There are no Stupid Questions, but…

When it comes to college applications, not all questions are created equal

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The Owl

Some uninspiring college application questions have students asking “why?”

Imagine you are in [insert difficult class here] and you are so lost that you don’t even know what to ask, but you raise your hand anyway. The teacher calls on you and you try to formulate a sentence that conveys all of your frustration and confusion. A typical way to start is, “This might be a stupid question, but…” 

Your teacher will assure you that it’s not a stupid question and will go on to answer it in a way that (hopefully) leaves you feeling a little more enlightened. At school, we’ve been taught that no question is stupid, but we all know that some are. Not all questions are created equal, especially when it comes to college applications. 

Applying to college is a notoriously lengthy process. They want to know how much schooling your siblings have completed, where your parents work, which colleges your grandparents attended. You’re asked to give a full run-down of your academic history, explain any discrepancies, report test scores (or not) and are repeatedly grilled about your criminal status. Somehow, in this mess of numbers and checkboxes, you’re expected to present yourself as a stand-out original, a genuine one-of-a-kind, a pioneer of your generation that the college simply cannot resist accepting. 

And so you, in your quest to present your best self to the admissions officers, rush through the CommonApp to the essay portion because it is there that your uniqueness will shine. You’re ready to start writing, but then you look at the prompt and all your excitement fades away. The question is so boring that answering it in any interesting way would merit a Pulitzer. Your individuality evaporates—you know that your answer will be identical to thousands of others unless you manage to pull a 650-word rabbit out of a hat. 

The questions hated the most by Boulder High seniors are the “why?” questions. Why Tufts? Why Dartmouth? Some schools try to spice it up by asking their question in more than two words—Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? But let’s be real, they’re really just asking Why us? 

To turn them on their head, why are these questions so despised? “It is the generic ‘why College’ question,” said senior Maryam Hadi. “There is nothing wrong with it, but it is not very inspiring and quite dull, to be honest. [It] feels like I have to drag my answer out of me.” These questions are not only uninspiring but also very important. If you can’t put together a fairly coherent and school-specific answer, you look like you’re not actually interested. “[They] take a lot of effort and research to write a good answer. And if you aren’t super excited about the school, then it makes it hard to answer it well,” said senior Scarlet Howser. She added that her trick for getting through boring questions is using fancy punctuation, which “[makes] you seem more intellectual.”

Everyone can agree that the “why?” questions are odious unless you’re really fired up about a school’s particular opportunity or faculty member. Still, there was more contention when it came to the supplemental essay question asked by our very own hometown university. CU asked prospective students to talk about one of their unique identities and describe its significance. 

Some students appreciated the opportunity to reveal more of their true personality. “I thought it was straightforward and allowed for readers to learn more about me,” said senior Gwen Harker. Other students found the stilted nature of the prompt to be suffocating. Senior Portia Larson saw it as divisive, encouraging students to separate themselves from others who may not share that identity instead of bringing them together and helping them find common ground. 

Other hated questions were ones that seemed irrelevant or poorly phrased. Senior Claire Patwardhan was asked what experiences had led to her interest in nursing. “It’s not the question itself,” she said, “it’s the fact that it gives me 5-10 sentences but also 800 words!”

While students had more fun recounting the application questions they didn’t like, most had at least one that they’d enjoyed. A popular prompt was the University of Vermont’s “Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor best describes you?” Patwardhan appreciated a question that asked her about the soundtrack of her perfect college experience because “it allows students to express themselves through the music they listen to instead of exclusively through writing.” Howser described a long-winded prompt about ibis birds as symbols of courage and resilience, which she enjoyed simply because “I got to learn about a bird when reading a supplemental essay question.” 

Maybe colleges ask bad questions to evaluate how we can deal with mundanity. Maybe they’re trying to prepare us for stilted job interviews, awkward first dates and uncomfortable exchanges with airplane seatmates. Or maybe the fine admissions officers at your schools of choice are just tired of thinking of interesting prompts. Kudos to those who do, but for the rest of the questions—the ones that are about as inspiring as Boulder High’s morning announcements—good luck.