The University of Chicago is famous for quirky and complex essay prompts. UChicago also places a relatively high weight on the essays when making admissions decisions. Submitting outstanding essays to UChicago can help you recover from a few poor grades, or even a slightly lower SAT/ACT score. UChicago always allows its applicants to submit their own essay prompt and corresponding essay, which is a particularly attractive option if you’re relatively creative. Because UChicago is one of the most popular schools amongst our students, and because we have generated so many acceptances to the school, we have decided to release one of our accepted essays to the University of Chicago to aid in helping you think about how to craft your essay. This student chose to submit a unique prompt, and specific details in the essay have been changed to preserve anonymity:
Prompt (Self-Written): Is there any value to popular culture? Or should society attempt to better itself with more refined art forms?”
Popular culture encompasses an expansive spread of art forms ranging from popular sitcoms to “gangsta rap.” And as with broader society, in cultural spheres such as film and literature there exists an amorphous “elite”- primarily academics and critics in each field and their sycophants. This elite’s response to each movie’s release is predictable: Transformers 2’s stellar 19% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes does not surprise anyone who understands film critics, who decry the “mindlessness” of big budget films while praising “smart” and complex independent films that have vibrant symbolism and social commentary. In short, they’d rather you watch Little Miss Sunshine than waste your time on Transformers 6, Iron Man 2, or the latest R-rated comedy featuring Will Ferrell. Such criticism misses two essential points, at least in my personal relationship with culture. The first is that when I watch a film, I am actually seeking precisely the banal and idiotic entertainment provided by big budget Hollywood film that they so vehemently disparage. I admit there are times when I can appreciate vibrant social commentary or hidden symbolism layered into a movie. But mostly, I just want to relax and be entertained for two and a half hours as I enjoy hackneyed humor. Those who religiously eschew mainstream films deny themselves the joy of one’s visceral reactions to the exploding buildings and slapstick comedy of big budget blockbusters.
Even more important is the social bond that emanates from shared cultural experiences. I recognized this seemingly tenuous link when I visited my family in Chiang Rai, Thailand last September. As huge fans of Thai dramas, my cousin and I decided to binge-watch a romantic comedy called Thara Himalaya, the story of a common villager who fell in love with a wealthy heir. After we finished the drama, I fell into the very trap that I caution against in this essay. Upon Googling Thara Himalaya, I was stunned to discover that a formulaic drama with (what I considered) terrible acting had become one of the highest rated dramas in Thai television history. When I asked my cousin about this seemingly paradoxical outcome, she had a simple explanation: “These types of dramas are so popular because there are a lot of rural and poor women who dream of that kind of ‘happily ever after’.” As I pondered the implications of her statement, the full weight became apparent. Thai women, especially rural ones, live a difficult life. And these sappy dramas release them from these stressors, if only temporarily. They serve the same purpose for me. Even though I may never find out exactly what the lives of these women are like, the fact that we both enjoy the same dramas allows us to bridge the gap between our disparate circumstances.
The same is true in the United States. In recent years, the gulf between college educated Americans and the rest of society has widened. While part of this divergence is driven by economics, there is a cultural gap as well, which drives misunderstandings and exacerbates conflict. How can one expect to understand the mindset of the proverbial “other half” if there are no shared experiences to draw upon? Therein lies the value of embracing the mainstream; when I share experiences with the average American, I am more likely to understand his or her mindset, dreams, and desires. The resultant social cohesiveness is extremely valuable – a characteristic lost when elites isolate themselves in the embrace of haute culture.
The broader implications of this epiphany did not truly become apparent until I returned to the US, when I ate dinner at my mother’s friend’s house. After dinner, I was forced to spend time with her kids, whom I had never met before, and came from completely different circumstances. Initially, we sat around in awkward silence. After a few minutes of painful small talk, almost by chance, we began to discuss the Seattle Sounders, and their prospects for the upcoming season. We had finally found some common ground. For the next four hours, we discussed sports of every variety, from the NBA to the Cricket World Cup. The initial awkwardness had completely vanquished, and we found that we enjoyed each other’s company. The connection between that evening and the value of the mainstream was elucidated later that night, when I reflected on similar experiences that I had had in the past. Whenever I’m at a party or social gathering where I meet new people, the way that I connect with others is by talking about popular sports, movies, or TV shows. Many of my peers decry the perceived sexism or Darwinism in sport. And indeed several of my closest friends scoff at the four major American athletic pastimes. Yet knowing about sports (a cornerstone of American culture) has often come in handy during new and unfamiliar situations – it is my tool for connecting with new people. In fact, one of my best friends in the whole world is from a completely different social, economic, and racial background. When we met five years ago at camp, we bonded over our love of basketball. For me, embracing the mainstream allows me to empathize with and engage with people from completely different social circumstances. Were we to apply this principle to broader society, rather than pursuing the intellectual for its own sake, some of the adverse effects socioeconomic divergence might be halted, and perhaps even reversed. So yes, there is much value to popular culture.
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
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To calm the waters, a Chicago admissions representative on Tuesday posted a response telling students not to worry if their essays were similar. “We sent out the essay to lighten the mood, but it seems that it might have backfired a bit,” the posting said, adding that the dean, James G. Nondorf, had asked to “pass on a sincere apology if it did not hit the mark.”
In response to a reporter’s question, Dean Nondorf, who is in his first year at Chicago, said in an e-mail message that the reaction his office received had been overwhelmingly positive and that he thought the essay reflected “the sort of clever, creative spirit that tends to thrive at UChicago.”
“Our general message in sharing it with prospective students,” he wrote, “was that they shouldn’t stress out about essay writing.”
The student who wrote the essay, identified only as Rohan, gave permission for his essay to be distributed, the admissions office said. And although the early action program under which he was admitted is nonbinding, he has indicated that he plans to attend Chicago in the fall.
The University of Chicago has long prided itself on the unusual essays it requires from applicants, and for many years, it resisted the trend to join the Common Application, which handles online applications for hundreds of colleges and universities. Until the current freshman class, applicants used what Chicago called the Uncommon Application, which included an array of quirky and thoughtful essay prompts, many of which came from current students.
Applicants are still required to write an essay responding to one of five unusual prompts. The first one this year is “How did you get caught? Or not caught, as the case may be.” Applicants also must do the standard Common Application essay and the “Why Chicago” essay that elicited Rohan’s essay: how Chicago would “satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community and future?”
In his essay, Rohan objected to the “why.”
“Your cup overfloweth with academic genius, pour a little on me,” he wrote. “You’re legendary for it, they all told me it would never work out between us, but I had hope. I had so much hope; I replied to your adorable letters and put up with your puns.
“I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around, I accounted for all that; I understand someone of your caliber and taste. And now you inquire as to my wishes? They’re simple, accept me for who I am! Why can’t you just love and not ask why? Not ask about my assets or my past?”Continue reading the main story