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22 Creative College Essay Topics Buzzfeed

College application essays don’t have to be a drag – and these schools prove it. They’ve created some of the most outlandish, thought-provoking and original essay questions out there.

Here are the 15 schools that think outside the box, when it comes to admissions essay, with some examples of our favorite questions they’re asking on The Common Application this year.

Now, it’s up to you to impress admissions officers with a response that measures up.

Amongst the schools with the most create assortments were Lehigh University, Tufts University and Wake Forest, though we’ve decided to remain (sort of) impartial and list the schools with the most creatively candid questions in alphabetical order.

The following 15 schools had some of our favorite imaginative college admissions essay questions begging the question: how would you answer?

1. Brandeis University

“You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”

Leave it to the liberal arts colleges to come up with something thought-provoking. This private research university, located in Waltham, MA, is sure to get your creative juices flowing!

Learn more about Brandeis University.

2. Bucknell University

“Pick a movie or novel where the protagonist makes a difficult choice. Do you agree or disagree with the decision he or she made?”

Another private liberal arts university, Bucknell is located in the central part of Pennsylvania in the town of Lewisburg. If you’re looking to bring unique perspectives to a university, this may be the one for you.

Learn more about Bucknell University.

3. Hampshire College

“Create two questions that drive you.”

This private liberal arts school, located in Amherst, MA, is so outside of the box, they got rid of the box (i.e. questions) all together. If you’re up for the creative challenge, seize it!

Learn more about Hampshire College.

4. Kalamazoo College

“Let’s go back to a time when learning was pure joy. Please tell us your favorite childhood book and why.”

Also dubbed “K College” or “K,” this Kalamazoo, Michigan school produces more Peace Corp volunteers than any other U.S. academic institution!

Learn more about Kalamazoo College.

5. Lehigh University

“What is your favorite riddle and why?”
“Describe your favorite \”Bazinga\” moment.”
“You’ve just reached your one millionth hit on your YouTube video. What is the video about?”
“If your name were an acronym, what would it stand for and how would it reflect your strengths and pesonality?”

When it comes to originality, Lehigh definitely took the cake. Believe it or not, we had to narrow our choices down to the above questions! But this Bethlehem, PA, university is also known for academics and landed on the Top Party Schools list. Talk about well rounded!

Learn more about Lehigh University.

6. Stanford University

“What matters to you, and why?”

Stanford left the essay open to interpretation for the scholars applying to the university, which is considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States and the world.

Learn more about Stanford University.

7. Texas Christian University

“Take a blank sheet of paper. Do with this page what you wish. Your only limitations are the boundaries of this page. You don’t have to submit anything, but we hope you will use your imagination.”

This optional “assignment” from the university, located in Forth Worth, TX, must leave a blank stare on students faces all the time. Who else wonders what types of submissions (and how many paper airplanes) they get?

Learn more about Texas Christian University.

8. Tufts University

“Celebrate your nerdy side.”
“What makes you happy?”
“What does #YOLO mean to you?”

Competing with Lehigh, Tufts University had quite the array of unique questions, so we had to pick favorites. Tufts is known as a Little Ivy and a “New Ivy,” so we imagine that those applying to this school, which ranks amongst the top in the nation, appreciate the chance to speak their minds via the college application essay. Learn more about Tufts University.

9. University of Chicago

“Winston Churchill believed ‘a joke is a very serious thing.’ Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
“How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?”

The University of Chicago cleverly takes essay questions suggested by students. So if you find the questions a little too peculiar, blame your peers. If you can take on the essays, you can join the nearly 15,00 students that attend the school – which is another ranked as one of the most prestigious, both nationally and worldwide.

Learn more about University of Chicago.

10. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“What do you hope to find over the rainbow?”

This public research university is consistently ranked among the highest in the United States and is one of eight original Public Ivy schools. Perhaps the answer to the essay question should be: an Ivy League education with public university tuition prices?

Learn more about University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

11. University of Notre Dame

“By the end of the college application process, you will have probably written dozens of essays and responded to a multitude of questions. Use this opportunity to try something new.”

