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How to Write the UChicago Application Essays 2016-2017

Looking for the 2017-2018 post? You can find it here.

Founded in 1890 by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago, often referred to as U of C or UChicago, is a preeminent research university located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.


Ranked #4 by U.S. News & World Report, as well as sporting a reputation for academic rigor and excellence, it is no surprise that many students each year compete for the opportunity to call UChicago home. With an acceptance rate of 7.9% for the class of 2020, however, being admitted to the university is no easy feat. This is made no simpler by its supplement, which is notorious for asking out-of-the-box, free-form questions that can leave many applicants puzzled.


If you’re feeling stumped by the University of Chicago application, don’t worry. We at CollegeVine have crafted a comprehensive guide to completing the application that will help you decode what the admissions officers are really looking for, and craft responses that will demonstrate your unique personality and set you apart. Without further ado, we present our guide to responding to the 2016-2017 UChicago supplement questions.



Sign up below and we’ll let you know when our Essay Breakdowns for the 2017-2018 cycle are out. We’ll have how-to guides for the top 100 schools, and possibly more!


University of Chicago Application Essay Prompts


Question 1 (Required): 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 a standard prompt asking the applicant to answer, “Why do you want to attend this school?” This prompt archetype is what we like to call a “check the box” essay, because it generally will not get you into a school unless your essay is extremely out-of-the-box and incredibly high quality (less than 0.5% of U of C applicants can even try to meet this standard, let alone match it).


However, a poorly written or mediocre “Why UChicago?” essay may disqualify you even if you would have otherwise been accepted. The key to avoiding this fate is to leave generic statements such as “the campus is beautiful,” or the “students have a tight knit community,” that apply to literally hundreds of schools around the country, out of your essay. The university wants to see that you want to attend UChicago specifically, not just any top university in the country.


Accordingly, in your essay, 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 thousands of words; however, the following are a few distinctive factors submitted by our consultants from the university.


Note: We would caution that there far more unique elements of the University of Chicago experience than are presented on this list, and that research (at least an hour or so) on the internet will help you identify the specifics most suitable for your profile. We would also warn that unless you plan on reading through fifteen years worth of Scav lists, merely name-dropping Scav will likely diminish the specificity and strength of your essay.


Here’s the list:


  • There’s no unified culture at Chicago, instead it’s an amalgamation of several different cultures, and even more so than other schools, it runs the gamut from serious intellectual debate and academically driven to a fun-loving, party-oriented one. Chicago has one of the widest ranges of subcultures out of any elite university, and since that is the case, you will be able to easily find like-minded peers as you naturally evolve over the course of your college career.


  • 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. If you are interested more broadly in the field of economics or Academia, UChicago is the school for you. Economists affiliated with the university (alumni or faculty) have won 10 Nobel Prizes in economics, more than any other institution worldwide (Princeton is next with 6), and Chicago-affiliated individuals have won the fourth most Nobel prizes of all time. That’s just general research, but the specific takeaway in Chicago’s classes is that they are often more aligned towards research and academia than professional careers for a variety of reasons, ranging from being more theoretical in concepts covered to grade deflation not being as much of an issue due to it’s irrelevance in academia.


  • The University of Chicago has a thriving political activism scene, but political debate at the university is unusually concentrated around the Institute of Politics (IOP), headed by political savant David Axelrod. The IOP also puts out one of the better funded and higher profile campus political publications, with writers at The Gate covering a variety of political and foreign affairs topics. As an illustration of the opportunities afforded to Gate writers, there are interviews on the site with senators and out of town mayors by UChicago undergrads.


  • UChicago is a thought leader in mediating on the meaning and purpose of education (particularly higher education and liberal arts education), and if you’re interested in participating in or shaping that conversation, the school could be a good fit.


  • 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, the University of Chicago is the place for you.” If you can have fun with academics, it is an above-average place.


