Colleges start posing mind-bending essay questions: Where’s Waldo?
From Caltech in the West to Wake Forest University in the East, colleges are offering up mind-stretching, offbeat or downright freaky essay questions in an effort to gain better insights into young people's minds and personalities.
"So where is Waldo, really?" is the essay question posed to applicants to the University of Chicago.
"It's a way to see students who can think differently and go beyond their academic, intellectual and extracurricular comfort zones," said Garrett Brinker, an admissions official at University of Chicago. Those essays also "break up the monotony of the application process," for students and colleges.
Colleges also hope for more authenticity in a process skewed by parental intrusion, paid coaching and plagiarism.
More colleges are adding online supplements that require head-scratching writing assignments. Examples include Tufts' "Celebrate your nerdy side"; Wake Forest's "Think of things that fascinated you when you were 10 years old — what has endured?"; Caltech's "Please describe an unusual way in which you have fun"; and Brandeis' "A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents you know it's going to be the best day of your life. What's inside and how do you spend your day?"
For some students, the questions may lighten an otherwise burdensome task. But others are intimidated, said Murphy, who is college counseling director at Bellarmine College Preparatory, a high school in San Jose. "The colleges talk about the creativity of play and the philosophy of Plato. What the students are trying to figure out is: 'What do the colleges want me to say?' "
Judy Rothman, author of "The Neurotic Parent's Guide to College Admissions," said schools like curveball essay questions because "they are sick and tired of reading the same thing over and over again" and because the topics encourage teen authorship without adult coaching.
High school seniors have mixed reactions, she said: "For a kid who is natural writer, it is relief and a great break from the tedious process of the applications. For the kids who just want to get through all their applications, it's a nightmare because you can't recycle material."
-- Larry Gordon
Photo: Santa Monica High senior Hannah Kohanzadeh has embraced the trend toward more revealing college application questions, writing about how she flaps her arms when something excites her. Credit: Christina House / For The Times