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How to tackle the University of Chicago supplement essays for 2013-14

The University of Chicago is famed for its quirky and unique essay topics (think “Where’s Waldo” or “What is the meaning of X”), and the university recently released the essay topics for the 2013-14 applications cycle. With application numbers ever rising, we asked our co-founder, Vinay Bhaskara, who was accepted early into U Chicago last year with a merit scholarship, how he would tackle these essays.


Want to learn what University of Chicago will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering University of Chicago needs to know.



Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.


Vinay: This is a tricky one. The problem with humor is that one man’s humor is another man’s insult. Almost every joke can be interpreted as offensive to one group or another, and the potential for writing a great essay surrounding a “safe” joke is limited. The one exception to this rule is to use self-deprecating kind of joke – a joke about a feature or characteristic that you have – and use it to write an essay of self-introspection. For example, if you’re Asian-American (as I am) – you could describe a joke that makes fun of the stereotype that Asians are academically successful and/or study a lot – and use that to explore your own academic experiences from high school.



In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).

You are you and your..?

Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016


Vinay: This a much meatier topic that allows you a great window to pursue self-reflection. You can use this as a venue to describe a passion, event, or incident that either made or makes you who you are. For example, my opening line to this essay would be: I am myself and my model airplanes. I would use that as a launching point to describe my career as an aviation writer; how I grew from an amateur blogger into a professional journalist and the lessons I learned about hard work and life along the way. I would also talk about the social skills the work helped me develop, and the lasting and meaningful friends and mentors I met along the way.



“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010


Vinay: This topic tends to lend itself more to a more academic approach. You can use this essay to really explore your knowledge of and ability to analyze history; and alternatively, tie historical events and trends back to your own life in the present day. As an example – I am Indian-American. And one of the most acutely painful aspects of India’s history is the abhorrent social structure known as the caste system. I would write an essay about history being the story of the educated elite (tied to the Brahmins atop the caste system) – the “they” – and discuss how what they aren’t telling is the story of those at the bottom – the day to day life of the Shudras and Untouchables at the bottom of the caste system. Then I’d turn around and use that to reflect on my own life – and how it was enhanced by being part of that educated elite – how lucky I am.



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, Class of 2016


Vinay: This one lends itself to view society through a critical lens – to write thoughtful social criticism and analysis. But an even better option is for you to peel back the layers; if you’re an academically successful student with strong extracurricular activities on your resume; use this as an opportunity to discuss some of your fears or challenges. If the flip side is true and your extra-curriculars and/or transcript are relatively weak – talk about your intellectual curiosity, and passion for learning. Personally, I would have used this essay to discuss my own challenges – how once upon a time I struggled to make friends and connect with people, and the activities and people who taught me social skills and helped me get over that.



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, Class of 2015


Vinay: This essay really allows you to show off your intellectual orientation and passions. For example, an aspiring artist would contrast the two in terms of their color, shading, or shape, while a more politically oriented student could attack the question by using apples and oranges as a vehicle to analyze the growing political bifurcation plaguing our nation. As a data and economics-oriented person, I would use the essay to explore global trends in apple and orange production and their respective contribution to national and global agricultural production and GDP.



In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.


Vinay: This essay really poses the highest risk but also the highest potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to write an innovative essay that either tackles a difficult or controversial topic (for example, my essay from last year tackled why mainstream Hollywood films are more valuable than seemingly more intellectual independent films), or presents the information with a unique format (such as a conversation with a dead historical figure).


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Zack Perkins
Business Development Head