How to Tackle the University of Chicago Supplement Essays for 2014-15
UPDATE: For the 2016-2017 Chicago post, click here.
It’s finally here. The famous Admissions Hero dissection of the infamous University of Chicago supplement. These essays are annually notorious for their difficulty and peculiarity. Our very own Vinay Bhaskara (UChicago ’17) offers his best advice for tackling these questions in this comprehensive post.
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 is, for the most part, a standard “Why School X” essay, and our analysis of it is largely tied to that principle. The “Why School X” essay is what we like to call a “check-the-box” essay. It generally will not get you into a school unless your essay is incredibly good, but a poorly written or mediocre “Why School X” essay may keep you out. The key to this type of essay is to avoid platitudes, such as “the campus is beautiful,” or the “students have a tight knit community.” Whenever possible, you want to refer to factors that are specific and unique to the University of Chicago. Creating an exhaustive list of such factors would require several thousand words of writing; however, the following are a few distinctive factors gleaned from my time (admittedly brief) at the university. We would caution readers that there are plenty more factors than are presented on this list, and that research (at least an hour or so) would do well towards finding the specifics most suitable for each applicant’s profile. We would also warn readers that unless they plan on reading through fifteen years worth of Scav lists, name-dropping Scav will likely hurt you.
- The University of Chicago is a bastion of free market economics (at least relative to peer institutions) and is noted historically for housing Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, amongst other laureates of the “Chicago School” of economics
- The University of Chicago has a thriving political activism scene, but political debate at the university is unusually concentrated around the Institute of Politics, headed by political savant David Axelrod
- The “Where Fun Goes to Die” axiom has some truth to it, but it really should be translated as “If you enjoy learning and/or working hard, U Chicago is the place for you.” If you can have fun with academics, UChicago is an above average place
- The learning community at UChicago has an unusual fascination with Durkheim
- Theoretical knowledge is prized over practical knowledge, though as with all generalizations about UChicago, this effect has softened somewhat in recent years
- If you like to / are good at writing, the Core will be a happy / successful place for you.
- Grade deflation is fierce, but the ethos of truly earning an “A” or “B” is rewarding if you can survive the stress and deal with occasional failure
These are just a snippet, and between the internet, conversations with actual UChicago students, and even published materials, you can learn far more.
Question 2 (Optional):
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.
Another “Check the box” question, but here the key is to avoid giving the admissions counselors what they want to see. Pick some facet of your personality, or the organizing theme of your application, and generate lists of items in those spheres.
For example, I chose to list out my favorite airlines, airports, aircraft, aircraft programs, and other aviation-related items (see my biography if it’s unclear why).
And don’t be afraid to share some silly (non-academic or non-erudite) items, especially if they can be juxtaposed against a core theme to help balance out your personality. For example, I could have opted to list my favorite romantic comedies as a connoisseur of such films (Number 1 is It Could Happen to You for those interested in rom-coms). Don’t shy away from something like that.
EXTENDED ESSAY (REQUIRED; CHOOSE ONE)
1) What’s so odd about odd numbers?
-Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009
This prompt offers a strong platform for discussing challenges in terms of ostracization or exclusion from society or even school. Topics such as bullying, struggles with sexual orientation, or racial identity could all be tackled by using the word “odd” as a basis to explore them, though choosing a light topic (such as the time you couldn’t go on a field trip because of a broken leg – unless written in a clearly satirical manner) would likely not be as impactful.
Another option is to use this prompt as a base to explore a passion for data analysis, math, numbers, or even patterns. For example, a particularly interesting approach to this essay could be to ruminate on your love for math in paragraphs with the sentence lengths of the Fibonacci sequence. Basically, you would write paragraphs in the following manner, each discussing a portion of why you love math, describing your experiences with math, or exploring how math guides your future plans. The first paragraph would be a blank space (0), two one sentence paragraphs (1,1), one two sentence paragraph (2), a three sentence paragraph (3), a five sentence paragraph (5), an eight sentence paragraph (8), and so forth. The text would just be presented as if it were normal, but at the end you could point out the pattern as well. Regardless of how you do it, use this essay as an option to explore a genuine curiosity in whatever “pattern” or “odd thing” you choose.
2) 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, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
This prompt offers a strong opportunity to explore a deep interest or passionate hobby, and in certain cases, even lends itself to a bit of an academic and reflective tone. The key is to pull out a word, phrase, or even sound that is unique to that field and use it as a metaphor for your life, or to build a web of analogies to your life.