If you want to become one of the 8,000 undergraduates who identify as the Fighting Irish, you’ll need to plan and strategize to impress admissions officials at this private Catholic research university.

Learn more about University of Notre Dame.

12. University of Virginia

“To tweet or not to tweet?”
“What’s your favorite word and why?”
“Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.”

Located in Charlottesville, VA, this public university was conceived and designed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. We cannot help but wonder, which side of the “tweet” or “not to tweet” spectrum do you think he’d land?

Learn more about University of Virginia.

13. Villanova University

“What sets your heart on fire?”

Founded in 1842, this private university is the oldest Catholic university in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named for Saint Thomas of Villanova, but we’d advise against answering in any way that may suggest he sets your heart ablaze. That’s just …awkward.

Learn more about Villanova University.

14. Wake Forest University

“Some say social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”
“Give us your top ten list.”

Wake Forest is a private university with its main campus located in Winston Salem, NC. The original location was in Wake Forest, hence the name. What would be on our top ten list? How about these school facts? The school has 93 percent retention rate and an 85 percent four-year graduation rate – not bad!

Learn more about Wake Forest University.

15. Yale University

“You have been granted a free weekend next month. How will you spend it?”
“What is something about which you have changed your mind in the last three years?”

You may have heard of Yale University – it’s a private Ivy League research university in Connecticut? It’s also the alma mater of five U.S. presidents, among countless other scholars. With a retention rate of 99 percent, we’re guessing most students don’t answer, “Going to Yale,” as what they’ve changed their minds about.

Perhaps which side of a legal issue you fall on would be a safer answer, especially since Yale Law School is the most selective within the United States.

Learn more about Yale University.

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By Scott Cowley, {grow} Community Member

Last year, I blocked BuzzFeed and similar sites from appearing in my Facebook News Feed, partly because I found myself too often engrossed in literary gems like “22 Signs You Are A Sign.” Last month, as a university marketing instructor, I made my students produce and promote the same click-bait content I refuse to be subjected to. And I’m glad I did.

BuzzFeed’s influence and reach are unmistakable. The media giant now boasts more content sharing volume on Facebook than the New York Times, BBC, or Fox News. It has spawned parodies and copycats across the world, each trying to capture its share of a market for shallow content that doesn’t appear to have quite reached its peak. If you know anything about BuzzFeed, you’ll understand why some people call it “a website that specializes in lazy click-bait articles made by losers, for losers” while others declare it “the most important news organization in the world.”

In addition to content, BuzzFeed also has a full-featured community CMS where anyone can publish their own articles, listicles, and other “distracticles” on the site. After publishing one myself with surprisingly good mileage in the academic community, I decided to make all of my senior marketing students write click-bait for BuzzFeed.

I based a good portion of this project grade on pageviews (1,000 views for max credit), so their promotion plans had to be workable. I like the idea of letting students do something meaningful and I would argue that writing for BuzzFeed is more meaningful experience than much of what happens in university classrooms. There’s some risk, but there’s a greater upside to experiential projects like this, especially in digital marketing. When I told my students that I was going to make them write for BuzzFeed, I could sense some collective astonishment.

“We’re really going to write for BuzzFeed?”

“You know about BuzzFeed?”

“Wait, am I in the right class?”

Yes, yes, and you’d better believe it!

Hyper-targeting is an underappreciated skill

What BuzzFeed does phenomenally well is something I want the students I teach to do well: know how to make compelling promises and then keep them. BuzzFeed gets the click with a compelling headline promise. BuzzFeed gets the share by delivering on the promise. Get attention, drive action. Create value, capture value. These are a marketer’s bread and butter skills.

I also want to help students understand and experience this idea of the “target market.” Part of BuzzFeed’s success is rooted in hyper-targeting—narrowly focusing on niche audiences in ways that sometimes border on ridiculous. Hyper-targeting is just a couple steps removed from full personalization and marketers are going to need to get good at both, due to increasing data availability and the focus on content-as-advertising. Writing a BuzzFeed article should, if done well, be able to lead a hyper-specific target audience along like the Pied Piper. Because after all, you’re playing somebody’s song that they don’t get to hear very often.

