Staring at the blank screen won't help

Dec. 17, 2009, 8:34 a.m. | By Samantha Lint | 14 years, 6 months ago

A peek at the trickiest application questions

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Every year, thousands of seniors spend countless hours agonizing over how best to make themselves stand out, show off their experiences and fluff themselves up like the peacocks on the Discovery Channel. Inevitably, we come face to face with the dreaded college essay.

So wouldn't it be awful if it was all a joke? The usual prompt asks us to describe a challenge, difference or academic interests, but sometimes a question is so out of the ordinary it elicits a double take.

In order to provide some helpful examples and find out how difficult these questions really are, I pored over thousands of applications - well, maybe more like a dozen - in search of the most ridiculous and challenging essays.

My first find was from Santa Clara University, which asked students to relate a personal and unfortunate experience.

"Tell us about the most embarrassing moment of your life."

My response: My entire childhood and even now my mother has reiterated constantly that I come from the "House of Good English." So it's not surprising that in an effort to please my parents as I child I was a bit of a grammar buff - or snob, you could say.

One day in Mr. Brown's second grade class, I was standing in line by the door, waiting to walk single-file to the gym. Then I overheard the girl in front of me, Anna, who was my arch-nemesis, say "I ain't got no time for that." My ears perked up and I realized that Anna would really be grateful if I exposed her grievous error to her. "Anna," I chirped "'ain't isn't a word and 'got no' doesn't make sense." Not only was my little comment unappreciated by Anna but Mr. Brown heard too.

"Samantha, can I speak to you in the hall, please," he said. The hall. I froze. Only bad kids were taken to the hall, and I was a good girl. I walked past the line in front of all my classmates and my ears burned.

When the door slammed shut, Mr. Brown explained that it was impolite for me to correct others. The ultimate humiliation - being accused of poor manners. My lip quivered and I began to cry.

While I may have learned a lesson in kindness and humility, it was at a cost. The memory still makes me shudder to this day.

Hmm, well this response is well-written and brutally true but I'm not sure presenting myself as a stuck-up wannabe academic is really a great idea to attract college admissions officers.

My next bizarre prompt came from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:

"After a long and happy life, your family must choose no more than a dozen words to adorn your headstone. What do you hope they choose and why?"

My first try: "First woman to win Scottish log-throw. Best friend of every president."

No, this was not going to go anywhere. I can barely throw a baseball and I don't know enough about log-throwing or presidents to explain why I would want that on my headstone. Clearly I've been watching too much of the Travel Channel.

Try again: "Inventor of flying broomstick."

Well, that may work, but it's not too clever. Ridiculous? Yes, but not realistic. If I really invented a broomstick, I would want it to be remembered, but I wouldn't want to come across an avid Harry Potter fan.

By the way, does anyone have an extra wand I can borrow for the upcoming wizard convention? Just kidding.

Well, that was surprisingly difficult! What kind of response do they expect? What a broad prompt. Twelve words to describe a lifetime I hope to have, or think I will have. My real response, "Spent life giving millions from successful film career to the needy and personally rescued the polar bears from global warming while finding the cure for cancer," sadly doesn't fit in the word count constraints.

We may never know why admissions officers throw these questions at us; all we can do is speculate. Perhaps it's to find the cleverest students, or just to take a break from reading transcripts, or maybe the joke's on us.

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Samantha Lint. Samantha Lint is a managing entertainment editor and member of design team. More »

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