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Oddball Essay Questions Pepper Admissions Tests
November 3, 2013

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The use of unconventional questions in college admissions materials is on the rise. This is particularly the case with elite colleges.

The University of Chicago is well-known for asking such potential students to answer questions such as "How do you feel about Wednesday" and "What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?" The idea, admissions officials say, is to elicit creativity from students, who all too commonly provide all too common answers to common questions like "Why do you want to attend this school of higher learning?"

It's an opportunity for students to show their nimble thinking and essay-writing skills as well, as evidenced by a student who answered the question "So where is Waldo, really?" with an essay titled "Can Waldo find himself?"

Granted, some students would rather not add to their long list of to-dos by having to prepare for an oddball question, but that's the precisely the point, admissions officials say: If you don't know the question is coming, you can't memorize your answer and so what you can demonstrate is on-the-spot creativity, which could very well be a factor that results in the difference between being admitted and being rejected.

Some universities offer students the opportunity to demonstrate the ability to apply perspective. Brandeis once asked admissions candidates this question: “You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?” Swarthmore, a small college in Pennsylvania, had this variant: "Imagine that you have the chance to travel back in time. At what event in history would you like to see and why?"

Not to be outdone was New York University, which appealed to its more literary-minded candidates by posing this requirement: "Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you."

Perhaps the ultimate melding of philosophy and hard science was this question from Tufts: "Are we alone?"

Admissions officials agree that not all students excel at such questions. Linear thinkers and students for whom English is not the first language could find some of those oddball questions hard going.

The message behind these unpredictable head-scratchers might just be this: Life is much more than questions and answers. Be ready for whatever the world throws at you.

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