How to Make One Essay Work for Most Prompts

on October 23, 2011 by Mike in Admissions Essays facebook in twitter

As we said last time, the University of Chicago is a unique institution and perhaps the leader in the ponderous college essay prompt competition. The university actually contacts newly admitted and current college students and asks them to submit essay topics. “We think of [college essays] as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions,” Chicago’s admissions officers say. “The [essays] can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.” Here are a few examples of the essay topics Chicago has offered its applicants in recent years:

  • “Every May, the University of Chicago hosts the world’s largest scavenger hunt. As part of this year’s hunt, students raced to find the shortest path between two seemingly unrelated things by traveling through Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia is so passé. Without the help of everyone’s favorite collaborative Internet encyclopedia, show us your own unique path from Play-Doh™ to Plato.”
  • “Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment, Analysis, Conclusion; since the 17th century, the scientific method has been the generally accepted way to investigate, explore, and acquire new knowledge. The actual process of intellectual discovery, however, is rarely so simple or objective. The human mind often leaps from observation to conclusion with ease, rushes headlong into hypothesis-less experiments, or dwells on the analysis, refusing to conclude. Tell us about your non-scientific method. (Diagrams, graphs, and/or visual aids allowed within your essay.)”
  • “Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, ‘Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it.’ Give us your guess.”

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Oh, there are so many, many more, but these three should make it clear the University of Chicago has a sense of humor, but even more important, it seeks students with creative, independent, confident minds who know how to express themselves in writing. But if you apply here, or at the few other schools who offer similar provocations, you will almost certainly need to write a one-use essay. But these are the exceptions. Here are the rules.

Most schools follow a much less intriguing path to college application essay prompts, and that’s why you can adapt one basic essay to fit almost any of them. Among the more common prompts used in recent years are these:

  1. “What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has influenced your thinking, and in what way?” (University of Virginia applicants to the College of Arts and Sciences)
  2. “Tell us how a particular book, play, film, piece of music, dance performance, scientific theory or experiment or work of art has influenced you. If you choose a novel, film or play, assume we know the plot.” (University of Notre Dame)
  3. “Recall an occasion when you took a risk that you now know was the right thing to do.” (University of Pennsylvania)
  4. “The quality of Rice’s academic life and the residential college system is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What perspective do you feel that you will be able to share with others as a result of your own life experiences and background? Cite a personal experience to illustrate this.” (Rice University)
  5. “What has been your most profound or surprising intellectual experience?” (Duke University)
  6. “Tell us something you think we should know about you.” (multiple schools)

Perhaps you can see how one essay could easily be adapted to fit any of these prompts and the scores of prompts like them. If you do as the admissions officers suggest and write an interesting narrative that shows more than it tells and, in the process, reveals who you are, how you see the world, and the sophistication of your thinking and writing, we here at ProofreadingPal assure you your essay will give you the edge in the admissions process – and you’ll only have to write it once.

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