‘Should a chimpanzee have human rights..?’ or WHY do many top universities use tricky questions to recruit students? And why it matters…

  • “Tell me about a cactus…”
  • “Can machines make decisions?”
  • “How would you break the news to a farmer that his cow has died?”
  • “Who’s the most influential: Obama, Merkel or Adele?”

Even though it is hard to believe, but in many top universities around the world, students can be asked such tricky questions on their interviews. These questions, though, are not ridiculous but they are, in fact, grounded on theories of different subjects like psychology, life sciences, physics, law, engineering and others. For example, a candidate to the engineering program might be asked to talk about a light bulb (no raw facts); or an applicant to a medical major will have to imagine whether he/she would prefer to be a seedless or non-seedless grapefruit. My favorite one is the question for prospective psychologists: “What is “normal” for humans”? (You can find more questions here)

So, why do professors at universities ask such questions which do not have the only one “right” answer and can perplex students? The reason is simple – universities need not simply intelligent and diligent students but creative individuals who can find extraordinary solutions. There is even a book called “So you want to go to Oxbridge? Tell me about a banana…”, which can give some useful tips to students who want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Interestingly, a new trend in many overseas colleges and universities was not only in asking tricky questions on the interview, but also in writing essays on particular, rather “strange” topics or situations. These are some examples, which I find especially awesome:

“If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick? Why?” (Brandeis University)

 “Create a short story using one of these topics: ‘The End of MTV,’ ‘Confessions of a Middle School Bully,’ ‘The Professor Disappeared’ or ‘The Mysterious Lab.'” (Tufts University)

“You have 150 words. Take a risk.” (University of Notre Dame)

(You can read more of them on this website)

As for me, I find such approach of recruiting students just incredible: students do not only show their capabilities of writing a good essay, but also demonstrate their ability to think out of the box. I wonder if our universities will ever try this approach of enrolling students into universities rather than testing their abilities to mechanically memorize facts. “Make your children interesting!” – This is the advice from the president of Harvard to parents who want their children to get into the top universities. While this may sound quite easy to do, the reality is much more complicated. The truth is that not only schools, but also our society restricts many individuals to think creatively. As Gerald Puccio, a professor of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, claims in his speech on TEDx Talks, we are all “born to be creative”. He explains that creative thinking is innate for human beings. In fact, small children have a divergent thinking which allows them to think out of the box, but our society imposes the rules and norms of life which transform their thinking into convergent. Thus, this convergent thinking makes them think in one rather than multiple directions. One example from his speech, which I liked the most, is that due to this convergent thinking, people tend to criticize and judge quickly ideas of other people by finding the only one answer to the question. Thus, we face the issue of low level of creativity and innovation.

I think that even though many people blame schools for “killing” students’ creativity, we also have to realize that our society plays the major role in blocking imagination and creative thinking of children. Parents themselves have to take charge of sustaining and developing divergent thinking of their children by encouraging them to use their imagination in every context and every stage of their life. Unfortunately, many parents do not understand “the power of imagination” and divergent thinking. As an example, one of my friends was once complaining to me that her little son was constantly asking her questions like: “Why doesn’t our cat walk on two legs”, or “Why is the grass green, but sky blue?”. While I was trying to contemplate the possible answers on these questions to compare with hers, she told me that she simply replied him to stop asking such silly questions as nobody knows the answers on them. I imagine how her son felt at that moment since his imagination was literally blocked.

To conclude, creative and divergent thinking is highly important not only for study and work, but it is an essential “surviving” skill which can help people to find multitude of solutions on different problems. Thus, both schools and parents have to make sure that children can freely use their imagination and develop creative skills. As a result, students will be ready for a highly competitive world where creative individuals have more opportunities to embrace possibilities.

1 thought on “‘Should a chimpanzee have human rights..?’ or WHY do many top universities use tricky questions to recruit students? And why it matters…

  1. Thank you, Ludmila!! It’s amazing post. I found that my age makes me answer such questions more and more ordinary. Maybe it’s time to play games (the most creative and understandable answer) in order not to lose creativity)) I completely support these universities and agree with you that it’s terrible to say “it’s stupid, don’t ask me” to a child.
    Actually, ability to answer tricky question is similar to functional literacy and practical applicable knowledge, which we try to improve in students.


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