In addition to requiring the students to select and position their article for a niche audience, I also required their articles to relate to Valentine’s Day somehow, since I had them each publish their article on the Monday before Valentine’s.

My thought was that this would level the playing field a little by making the content more comparable and would force students to compete in a very crowded holiday content market, which would be good experience (since holiday content is pretty standard practice in almost any company). And finally, I gave them training on tools like Buzzsumo and Followerwonk to help identify influencers in their target audiences (Frac.tl has some great outreach research that I’ll add to future iterations of the project).

So what happened?

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, given the tight deadline, narrow parameters on content, crowded topic area, and my students’ inexperience with promotion, but I was blown away. The class averaged 1,085 pageviews per article, partly skewed by some heavy hitting articles that soared past 10K views that week.

Some students experienced major anecdotal wins in the process. One student was able to enlist the help of PetSmart in promoting her animal-friendly post. Another student was featured on the BuzzFeed community home page for an article about great places to cry. Many were able to get niche influencers on board because their content was well-targeted to the audience.

Maybe the biggest home run happened to a student of mine who wrote a music-themed article because of her passion for and closeness to the electronic dance music scene. In the process of doing outreach to promote the article, she got in touch with a major online music publisher. While promoting BuzzFeed wasn’t their top priority, they loved the student’s creative angle so much that they offered her a job as a freelance writer (at very good rates). Wouldn’t it be great if all classroom projects resulted in job offers?

Not surprisingly, plenty of students fell short of the 1,000-view requirement I set. The challenges were nearly all related to either content or promotion.

Content
  • Targeting too broadly with content that’s too generic (for the record, it takes a high level of creativity to target single people on Valentine’s Day)
  • Not fulfilling on the compelling headline promise (or not having a compelling enough headline to start)
  • Not crafting content to fit the platform (college-style essays don’t do well on BuzzFeed)
  • Not adjusting/repositioning the content in response to opportunities or mediocre campaign performance
Promotion
  • Believing that “if you write it, they will come” organically
  • Relying solely on friends and family to get visibility
  • Aiming small with outreach and not considering secondary audiences
  • Trying to get traction while avoiding social media as a channel

The great thing is, the students recognized these issues in hindsight and even those who fell short were enthusiastic about their newfound experience that they would leverage to do better next time. To me, this experience is priceless. Put it under the category of “things you just can’t teach” because these lessons are so common and many marketers still need to internalize them. We’re glad when we can help students get calibrated before they get their diplomas.

Has your opinion of BuzzFeed changed?

Some people consider BuzzFeed both annoying and diametrically opposed to good journalism. But consider the following:

  1. BuzzFeed has the richest analytics dashboard available to community writers of any open publishing platform I’ve tried, including Medium, LinkedIn, or similar entertainment sites like PlayBuzz. I can’t think of an easier introduction to analytics that goes beyond “views” by showing traffic sources, cumulative and incremental traffic visualization, etc.
  2. BuzzFeed has higher traffic potential for new writers of any open publishing platform (and much higher than a typical “class blog” approach to content projects). I attribute this to the entertainment content focus, established audience, and BuzzFeed’s brand reputation. They also award badges for traffic performance on particular social networks.
  3. Students get to publish on a platform they’re familiar with about topics they’re interested in and experience some marketing realities firsthand. I’ve never received so much unsolicited positive feedback on a project. Even those who despise BuzzFeed understood the importance of strategic planning, positioning, and promotion.

So while BuzzFeed may not make your list, I’ve got my own list of “58 Reasons BuzzFeed is Great for Training the Next Generation of Marketing Strategists.” I know you’re dying to click.

What do you think? Is BuzzFeed the right tool to be using in higher education?

Scott Cowley is a Ph.D. candidate and marketing strategy instructor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, researching corporate digital marketing, content, and social media strategy. Connect with Scott on Twitter @scottcowley or LinkedIn.

 

 

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