For example, a classically trained Indian singer might take the traditional Carnatic notes of “Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-…” might argue against translation into the standard Western musical notes “A, B, C, D, E, F, G” (these are not the direct comparisons I am aware, but I am not a musician by training) because the Carnatic ones carry the weight of India’s history of achievement and a certain freedom from Western control. This lends itself to rich and powerful academic writing, but the real trick will be to tie the essay back to yourself, perhaps by discussing how Carnatic music allows your Indian roots to resonate in a way that playing a song with Indian influences on the viola simply would not. You could also argue the converse and claim that blending Western and Carnatic music (by giving more Westerners the ability to play Carnatic music) would help in the process of cultural assimilation, and on a personal level, allow you to convey the meaning that your Indian heritage holds. Likely, you have your own interesting cultural idiosyncrasy; this is the essay to explore it.
3) 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, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
While it may be tempting to choose something with the preface “Three,” as hinted at in the prompt, a more palatable option might be to separate your personality/life into three distinct parts. Each part would represent a different facet of you, and tying them together would allow you to create a distinctive, yet harmonized personality. While the three items can be unique, one or several paragraphs should be devoted to explaining and exploring the interconnectivity. If your application has a common theme, picking three items within that theme would add to the novelty of the essay.
For example, my group of three would be Boeing Field in Seattle, London City Airport, and Hyderabad Airport. Boeing Field in Seattle (obviously) would represent aviation. London City Airport is the closest airport to Canary Wharf and the London School of Economics and thus would represent my academic interest, while Hyderabad Airport (Hyderabad is home to the Telugu movie industry) would represent my love for Indian films. The broader synthesis is that I was passionate about aviation, which took up the bulk of my time. In the same manner that investment bankers operate, I am rigorous and data-driven and tend to apply economic principles to make day-to-day decisions. And when I unwind (whether through film or sport), I head in the complete opposite direction towards as little thinking as possible, which is supported by the delicious inanity of Telugu film. Constructing an essay around these parameters would be the goal.
4) Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)
-Inspired by Joshua Harris, Class of 2016
Once again this essay offers an opportunity to explore one’s personality, and a conventional approach would place someone who is high strung and works well with stress (such as yours truly) at the top of the list with a high pH of 1 or 2 (remember that pH is an inverse scale), while placing someone unflappable at a pH of 12 or 13. This is certainly an option that you could pursue, and obviously this prompt has strong appeal to those who are passionate about science. For you guys, utilizing the chemistry peg of pH, perhaps to write a series of acid-base reactions that illustrate your personality (each one covering a facet), might be a useful strategy.
However, the secret opportunity here is for those who are passionate about art. Most paints (save watercolors) have a specific pH value. Pick your favorite color of paint, try to find out its pH value (and you can use the internet), and use that as the peg for your essay. Your favorite color is frequently a reflection of some facet of your personality, and considering that could provide you with an interesting opportunity.
5) A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one).
-Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016
This question seems rather existential, and that is a potential opportunity for those who enjoy philosophical discussions. In particular, this essay lends itself extremely well to various academic treatments. Those who are scientifically oriented could discuss the nature of matter (and the unresolved question of dark matter) or the physics of communication (speech – which enables human society to “be here”), while social sciences-oriented students could reference classical thinkers to build a case to answer the questions. While normally focusing exclusively on academic, or even dry content is a significant risk, the University of Chicago has a healthy respect for theoretical learning. And for students passionate about learning, or even research, this is conveying an essential part of personality.
Another direction for this essay is to explore a significant life event that has brought you to where you are. Examples include moving to different locations, changing familial situations that have interrupted your life, or even natural catastrophes you have faced. Whatever you choose, you can use this essay to tie in your life story – provided it is significantly unique or interesting. For example, a Chinese American who is not the oldest sibling in the family could write about how China’s One-Child Policy prompted his or her parents to move to the United States, bringing about a slew of different opportunities. The writer could then take this essay into a slightly academic direction, discussing China’s policy and its socioeconomic effects. Alternatively, one could take this essay into a cultural direction and discuss the cultural differences that exist between China and the US. Of course, this is just one example; it’s up to you to find a situation that conveys your story best.
6) 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.
Here we will repeat our advice from last year’s identical prompt, because it still holds true. 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).
For more ideas in the train of thought needed to tackle these UChicago essays, check out Vinay’s dissection of last year’s supplement. As application time rolls around, we will continue to update this post with more suggestions to ensure that your UChicago essays are excellent, so keep checking back. However, this should be enough to get you started. Best of luck!