  • The learning community at the University of Chicago has an unusual fascination with Durkheim.


  • The university’s social justice community is heavily involved in the broader life of the South Side of Chicago, most notably displayed recently when they won a battle to create a trauma center at UChicago’s Medical Center. Tangentially, in addition to The Chicago Maroon, students also publish The South Side Weekly, a community publication that focuses on high-quality reporting on the South Side. There are very few opportunities at elite U.S. universities to do this kind of community reporting, which has become higher profile in recent months due to a surge of activism in Chicago.


  • Mansueto Library is one of the most surreal environments you will ever experience. It is a bright and airy building with really cool modern architecture, but is always eerily silent.


  • UChicago has an ice skating/roller skating rink right on campus (on the Midway). And it’s basically as big as the one in Rockefeller Center.


  • Theoretical knowledge is prized over practical knowledge, though as with all generalizations, 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.


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.


This is another “tick the box” question, but here the key is to avoid just writing down a basic list of books, musician, paintings, or similar topics. There are two different approaches for this prompt.


First, you can stick with lists but rather than limiting yourself to the options presented in the prompt, you should instead consider adding some lists that are tied more closely to the facets of your personality or the organizing theme of your application. For example if you’re interested in computer science, you could choose to list your favorite GitHub repositories, StackOverflow threads, computer science bloggers, and other computer science-related items.


This can be juxtaposed against a few “lighter” (not academic or professional) lists, as that can help balance out your personality. For example, you could list your favorite brands of chocolate or a cappella groups to listen to on YouTube. You can’t really go wrong with a blend of lists that are tied to a central theme of your application and lists that are less serious.


Alternatively, you can focus in on one specific list that is pretty central to your personality, and then provide annotations or explanations for how that list relates to your life. For example, if you are someone who’s particularly interested in politics, you might do a list of your top 10 favorite political events of your lifetime, and provide a snapshot of how you developed your own interests in politics.


So for example, you could mention President Obama’s second debate during the 2012 election and how at the same time you won a debate as an eighth grader, or how Donald Trump won the Republican primary earlier this year with an outsider’s campaign, it coincided with you winning a surprising election in your school’s politics club.


The main things to avoid, as with any college essay that you write, are any statements that are racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic, or could even be construed as such. College admissions counselors tend to hold more progressive values than the population at large, and a key part of writing college essays is understanding that they are your audience. You want to be extra careful in your essay as a result.


Extended Essay Questions: (Required – Choose One)


Essay Option 1:

What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?

— Inspired by Maya Shaked, Class of 2018


The phrase that’s being referred to here is “going back to square one,” which loosely means resetting or returning to the starting point of a situation. Given that meaning, this prompt sets up very nicely for an essay that is reflective in tone, allowing you to write about a mistake that you may have made or a time you experienced failure. So if you wrote about the failure prompt for your Common App essay, this prompt might not be the best one for you to choose.


There are two high level approaches here.


The first is to take the position that you can in fact return to “square one” and (potentially) succeed thereafter, hinting at themes of perseverance and finding success by returning to fundamentals. If sports is a central theme for your application, this is a prompt and an approach that you can use to great success, especially if you subvert the motif.


For example, let’s say that you are a field hockey player and lost in the conference semifinals one year to a team loaded with division 1 talent. Then the next year, you and your team spend an entire preseason working on the fundamentals (both in terms of skills and teamwork) only to lose again to the exact same team the next year.


This is a subversion of the normal sports story in this vein where returning to the fundamentals doesn’t propel you to success. But if in the process you gain interesting perspective on your strengths and weaknesses and rediscover your love for the sport regardless of the outcome, then this can still be a very interesting essay. And the good news is that the essay doesn’t have to be about sports; the same framework frequently can be applied to other competitive pursuits ranging from essay contests to piano competitions.


