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Being creative when writing your college application essay

This is it, folks. Your guide to the elusive, confusing, creativity question. This post will talk about what being creative means, which prompts you should give creative answers for, and how you can do that. I’ve also included some helpful “Dos” and “Don’ts” for being creative, and some sample essays from other students. At the end of this essay, you should feel more comfortable being creative in your college application!

What Does Creativity Even Mean, Anyway?

This is a tricky answer. Creativity can be hard to pin down. One way to understand creativity is to think about it as trying something different, just for the sake of trying it. When we’re being creative, we’re intentionally doing something different from a “normal” essay response. Our essay will play with things like format, sentence structure, tone, and voice, in order to “be creative.” Other times, being creative means making a choice to answer the question in a different way, maybe even the deliberately wrong way. Sometimes being creative just means being weird.

Creativity also means being unique. This can often be stressful for students to hear, but don’t worry about it too much. The truth is that it isn’t difficult to be unique, because we’re all unique. Every one of us is different, has different ideas, different reasons for having those ideas, and different ways of expressing them. Instead of worrying about being unique, focus on just being yourself. The uniqueness will come naturally.

Let’s Talk About Prompts

There are several different kinds of prompts you’ll be answering when you sit down to apply to college. There’s the main essay for the Common App, the main essays for the University of California Application System, and the individual school supplements. Sometimes these prompts ask you to be creative, others want you to be serious. We’ll start with the serious ones. These are the prompts that ask you serious questions, like the main essay prompts for the common app or UC applications. These more general prompts are trying to figure out who you are and what you’re passionate about. It’s better to answer those honestly and give a real picture about yourself than win points for creativity.

You’ll find most of the creative prompts in the supplementary essays you write for each individual school you apply to. The key here is in the name: they’re “supplementary,” meaning they’re extra. The schools already have a good idea of who you are from your main essay, in the supplements you have more room to explore different, more creative sides of yourself.

This doesn’t mean that every supplemental essay should be creative. In fact, there are some that definitely shouldn’t. Many schools ask you to write a “Why School?” essay that asks why you want to attend that university. Don’t try to be creative with these responses. On the other hand, there are some prompts that need creativity right off the bat. These are the ones that read, to put it bluntly, a bit ridiculously. Some examples include “What’s so easy about pie?” and “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” both from the University of Chicago. These prompts don’t just ask you to give a creative answer, they demand one. The trick for these isn’t coming up with a creative answer, it’s coming up with any answer at all. On the other hand, it’s impossible to come up with an uncreative or boring answer to these kinds of prompts. Any justification for pie being “easy” or odd numbers being “odd” is a creative answer. The best advice I can give is to take whatever pops into your head when you read these kinds of questions and run with it. Take your first answer to the question (well, pie is easy because it’s quick, anyone can do it!) and justify it with some evidence. This evidence is probably going to be weird, you’ll have to work hard to make your answer make sense, but that’s okay. That’s what the prompt is designed to do. Just try and make yourself laugh, or surprise yourself.

Other kinds of supplemental essays won’t be so obviously creative. You’ll read them and think to yourself “hm, I could give a real, honest answer to this prompt, or I could do something weird.” These are what I like to call the “Could Go Either Way” Prompts. Some examples of these are “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” (Stanford University) and “You are teaching a new Yale course. What is it called?” (Yale University). You could pick your favorite historical event and explain why it’s important to you, you could invent your favorite course at Yale. Or you could talk about witnessing something silly, like the invention of pickles, and design a silly course at Yale called “Cheese. Thoughts?”

I like to call these weird or strange answers “silly answers.” The answer isn’t quite right, it’s weird, it’s fun. If you’re dealing with one of these could be honest, could be creative ones, one of the first things you can ask yourself as a writer is “am I going to answer this question at face value? Am I going to act as though this is a serious question and answer it honestly, or am I going to treat it like a joke and give a silly answer back?”

There are some good reasons to answer these questions honestly. Although these prompts are strange, they can be a great way to tell the admissions officer about an important side of yourself, one you didn’t get to mention in earlier parts of your application. If one of your questions is “Which well-known person or fictional character would be your ideal roommate?” (University of Southern California) and you have a deep, personal connection with the character Meg from Little Women because she inspires you, write about that! Sometimes the best answer to a creative prompt is a straightforward one that’s true and meaningful to you.

However, if you read that prompt and thought “I really admire Helen Keller, but what if I wrote about Count Dracula and tried to convince him to become a vegetarian?” then you should definitely go for the silly route.

Silly Answers to the “Could Go Either Way” Prompts

If you decide you want to be silly on one of these prompts that inspire both real and silly answers, a helpful thing to do is to try and figure out what the prompt wants from you if you were to answer it honestly. The roommate prompt, for example, is asking for a character or person you admire, want to spend time with and perhaps learn something from. This is how to answer honestly. To give a silly answer, do the opposite of that. Remember when I said creativity was doing something different, sometimes even something wrong? This is what I mean. Being creative is often recognizing the right way to do something and choosing to do it differently. Answering “I want to room with Zack Snyder because I have some ideas for the newest DC movie” is a way to answer the honest part of the prompt incorrectly, but creatively.

