Chicago Favorites Essay

Some classic questions from previous years…

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16

Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. 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

Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15

The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07

Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
–Anonymous submission

"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16

So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16

Find x.
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10

Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical. 
–Anonymous submission

UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves

University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric

"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski

Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold

People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube

The University of Chicago’s essay prompts get a lot of attention, and rightfully so.  They are typically some of the most interesting and thought provoking that an applicant will encounter.  When I was an admissions officer at the University of Chicago, I would regularly hear from applicants that part of the reason they applied was those essay prompts—they couldn’t wait to grapple with them.  By contrast, in my later life as a high school counselor, I’d hear from some students, “I don’t want to apply there—those essays look too hard!”  Clearly, the essays are serving their purpose for the admissions office by attracting the right students, those who find Chicago’s eccentric brilliance (cough, nerdiness!) to be a match for their own spirit.

So let’s dig into the essay questions themselves.  First, just like all supplemental essays at schools which read applications holistically, the Chicago essays should be understood as  puzzle pieces that form part of a whole.  Each essay fulfills a different part of the application, and each is important. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the first question, a required question:

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

This question is very important.  As with all schools, students are expected to have done their research on Chicago and what makes it unique.  This is perhaps even more important when it comes to Chicago, however, as it does possess a more unique identity than most schools in the U.S.  When answering this question, consider whether the intense intellectualism of Chicago’s student body and Chicago’s core curriculum, the cornerstone of each student’s academic experience, is right for you.  This question will best be answered seriously and straightforwardly by most applicants.

While the second question is optional, most students answer it.  This prompt reads:

Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

When I worked at Chicago, this question was a fun one to review.  As the question permits, some applicants would list favorites from all categories, some from just a few, and some would just list one.  Others, instead of providing a list would explain a bit about the items they chose.  All of the above was fine!  This question was simply an interesting way to get a sense of a student’s interests and likes.

The extended essay questions are the ones that get Chicago all the attention, the ones that attract Chicago-like students to Chicago.  My best advice here is that you not try and guess which is the “best” topic or the topic the Chicago admission readers want you to answer, for there is no such thing.  Each topic they list is fair game, and it’s the applicant’s job to figure out which one will allow her to express herself best.  Some topics are clearly tongue-in-cheek, like this year’s first essay option: “Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?” and the third: “Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.”  If these grab you and your response to the prompt is humorous, go with it.  However, if your writing style is more naturally serious, you might want to try the other essay options.

Chicago also gives the option of posing your own essay question.  While this was certainly permissible and led to some great essays when I was a reader there, it was also where we saw students simply submitting essays that didn’t have the verve or interest of a “Chicago” essay.  Often we could tell that the student had simply pasted an essay there that he had written for another school.  I definitely don’t recommend doing that.  It can seem like a wise decision to make when you’re time-crunched and trying to get your applications done, but it isn’t really in the true spirit of the University of Chicago.

So, if none of this year’s topics speak to you, what are you to do?  Look to the final option and go to Chicago’s archives of questions.  There, you should easily be able to find one that speaks to you.  And you will still be true to the spirit of the Chicago application.





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