Colleges Prompt Prospective Students With Creative Essay Questions

As colleges move to eliminate more conventional ways of evaluating applicants -- like SAT scores -- and application numbers continue to rise, the pressure is on admissions officers to come up with more creative ways of assessing the young hopefuls. In recent years, some colleges and universities have risen to the challenge by supplementing traditional admission essay prompts with questions that are quirky, thought-provoking and surprisingly fun.

When Tufts first introduced offbeat admissions essay questions in 2006, dean of arts and sciences Robert J. Sternberg told the Boston Globe that "if you want to admit people who are going to be leaders in tomorrow's world...focusing on [grade point average] and SATs does not get you far." Tufts uses the optional responses to evaluate student creativity and originality (and also lets prospective students submit video essays).

The University of Chicago is also famous for its unorthodox questions. According to the school's admissions homepage, the admissions essay is "an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between."

But some students prefer more traditional questions and responses. When the University of Chicago sent out a sample admission essay to last year's applicants comparing the process of applying to college to that of pursuing an unrequited love, a number were distressed and shaken. "We sent out the essay to lighten the mood, but it seems that it might have backfired a bit," a Chicago admissions officer wrote on a College Confidential message board.

Here's hoping this year will be less stressful for applicants -- though we know that's probably untrue. Still, it's important to have fun and show admissions officers that you have a personality. Below, check out nine particularly creative (for better or worse) essay prompts from schools around the country this year -- perhaps one will inspire you. If you're feeling ambitious, try answering one in the comments section.

1. University of Chicago: Find X

2. Bennington College: Design an experiment that attempts to determine whether toads can hear. Provide the rationale for your design--explain your reasons for setting up the experiment as you did. Strive for simplicity and clarity.

3. Tufts University: The human narrative is replete with memorable characters like America's Paul Revere, ancient Greece's Perseus or the Fox Spirits of East Asia. Imagine one of humanity's storied figures is alive and working in the world today. Why does Joan of Arc have a desk job? Would Shiva be a general or a diplomat? Is Chewbacca trapped in a zoo? In short, connect your chosen figure to the contemporary world and imagine the life he/she/it might lead.

4. Brandeis University: If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?

5. Kenyon College: Along the edge of ancient maps it used to say, "Here there be monsters." What does it say at the edge of your map, and why does it say that?

6. St. Mary's College of Maryland: St. Mary's College is casting for the incoming class. Send us your audition tape via the Web or DVD. Please provide us with the site for posting. Selection of this option will stand as your college essay. Consider your audience.

7. Bard College: One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Austrian writer and social critic Karl Kraus, famous for his provocative aphorisms, wrote "Civilization ends, since barbarians erupt from it." Write a short commentary on what you think this might mean from your perspective 100 years later, and whether it makes any sense.

8. Brown University: French novelist Anatole France wrote: "An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." What don't you know?

9. California Institue of Technology: Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor and creative pranks and for finding unusual ways to have fun. What is something that you find fun or humorous?