"The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions," the university seems to brag on its website. "We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions."
But UChicago -- granted, an exclusive school -- doesn't get all full of itself, either, for the well known quirkiness of its essay topics. Its essays "can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between," the website explains.
I won't give away all of this year's essay topics, but do you think you could wax eloquent following this prompt:
"Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together."
Who are you . . . really?
That's a key question colleges will have. SAT scores and your GPA can only tell them so much. So they turn to your essay.
"Numbers are easy to see and evaluate; however, measuring character is not quite as easy," according to college counselor Jeannie Borin. "Essay prompts are geared toward having students become self reflective and critically think about their personal experience(s)."
Borin, founder and president of College Connections, makes another excellent point that's long been a concern of mine. Many students today are discouraged from ever writing about themselves in the first person.
Summer, she writes in the Huffington Post, "should be a time of freedom, where students can find the space and quiet to just write." That's not easy, she writes, but "summertime is the best because there are few distractions and generally, is a more relaxed period of time."
The pragmatist in me says, "Yes . . . but . . . " Rising seniors need to at least think about their essays over the summer. But for many of them it's far from a time a "few distractions."
You need to make a conscious effort, and make time to begin thinking through your essays. If you're motivated enough, go for it. You'll have a jump on everyone else. But if you're like most of your classmates, summer will have come and gone and before you know it, it will be time to begin your senior year.
There's no shortage of gurus, including me, standing ready to tell you everything . . . well, most things . . . you need to know about conceptualizing, drafting, polishing and finalizing your college essay. But who really knows better, at least from the inside, than a newly graduated high school senior who just a year ago was going through the same thing the Class of 2015 is facing now?
"As a high school senior, there's a lot I wish I had known about college applications last year, when I was in the middle of applying to colleges," writes Sara Zhou, a recent graduate of the Winsor School in Boston. "While the process is no doubt hectic, it can be eased with these five steps," she blogged on the website TeenLife.
Start early: "The summer before your senior year is a great time to start on the Common App essay. Even though the application deadlines are months in the future, you will not regret starting the process."
Don't be afraid of your ideas: "Starting your essay ahead of time also leaves extra time for self-doubt. Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect essay. The best advice is not to be afraid of your ideas."
Revise: "Revise, revise, and revise some more. After a while, you will become so sick of your essay that it may be better to take a short break from writing. After a week or so, come back to your essay."
Write about yourself: "Every high school student wonders: What about my life is interesting enough to get me into college?" Don't let college counselors, advisers, parents and teachers dictate your tone and style.
Relax: "Realize that writing applications can be a worthwhile and rewarding activity. Try to have fun while writing your essay, and you will undoubtedly interest your admissions reader. Don’t forget: It’s your essay; yours is the voice that should shine through."
Arnie Rosenberg is the founder of The Center for Essay Excellence. He writes regularly about college essays and their importance to the college-admission process. Contact him at Arnie.Rosenberg.Editor@gmail.com.
© 2014 The Center for Essay Excellence