Here’s another example: “What song should we be listening to while reading your application?” (Chapman University.) If we answer the question honestly, it’s asking for a song that’s meaningful to you, that shows who you are, and why it’s important to you. The honest answer is the song that best represents who you are. The silly answer is...not that. As it often is, the silly answer is Something Different. If your favorite song is an important part of who you are, and you want to share that and explain why it’s special to you, write about that. However, don’t be afraid to go with the silly answer. Mine would be “the Kill Bill Soundtrack. I was stressed writing this application, so you should be stressed reading it.”

It’s important to note that you should be able to justify the silly answer. Being silly for the sake of being silly won’t be helpful here. Every single one of the supplements, even the truly silly ones, is asking you why. Why do you want to come to school here, why is your answer about pie being easy true, why do you want to room with Meg from Little Women or the man who directed the four hour Justice League. You have to be able to explain every answer, even the silly ones. My one short answer to the question “what song should we be listening to while we read your application?” includes an explanation of why I chose that song. Make sure to keep this in mind while you’re writing!

Dos and Don'ts of Creativity

DO: Write in your own voice!

One way to make your essay more creative is to create and interesting and unique authorial voice! If you’re worried about coming up with one, don’t worry, you already have your own! Everyone speaks or and even thinks in their own personal voice. It comes through in the way we express ourselves naturally, whether you’re talking about complicated ideas in class or just telling a friend how to get to the nearest grocery store. The way you describe your favorite show will be different from the way your best friend describes it, even if you both think the same things. The words you choose and the sentences you build will be different from the words your friend chooses and the sentences they build. The best way to create a unique voice when you’re writing is to pay attention to your speaking voice. What words do you use often? How do you express your ideas? More often than not we can find a way to translate our speaking voice into our written one, with a bit of practice. And one of the best things about writing is it’s more intentional. We have more time when we’re writing, hours and hours to write our essays, which means we can be more deliberate and choose what kind of voice we want to have. You’ve paid attention to how you actually sound, now think about how you want to sound. What expressions do you like but never find yourself using? What words do you hear your friends say or on the television but can never remember when you’re speaking? Now’s the time to put them to work! Just remember not to stray too far from your own, original speaking voice. We can change our voice to suit our needs, and we can choose what direction we want to go in, but at the end of the day our voice needs to be ours. Don’t waste your time trying to sound like someone else.

DON’T: Reach for the Thesaurus every time you need a new word.

Often, when students are writing, they want to use the fanciest, most complicated word they can to describe something, and so they pour over the thesaurus and pick out the longest, trickiest word they can find. Try not to do this in your own essay. For one thing, most college admissions officers don’t love having to reach for a dictionary every three words in your essay. Admissions officers will be able to tell if you use words that are too advanced just for the sake of sounding smart, and it might reflect badly on you. They don’t want to see how well you can use the thesaurus, they want to know who you are. Cram-jamming your essay full of complicated words just leaves less space for you to talk about what really matters: you. A much better way to show admissions officers who you are is to use language that’s familiar, that you would really use. Also, using words that are too complicated might make your essay worse, because they’re often not quite what you meant to say. Instead of finding the longest word, focus on finding the word that works best for what you’re trying to express to the reader. If the right word really is melodious to describe a song or diaphanous to describe a set of curtains, then go ahead and use it. There’s a time and a place for a thesaurus, and if you’re really having trouble finding the right word and think a thesaurus will help, I won’t tell you not to. Just ask yourself two questions when you’re picking a word: is this really what you mean? And is this really something I would say? If the answer to either of these words is no, it’s time to give up on calling your friend prepossessing and just call her pretty instead.

DO: Try and create a new style!

I know I just said to write in your own voice, but now’s the time to experiment. A great way to be creative is to play with the style of your essay. Style is the way we write, how our writing sounds to others. An author’s style can be humorous, persuasive, or factual (maybe even all three!) If you want to try writing in a different style, maybe one more formal or scientific than your normal writing, give it a shot! As I’ve said before, the supplements are a good time to get silly because the admissions committee will have already seen your main essay, so they’ll have a good idea of who you are. Don’t be afraid to try writing as though you’re a noblewoman from the 18th century, a scientist doing an experiment, or even a radio announcer! If this seems too strange, try switching up your sentence structure. If you normally write shorter sentences, write longer ones. If you don’t normally ask a lot of questions or end sentences in exclamation marks, try using some. Do whatever you want to shake up your style, but remember the bit about the Thesaurus. You can be new without being overly complicated.

