“So where is Waldo, really?”

This is a question hopeful applicants to the University of Chicago will have to answer.  The university is known for its unusual and creative essay prompts, and this year’s crop is no exception. Chicago, however, is not alone. Here are some the most unusual prompts out there:

“What was your favorite thing about last Tuesday?” – University of Maryland

“Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you.” – NYU

“Are we alone?”  –Tufts

“Can a toad hear? Prove it.” – Bennington College

To add to the mix, four colleges will now accept supplemental video essays:  Tufts University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, George Mason University, and the College of William and Mary. Submitted via Youtube or uploaded into online applications, student videos range from personal introductions and photo-collages to musical parodies.

Approaching these essays may seem daunting, even confusing. But tackling these creative prompts can be both rewarding and fun — with a little background, understanding of recent trends in admissions approaches, and a lot of creative brainstorming.

The college essay is becoming more and more important in the admissions process. With growing applicant numbers, and increasingly competitive applicant pools, establishing “fit” is crucial to earning admission. According to the NACAC’s 2011 State of College Admission report, this is particularly true of institutions that fall into one or more of the following categories: private, small, and highly selective. Admission at these schools is more “holistic,” meaning that these colleges assign greater importance to factors other than “the top three” (grades, strength of curriculum, standardized test scores), most notably the essay/writing sample.

Colleges are looking for new ways to evaluate the uniqueness of their prospective students; their character, creativity, sense of humor and moral fiber. While each school has a different way of assessing these attributes (The College of William & Mary comes right out and asks “what makes you unique and colorful ” in 500 words or less), the ethos underlying all these unusual prompts, from Tufts’ Youtube option, or Bennington’s “Can a toad hear? Prove it,” is fairly simple:

“At heart, this is all about a conversation between a kid and an admissions officer. You see their floppy hair and their messy bedrooms, and you get a sense of who they are. We have a lot of information about applicants, but the videos let them share their voice.”

~ Lee Coffin, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts, NYT

The more an admissions officer feels that he or she knows a student – and thinks that the student’s personality, attitude and talents will “fit” well with the college – the more likely the student will be deserving of admission.

For more help and information, contact Julie Raynor Gross, President and Founder of Collegiate Gateway LLC.  www.collegiategateway.com.