So, how do you feel about Wednesdays?
I’m betting that’s not a question you get asked frequently. It is, however, a past application essay question for the University of Chicago—one of many we’ve amassed in the years we’ve asked “uncommon” questions. Much like your feelings on Wednesdays, we bet you aren’t also often asked about your Ph, your thoughts on odd numbers, or why you’re here and not somewhere else. And, hint: that’s kind of why we’re asking you.
Every year the University of Chicago asks five “uncommon” questions as part of our application supplement. Rather than giving you the same old “what did you do on your summer vacation”-style prompt, we ask our students and alumni to suggest questions they’d like to pose to prospective students, and then consider the over 500 suggestions we get each year among a group of admissions officers before choosing our “final five”. This is how we wound up with this year’s questions, ranging from things like “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” to a quote from an art installation on campus, “Why are you here and not somewhere else?”
We ask you these questions not because we want to fool you, or make you squirm, or hurt your brain. We ask you these questions precisely because we love, love, love seeing where your brain goes when you’re asked a question you’ve never thought about before before. These are the kinds of intellectual encounters you’ll have on our campus every day; it’s rare that a professor will ask you to explain how your loss in the big sports game affected you, but very common for someone to ask you a question you’ve never encountered, and to see how you work with it. The question might be about Plato, or muons, or the work of a beat poet from the South Side in the 1960s instead of about your thoughts on odd numbers—but the ways you’ll be thinking are the same even if not on the same topic, and this, precisely, is why we ask you to try it out as part of your application.
So how, exactly, do you respond to such an open-ended question? This is, of course, also open-ended. We want you to use this as a time to be creative, to take a prompt and run with it in the way that you think represents what’s going on in your brain best. There are some things we suggest avoiding, and many many things that are totally up for doing. We think our questions are pretty neat, and would love to see what you do with one of them, so we don’t suggest re-using an essay from class, another school, or from your common/universal app personal statement for this essay. We also hope to see students taking this beyond simply factual information about them; a resume is not an essay, so there’s no need to pack all of your achievements and accomplishments in to narrative form. While we welcome fun explorations of new topics, sometimes we do see students who come up with some kind of “schtick” they think helps them stand out (case in point: an essay written entirely backwards, or an acrostic poem). Know that we’re most impressed and influenced by the content, thoughts, and skill contained in your writing rather than tricky tricks, so try not to conflate crazy style with skill—make your essay about the ideas first even if you’d like to explore them in a new way. Some students feel compelled to write about an experience they’ve had or an idea they’re passionate about, and that can be a great choice if you feel the urge. But know that we can often learn a lot about you with how and what you choose to write about even if you’re not writing about yourself, so if you’d like to take this as a time to explore something beyond your own personal experiences, go for it! We read everything and are tickled by lots, and always welcome students who think a little bit outside of the box. So if you’re sitting there thinking “Man, I wish I could write my essay like a critical analysis/book report on Skymall Magazine” (note: this has happened, and the student was admitted) but are shying away because Skymall Magazine isn’t covered in that pulpy book your mom bought you about writing college essays—write about Skymall Magazine! A UChicago supplement essay that responds to our question with a topic you see as interesting and compelling (that is, of course, well thought through and edited reasonably) will shine out much more than following a standard “college essay” format. Don’t be afraid to stretch your mind and have a little fun. That’s what we do here.
And, as a final note: we don’t require your essays to be in a standard 5-paragraph essay format, although we do hope they’ll have words in them (it’s totally fine, although not required at all, to add a visual or musical or any-other-ical accompaniment to your writing, but know we’re also looking at your writing skill here, so we do hope you’ll write something). Some students write personal narratives, some write what could be considered more traditional essay style works, some write short stories, some write something completely different. We ask simply that your essay is somewhere in the realm of 500-650 words, or about 1-2 pages single or double spaced (and we’re flexible—don’t take this as license to write a 14-page tome, but know that we won’t stop reading at 651 words if you need an extra verb).
Any questions? You can always feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The UChicago supplemental essays might throw you off at first. The questions are strange, quirky, thought-provoking, and definitely daunting. You may not have thought of anything like these questions before, but that's okay! The UChicago supplements are a great chance for you to step back from the typical admissions process, think about something different, and express yourself creatively.
For the UChicago supplement, you'll have to write two essays: one answering a quirky prompt and the second explaining why you want to go to UChicago. I'll explain how to approach each essay below.
I. The Uncommon Essay
When you take a look at the uncommon essay questions, you should laugh. The essays are meant to be fun, creative, quirky, and thought-provoking. Keep in mind the Admissions Office explains:
"We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between."