DO: Be creative with the form of your answer!

The form of a piece of writing is the way it’s written, quite literally the way it looks on the page. Different forms of writing include the essay, poems, plays, or even movie scripts. Each of these ways of writing has their own rules and conventions (for example, a poem will often rhyme and have a set number of syllables, a play will include lines of dialogue and stage directions.) The traditional form for these questions is an essay, but if you want to try out a different form, like a poem or lines of dialogue, or even a story, go for it! A great example of a prompt where it would be interesting to include lines of dialogue is the roommate question from earlier. If you wanted to, you could include a short play where you write an imaginary scene between yourself and the character you’ve chosen for your new roommate.

However, if you’re going to be creative with form,

DON’T: Do something so complicated and complex with the form that it’s incomprehensible to the reader.

If you want to write a sonnet for your answer, more power to you, but writing every sentence as an anagram or riddle that the admissions officer needs to uncover might be overkill. Remember, you want to keep the admissions officer interested, not give them a headache. Try and keep it simple enough that any reader can understand and appreciate your creative approach to how you’re writing the essay. It can be helpful here to do some research before you sit down to write. If you’re thinking about writing a series of haikus, or a screenplay, do some quick googling to get an idea of what those things actually look like. If you’re in doubt about whether something is too complicated, run it by a friend and see what they think. However, it might be a good idea to abandon your idea altogether. Remember, your answer for these creative prompts doesn’t have to be the most brilliant unique thing the admissions officer has ever seen. It probably won’t be. It just has to be interesting. (And anything you write is going to be interesting, because you’re interesting!)

DO: Come up with something funny!

You’ll notice a lot of the example answers I gave are funny. What can I say, I’m hilarious. If you’re a funny person and you want to highlight that side of yourself, now’s the time to shine! It’s a good idea to emphasize your humor in the supplements rather than in the main essay, because there you’ll want to give a real and honest picture of who you are. These are extra questions, designed to help you show off different parts of yourself. Use them to your advantage!

DON’T: Lean on a one-line joke for the entire supplement.

This is a “DON’T,” but maybe it should be a “be careful about.” Jokes are great, but remember, the supplement has a word limit of at least 150 words, sometimes more. Going drastically under the word limit for comedic effect can be risky. Instead of just giving a one sentence answer, try and find a funny answer that’s still meaningful enough to you that you can discuss it for several sentences. Back to my roommate example, the idea that I would want to room with Zack Snyder because I have some ideas about the newest Batman movie is silly, but it’s also true. I really like superhero movies, and I could easily fill a paragraph (or ten) with my opinions about them. This is a silly answer that actually shows a lot about who I am and what I care about. The best silly answers will both make the reader laugh or scratch their heads, and also show them a new side of yourself.

Also, DON’T: Stress about being funny.

A funny answer is one way to be creative, but it isn’t the only way. Like I said at the beginning, being creative also means being unique, which just means being yourself. If you’re bashing your head against the wall trying to come up with something funny or clever, take a deep breath, a step back, and try writing about something true. I promise that’s creative enough.

And finally, the most important DO: Try new things!

Being creative is hard. It might take a few tries before you get an answer you’re happy with, or even an idea. Don’t be afraid to try kinds of writing you’ve never done before, or ideas that seem strange! You’ll never know if that weird idea that occurred to you right before you fell asleep was a good one if you don’t sit down and write it. And make sure to show the essay to someone you trust. A parent, a friend, a teacher, anyone. A second pair of eyes on these essays, especially the creative ones, can be incredibly helpful in identifying what works and what doesn’t.

Sample Essays (taken from here):

A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” — Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016.

“I am here because I can’t be in two places at once. That’s definitely a law of physics or some kind of science I don’t know much about, but that’s the short answer to why I’m not somewhere else, or lots of other places. To know why I’m here, on Earth, in America, in California, in Berkeley, at my house sitting on my favorite worn leather couch, with light from three windows making it hard to see my laptop screen, is a longer story.”

What’s so odd about odd numbers? — Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009.

“In the beginning there was zero, and then there was One. Zero and One ruled the universe with undisputed power; together they formed the perfect union. Perfection diminished when One began to feel superior to Zero, and departed his company to rule alone. He quickly discovered the powers of addition, and created Two. Two was to be his new companion, to help oppress the rest of the numerical universe. One began training Two in the dark magic he had discovered. However, Two found One to be a little unhinged, and he sensed a certain instability.”

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. [...] All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language. — Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018

“Raising the issue of translatable versus untranslatable words is futile; new words should enter a language because of a cultural need to express a specific idea, not just because they can be translated from other languages. Terminology is always a function of development: when a new concept – be it tangible or intangible – enters a society, the language evolves and adapts so that its speakers can discuss the new topic.”

That’s it. I’m all out of advice. Go forth, and prosper. Or at least, write some weird essays. If nothing else, you’ll have fun.

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