Financial Aid – The big news at Albright is that starting in the Fall of 2013, Albright will meet 100% of demonstrated financial need! Expect to have a Stafford loan and to do work-study. The school is need blind. There is also merit aid available. Most scholarships are between $5K and $25K. There are 2 full scholarships per year. There are also awards of between $500 and $5K for arts, participation, being a member of National Honor Society, and for Methodists.

The Dreaded College Application Essay

Put yourself in the place of an admissions officer. You have hundreds of applications to read. You have just read an application filled with grades, scores, lists of courses and activities. It’s time to read the college essay. The last thing you want to read is a poorly-written essay that could have been written by any high school student.

Instead of dreading the essay, think of it as an opportunity to make your application come alive. It will change you from a bunch of numbers to an interesting person that the admissions officer would like to have as an incoming freshman. The essay is your opportunity to share something important with the admissions officer that doesn’t appear elsewhere on the application.

A memorable essay starts with the right topic. Read the essay prompt and instructions. Then, get in touch with yourself and brainstorm possible ideas. Pick a topic that you have firsthand experience with and that is important to you. Allow enough time to write the essay and then to edit it.

Five Things for High School Seniors To Do Now

For high school seniors, college application deadlines are just around the corner. Here are five things to do now, to be ready for fall application deadlines.

1. Finalize the college list and know the due dates. Generally, I recommend that students apply to no more than nine colleges, including stretch, match and safe schools. College application deadlines vary, and some schools have application due dates as early as October. For each school on your final college list, decide whether to apply early decision, early action or regular decision. Record the application and financial aid due dates.

2. Schedule Fall tests. If you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT, or want to take them again, check that the scores will be available by the college due dates, and then register. October is often the last test date that will be scored in time.

3. Schedule college visits. Many colleges use “enthusiasm to attend” as one of their admissions criteria. Visiting is an excellent way to demonstrate your enthusiasm and to learn more about the college. If possible, schedule an interview when you visit.  You may be able visit some colleges that are in session, before high school resumes. 

4. Get teacher recommendations. If you did not ask teachers for recommendations in the Spring, do it as soon as school starts. Notify your guidance counselor if you will be applying to schools early admission, since they also need to prepare a recommendation and get other materials ready for your applications.

5. Finish applications, including essays early. Your applications are critical and should be treated as such. Your essays will take time to write and revise.  Plan enough time to revise each essay three or four times.  Make sure to proofread your applications, including essays carefully.

August 1 Launch of the Common App

On August 1st, the Common Application, also known as the Common App, becomes available for use. While many colleges have their own college applications, 456 institutions use the Common App, making it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges.

The Common Application that will be launched on August 1 is very similar to the one used last year. To see the changes for first-year applications, students can look at the highlighted sections in the preview application.

The most dreaded portion of the Common App is the writing section. Students need to write a 250 – 500 word essay on a topic of their choice or on one of the five options provided. They also need to write about an extracurricular activity or work experience in the small space provided. Many colleges have a supplement to the Common App that may require additional essays.

I recommend that students write their essays before school resumes in September and life becomes more hectic. If you don’t think you’ll get it done without some structure, try my “Common Application Boot Camp With A Friend” or my 1-on-1 services.