Wishing for a way to obscure the red state/blue state divide at your holiday table? Seeking to steer conversation away from Obamacare? Anxious not to antagonize the in-laws? Fear not. Help has arrived in the form of this year's college application essays. The current subject of angst for American high school seniors might provide fodder for your Christmas Eve confab.
Last weekend brought news for those who applied early. Applicants who have been offered admission at their first choice are finished. But for the recipients of bad news, and the remainder who did not apply early, they are in the throes of meeting a Jan. 1 deadline, which includes answering essay questions.
The five choices that accompany the Common Application are not conversation starters. (They include: "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure"; "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea"; and "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.") Better material comes from the individual supplemental questions asked by some schools.
How about a toast inspired by the University of Virginia, which asks, "To tweet or not to tweet?"
During dinner, if you're looking to spark storytelling, you can offer one of Stanford's inquiries and give your guests more latitude than the 50 words afforded for the written reply: "What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, sporting events, etc.) this past year?" Or, "What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?"
Holy Cross has a great topic for grandparents: "What's the best advice you've ever received?"
If those sound too backward-looking, and you want to include the younger generation, why not invoke this one from Penn State's Schreyer Honors College: "A 'bucket list' is a list of things that you would like to accomplish during your lifetime. Please tell us a few of the things that might be on your bucket list and explain why they are important to you to accomplish."
If your gathering is more highbrow, there is always Tufts University's: "The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase Carpe diem. Jonathan Larson proclaimed, 'No day but today!' and most recently, Drake explained, 'You Only Live Once (YOLO).' Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does #YOLO mean to you?"
MIT notified its early applicants of their fate on 12:14 p.m. on 12/14. As part of their application process, students had to answer this: "We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it."
Another winner is Berkeley's Haas School of Business': "If you could choose one song that expresses who you are, what is it and why?"
I asked Jane Feldgus, an attorney-turned-essayist, to survey the field and pick her favorite. She immediately identified the University of Wisconsin's: "What goes unnoticed in your life?" ("As soon as I answer that question, it is no longer unnoticed," Feldgus observed.) She also singled out my alma matter, Lehigh University, which this year is offering five options, including: "What's your Bazinga moment?" Great dinner discussion, assuming everyone has watched The Big Bang Theory on CBS.
I'd recommend you save the University of Chicago's fare for dessert. The Windy City institution has earned a reputation for producing provocative essay questions ("They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between," reads the application), and this year's were inspired by current students.
Florence Chan, from the Class of 2015, proposed: "How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared?" (Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.)
But my favorite of all the application essay topics, at least for dinner conversation, is this:
"Winston Churchill believed 'a joke is a very serious thing.' From Off-Off Campus' improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at the University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater the Second City). Tell us your favorite joke, and try to explain the joke without ruining it." (Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016.)
Not bad for a school often tagged with a reputation for being a place "where fun comes to die."