Tough Questions

by Marisa Ferrara

“The Topic of Your Choice” refers not only to the most commonly answered essay question, but also to what is often the most contemplated decision each senior will make – outside of choosing which school to matriculate – before they graduate. As an inaugural post to this blog, I’ve chosen to focus on the college application essay, also known as the personal statement. This is typically the most challenging part for seniors applying to college because, essentially, they are trying to encapsulate themselves according to a word or character count that never seems to be enough. Never mind the thought and time that goes into first choosing a topic, putting it on paper, and then editing to liking. Writing the personal statement is also considered to be the most liberating experience because it is the only piece of the application over which the student in that moment of the college search has full control. As a college counselor, one of my most important responsibilities is to act as a sounding board for students as they ponder immensely introspective questions and craft an honest response. This role is also the most gratifying part of the job, because I have the privilege of witnessing profound growth and realization, yet often in a refreshingly simple way. From a philosophical standpoint, my goal is to act as a guide helping each student present an “authentic picture” of oneself. To do so, I believe, leads to a much more successful match between student and college, which is the ultimate goal.

The purpose of this blog is to share what I’ve gleaned from my experience as a college counselor and as an admissions officer at Skidmore College. While “the topic of your choice” is by nature without limits, non-specific prompts are often the hardest to answer. In working with students, I do a lot of probing to guide discovery. I’ve gathered a few of what I consider to be some of the best questions asked by colleges for bringing out the authentic self in students. Enjoy!

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” -Victor Hugo. If someone were to look at your music collection right now, they would probably know a great deal about who you are. Individuals are drawn to music, and each song conveys something about that person. Select a musical piece to be your theme song. Tell us what it would be, and more specifically, why it represents who you are. (University of Georgia)

Tell us about one of the best conversations you’ve had. (Stanford)

You may have heard the quote “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter, don’t mind.” We don’t mind. Who are you? Respond in the medium of your choice: prose, one-minute video, blog, digital portfolio, slam poetry… For media other than writing, please share a link. (Tufts University)

Imagine that you have the opportunity to travel back through time. At what point in history would you like to stop and why? (Swarthmore)

It has been said (Andy Warhol) that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Describe your fifteen minutes. (New York University)

If you could be a “fly on the wall” to observe any situation – historical, personal, or otherwise – describe what you would choose to observe and why. What would you hope to learn and how would it benefit you? (University of Pittsburgh)

Compose an essay about a memorable meal you have eaten. We are especially interested in the details: the occasion, your company at this meal, its physical setting, the kinds of foods you ate, or their preparation. (University of Chicago)

Describe your hometown and how you are a product of this environment. (University of Puget Sound)


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