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6 College Essay Questions That Employers Should Steal

Job interviews often rely on a dull script. These creative application prompts could tell companies what they really want to know.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

As those hoping to be accepted to the class of 2019 can tell you, there’s not a lot to recommend about the college admission process, which now includes anything from a YouTube vlog to an itemized list of extracurriculars, and, of course, standardized test scores.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the college mortarboard, recent graduates entering the workforce are puzzling out answers to sterile, HR-recommended job interview questions like “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” While some companies occasionally try to shake things up with a brainteaser, Google later admitted such curveballs did nothing but let interviewers show off.

But what would happen if companies appropriated an age-old college application technique? What if employers adopted the college admission essay question?

Though asking potential employees to write a letter to their roommates may not be the best gauge of future job performance, other prompts encourage anecdotes that can highlight creativity and personality that otherwise lie dormant in stacks of black-and-white resumes. These six essay questions from real college admissions forms could tell potential employers a lot about job candidates. In turn, applicants would get a chance to present themselves thoughtfully and personally. And both parties could enjoy a break from the monotony of played-out, tepid inquiries like “Tell me about a time when you had to overcome failure” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

1. “Every name tells a story: Tell us about your name—any name: first, middle, last, nickname—and its origin.”

Dartmouth College

“Tell me about yourself” is so vague that there are articles dedicated to advising interviewees on the open-ended question. Instead, break the ice with something everyone can explain—their name. A good first question can do wonders for both sides, setting a conversational tone for the interview.

2. “Why do you do what you do?”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

At first glance, some resumes may look a little disjointed with experience in multiple fields and varying levels of management authority. This question gives applicants a chance to connect the dots and demonstrate their calling.

3. “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

Common Application used by hundreds of schools

What makes a workspace productive varies from person to person. One may prefer an enclosed office where she can jam to her favorite songs while busting out some PowerPoint slides. Another may do his best work lying down on a couch and typing away. This question helps clarify whether the office’s existing culture and layout would be a good fit for the candidate, and vice versa.

4. “To tweet or not to tweet?”

University of Virginia in Charlottesville

Social-media blunders abound worldwide, with troubling case studies written everyday. Applicants may have no idea about Twitter, which, depending on the industry, may already be a red flag. But asking about personal social-media platforms gets into legal gray areas. Instead, hypothetical situations can assess the job seeker’s ability to protect confidential information or represent brand messages.

5. “What outrages you? Why?”

Wake Forest University

This is almost a trick question, because most interviewees will shy away from admitting they have anything but the most pleasant disposition. However, if the job requires a level of aggressiveness, a forthright demeanor, or a detail-oriented taskmaster, this question could bring those qualities out.

6. “Celebrate your nerdy side.”

Tufts University

For companies that claim to maintain some semblance of work-life balance, this question helps prove that commitment to the applicant. It also allows candidates to momentarily relax, as they revel in explaining something they truly love.

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