Monday, November 4, 2013

"Creative" application essays

First we hear about Google and other "innovative" companies asking  off-beat interview questions; now, as this week's New York Times Education Life reports, we hear about elite colleges using offbeat prompts for their application essays. Front and center is the University of Chicago, whose recent prompts include:

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

“What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?”  
“Destroy a question with your answer” 
“Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.”  
“How did you get caught?” 
But then there's also Brandeis
“If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” 
“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?” 
And Tufts:
Discuss the meaning of “YOLO" (an acronym for “you only live once,” popularized by the rapper Drake). 
Other practitioners (see here for a more complete listing) include the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Amherst, Hamilton, and University of Notre Dame.

As once college counselor acknowledges, "most students prefer — and are better off — avoiding the unusual questions":
“There are the kids who find it just invigorating, but they are not the majority,” he said. “The linear, sequential, mechanical kids of the world usually don’t want to play that game, no matter how smart they are.”
But at what cost? As the Education Life notes:
At a time when some elite colleges worry that high school students are more likely to be high achievers than independent thinkers, oddball essay questions offer a way to determine which of the A-student, high-test-score, multi-extracurricular applicants can also show a spark of originality.
And as John W. Boyer, the dean of the undergraduate college of U of C, opines:
“It requires a little bit of wit and more than a little bit of imagination,” he said. “We want to give students an opportunity to be unconventional in a pushing-the-boundary sense and see what they can do.”
As I've noted before, we "linear, sequential" left-brained types are, indeed, particularly stymied by such questions. Nor is is clear that these question tap into the true essence of creativity, or that we left-brainers are creativity-impaired. I generally feel full of ideas on all sorts of topics; there's something about prompts that are simultaneously open-ended and off-beat that makes me feel utterly barren.

I'm lucky: I applied to college back in the early 1980s, before these these trends took hold. But what does this take on "creativity" mean for the college admissions prospects of today's left-brain students?


C T said...

The University of Chicago questions are pretty lame, but I like the Brandeis questions because they allow an applicant to show off and apply copious subject knowledge about things that interest him/her.

Anonymous said...

These essay prompts are a big giveaway to students who have been raised in highly educated and highly verbal homes and had classmates who were the same. The kind of students who will be journalists, playwrights, marketing experts, etc. I have no problem with them, as long as there are other prompts that lift up the talents of other types of students. For example, struggling working class students from factory high schools, rural youth with big talents in designing work-arounds for ailing machinery, and so forth.

GoogleMaster said...

These kinds of questions aren't new; they're merely newly trendy. When I applied to Rice around 1981, they were very proud of the question on their application that consisted of a 2-inch square box that the applicant was instructed to fill with something meaningful to him/her. I recall hearing that some of the responses they received were in 3D.

GoogleMaster said...

Also, not only are these types of corporate interviews not new, they're not even being conducted anymore at the companies that made them famous. The book about Microsoft's interviews, How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?, was published over 10 years ago, and by then the practice had been going on for some time. Microsoft and Google have both stopped doing "puzzle interviews", because (a) they don't tell you anything useful about the candidate, and (b) many of the candidates have memorized the answers to many of the questions anyway.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The U of C has had offbeat questions for a while, but they also usually include some historical or philosophical ones. When I applied, I did their "Short comic story using the following items" prompt. It was a blast.

And I shunned schools with traditional admissions essays. I was 17 and middle class. I couldn't write about overcoming adversity--I'd had an easy life!

Anyway, the U of C is a very writing intensive and reading intensive school, even in the sciences. So it makes sense that they'd screen for very verbal kids. A kid who can't read and write at the level required to answer these questions will fail out of the U of C in no time flat.

Auntie Ann said...

My one early-acceptance application question back in the mid-80's, I think, called for the typical autobiography. But, they also added that you could write on another topic of your choice. I'm pretty sure mine was the only essay on gun control that they have ever received.

Of the questions listed, perhaps the robot/dinosaur/alien question is the one which I would pick. I would approach it by asking whether a robot or a dinosaur or an alien can correctly be categorized as "who", and at what point does an alien change from a "which" into a "who"--at what point do they essentially achieve personhood. As for a dinosaur, I would object to its being a "who" at all, and would require at least some sort of sentience. Robots could then be debated similarly to aliens, with a debate on whether they can ever be a "who". Then, once personhood and who-ness has been established, I could go on to pick one.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Also, FWIW-- That left-brained super engineering kid who has no interest in history or literature? Probably doesn't want to go to the U of C, what with the common core requirements and the total lack of an engineering program!