College Application Essay Prompts 2012

Every year colleges and universities ask applicants to write essays to explain who they are and to show how they think and write (assuming that the students actually write the essays themselves). Even many of the hundreds of schools that accept the online Common Application still require supplemental writing samples. Most of the essay prompts are predictable — but not all. Here are some of the more unusual ones for the 2013-14 college application season.

The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase “Carpe diem.” Jonathan Larson proclaimed “No day but today!” and most recently, Drake explained You Only Live Once (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?

The University of Chicago prides itself on its provocative essay questions, inspired by newly admitted students who are asked to contribute ideas for new prompts. Here are the ones for this admissions cycle:

Essay Option 1.

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

Essay Option 2.

In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).

You are you and your..?

Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016

Essay Option 3.

“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010

Essay Option 4.

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

Essay Option 5.

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Inspired by Florence Chan, Class of 2015

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

Here are some of the supplemental essay prompts from the 2013-2014 freshman application. Limit: Half a page or roughly 250 words.

–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?

Imagine that you are backpacking through a country you have never been to before. You are interested in engaging with the local population and your backpack includes three items that will help them learn about your family and culture. What are those three items and how do they represent your background?

Choose one and respond in an essay of 400-500 words.

Most of us have one or more personality quirks. Explain one of yours and what it says about you.

What do you hope to find over the rainbow?

Why do you do what you do?

If you could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, where would you go and why?

Tell us about a time when your curiosity led you someplace you weren’t expecting to go.

Give us your top ten list.

There’s a difference between being busy and being engaged. Lafayette comes alive each day with the energy of students who are deeply engaged in their academic, co-curricular, and extracurricular explorations. In response to the … prompt, keep it simple—choose one activity and add depth to our understanding of your involvement.

What do you do? Why do you do it? (Optional and 20-200 words in length)

(CBS MoneyWatch) If your teenager is a high school senior, now is the time to get started on those college essays.

Students who are applying to the roughly 500 colleges and universities that use the "common application" can get a sneak peak at what the six college essay topics will be. You can check out the writing prompts on the preview latest application. Students can't begin filling it out until Aug. 1. 

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Nearly all the schools that use the Common Application are private, and they include many of the nation's most prestigious schools. Here are the six essay topics for the coming admission season:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2. Discuss some issue of personal local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the important of diversity to you.

6. Topic of your choice.

The six college essay topics are contained in the preview Common Application that you can find on the organization's website. Any student applying to a school using the application can't get carried away with their college essay topic -- it can't exceed 500 words.

College essay examples

If your teenager needs inspiration, here are sample college essays that the admission office at Johns Hopkins University thought were impressive. For further inspiration, here are winning opening lines from college essays written by successful applicants at Stanford University:

Image courtesy of Flickr user photosteve101

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