Here are some tips to help you write an original and successful supplemental essay. I've included an example with each tip to show you how I'd approach the prompts.
1. Pick the essay topic that gets you most excited.
You have five essay options or the chance to make your own topic. Unless you have a really creative idea, pick one of the five set prompts. Read through all the essay prompts before picking one. Do any of them strike you immediately as interesting or get you excited and thinking? Eliminate any prompts that don't excite you and then brainstorm how you'd approach the remaining prompts. Pick the essay topic that gets you the most excited to write, think, and creatively make an argument or tell a story.
For example, I'm most excited about approaching Essay #1, because I love dissecting jokes and think I have some great starting ideas for it, so I would choose that prompt.
2. Answer the question.
You're applying to colleges, so you might think you should talk about yourself and your extra-curricular activities, like in a typical personal statement. That won't work here! It seems obvious, but be sure you're answering the essay question!
For example, if I were writing Essay Question #3, I would make sure I've answered all three parts of the question, so ultimately, the admissions officer would have an idea of what I think history is, who "they" are, and what "they" aren't telling us.
3. Tell a coherent story or develop an argument.
The strongest essays will tell a clear story or develop an argument with evidence. The admissions officers will be learning about you by seeing how you construct this argument or how you incorporate characters and language to tell your story. Be detailed and thoughtful about each part of your argument or story.
For example, if I answered Essay Question #4, I might write from the perspective of the mantis shrimp about how he sees the world, or tell the story of a scientist who creates mantis shrimp "goggles" and sees the world for the first time like a shrimp.
4. Sneak in parts about you.
Be sure you answer the question, but... you can (and should) sneak in things that are important to you, too! Use the question as a launching pad to explore parts about yourself that you haven't addressed in your common app or the "Why UChicago" essay in a way that works. When you're brainstorming and outlining your essay, make sure the argument or story reflects something that's important to you or important about you. Remember though, it's more important to make a strong argument with clear thoughts than to write about every sport you've ever played or every place you've traveled.
For example, if I were writing Essay Question #2, I might write about how "I am I and I am my thoughts" and reflect philosophically (maybe include thoughts from philosophers), because I love philosophy (and wanted to study that at UChicago -- and did).
5. Be creative!
There's no wrong answer or incorrect approach for these prompts. Be creative, use descriptive language, and have fun! The goal of the essay is for the admissions officers to see how you think and creatively solve problems. If you're a poet and think an answer works best as a poem, do it! A Platonic dialogue? Why not! But, be sure to be creative in a way that you're comfortable with, so you write the strongest essay possible for you.
For example, I might write Question #5 as a dinner conversation between a chemist, linguist, philosopher, and statistician about how to compare apples and oranges.
II. Why UChicago?
The second supplemental essay should be much easier than the first, but that doesn't mean you can slack off. The admissions officers read hundreds of these essays and they see many of the same responses: The Core! The quirky intellectual vibe! The beautiful campus! Living in a city! Here are some tips for standing out.
1. Really do your research on what makes UChicago unique.
Highlight the reasons you want to go to UChicago that make UChicago uniquely UChicago. Lots of schools, for example, have some liberal arts requirements, but only UChicago offers a huge range within each core requirement. Do your research and then explain why the unique aspects of the college make it your top choice. The college admissions website is a great place to learn more about what makes UChicago special.
2. Find UChicago professors, classes, fields of study, and research that excites you.
Look up the websites for the fields that interest you at UChicago. You can usually find a list of professors, graduate students, upcoming and past classes, and research specialities. You can even take a look at the course catalog to see what's currently being offered for undergraduates and graduates in every field. In your essay, highlight professors' work that excites you or specific classes you'd love to take (not "Intro to..." classes, but workshops like, "I-Thou and the Subject of Psychoanalysis").
3. Show how you would get involved and contribute to UChicago.
UChicago is looking for students who will make the college community even better than it already is. Find UChicago-specific extracurriculars that you're interested in and explain how you would contribute to that group. Is there something you think UChicago is missing? Tell the admissions officers what group you think UChicago should start and how you love that UChicago lets students grow their own on-campus activities (though make sure it really doesn't already exist, because almost everything does!).
4. Mention study abroad programs, travel grants, and research opportunities that interest you.
Research the study abroad programs, travel grants, research opportunities, and other unique programs UChicago offers. If any of these interest you, explain why you think UChicago's flag grants, for example, would help you get a head start on your future research and career goals.
5. Be specific and be sincere!
But really, why UChicago? Because you're quirky, you love to learn, you spend way too much time falling through the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia, you want to learn Econ from the masters, you... Let your sincere feelings about the college shine through!