NYU tried an experiment in 2009, when applicants to the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service were allowed the option of reacting to this photograph — or any one of a number of others — as an essay question.
As an applicant, you might not want to touch this image with a 10-foot dandelion. But if you’re stuck on a subject to write about for your common app essay, try staring at this picture for a few minutes. What do you see? What does it remind you of? Riff on those memories. Make some stream-of-consciousness notes. These jottings will take some unforeseen shape as your mind and pencil move from connection to connection. It could be a great way to loosen yourself up. Try this for 10 minutes; put away the notes. Then look at them in a day and see what’s there. Map it out. Chances are, a subject for an essay — something you feel passionate about — will begin to emerge from the fog.
An official of NYU said on The New York Times website that such a photo question “allows us to get a deeper sense of the applicant’s passion for/commitment to an issue, and unlocks the depth of interest in a way that is not always achievable in a standard admissions essay.” The same thing it did for NYU it might do for you.
The Times’ slideshow of these photographs is well worth checking out.
Today’s Wagner School admissions website suggests that they aren’t using photo questions any more on admissions applications, though they do accept (optional but strongly recommended) video essays.