A second high-level approach is to take the position that “square one” is a specific set of circumstances and mindsets that, due to the natural passage of time and progression of events, can never be returned to. This approach lends itself particularly well to long running narratives that discuss anything ranging from a personal story of loss of innocence (this could be a place to discuss, say, the death of a close family member or friend) to how you dealt with the fallout from a series of poor choices you’ve made.


The key in either case is to make the point that “square one” or the original situation you wish you could return to is simply unattainable for a variety of factors such as circumstance and subsequent events. For example, you could reflect on your relationship with a close friend from elementary and middle school that you grew apart from as high school progressed.


If you and your former friend grew apart because the two of you had disparate interests (perhaps you began to focus on music and drama whereas she went into sports), then you could write a very interesting essay about the specific conditions that allowed the two of you to be friends and how the evolution of you as a person prevented that situation where the two of you could be friends from ever reoccurring.


If you hit the right notes in terms of poignancy (sadness) and nostalgia, then that could be a really powerful essay, and those same notes strengthen any personal essay that takes this approach.


A variation on the second approach can apply if you are interested in writing an essay with more of an academic or professional tone. For example, if you spend a lot of time in high school working on biology research, you could write an essay that talks about how the nature of research is that you’re always adding to “square one “in terms of knowledge about a particular problem whether your experiment fails or succeeds (your hypothesis is proved or disproved), since failure (what isn’t true) is almost as valuable as success (what is true) in expanding the realm of scientific knowledge.


The key with this type of essay is to tie it back to your own personal experience and engagement with biology as a field, perhaps even creating a parallel for how every time you learn something in class, discuss something with a research mentor, or conduct an experiment, your own “personal square” one changes as well.


Essay Option 2:

Once, renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg said: ‘There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.’ Whether it’s Georges Seurat’s pointillism in ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,’ the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, quantum physics, or any other field of your choosing, when can the parts be separated from the whole and when can they not?

— Inspired by Ender Sahin, Class of 2020


The central theme in this prompt is really hinting at the tension between individualism or individual components and teamwork or aggregated components that work in sync. As such, there are several different directions in which you can take this essay, and one key decision to make is whether you want to explore a personal essay, or write a more academic essay that explores this fundamental tension.


On the personal side, this is an essay where you can reflect on your dynamics when working in a team or as an individual and discuss what some of the elements of your personality are that drive each. For example, if you are someone who always excels at individual events on your Science Olympiad team but performs poorly at group events, you could reflect on why you tend to perform better at individual pursuits and what facets of your mental makeup drive that.


You could also take the opportunity to reflect on some of your weaknesses as to why you don’t do so well at team events, perhaps you don’t communicate well in groups, or you tend to get frustrated with the variable levels of skill on a team. While you don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on your weaknesses in a college essay, showing that you have a degree of self awareness is definitely a positive signal, and an essay that juxtaposes those two extremes by noting that you as an individual can be separated from the whole team to find success would be an interesting approach.


Conversely, if you are someone who feeds off a team environment and perform your best when you’re with peers that you would do anything for, then an equally viable stance to take is that you as a debater, basketball player, or trombonist cannot be separated from the overarching structure. Here again, the key is to focus on what elements of your personality drive this dichotomy.


Perhaps because you are extroverted, you feed off of the banter and friendly conversation that a team naturally has, or you need the example set by a team leader or star performer to really succeed. Once again, you can nuance your essay by exploring why you aren’t necessarily successful at the same pursuits individually.


This can range from structural reasons (you find it hard to keep tempo without the beat of the musicians around you) to personal ones (without a team member playing the first match during a meet, you feel undue pressure to perform and collapse under that pressure). The idea here is to show self awareness in the opposite direction.


You can also write a more academic essay, particularly if you have specific area of focus on your profile, such as history or economics. If, for example, you participated in a variety of history clubs and competitions in high school, you could write a very interesting academically oriented essay talking about the interconnectedness of a variety of forces that conspired to cause a particular event that you have an interest in.


The key here is that you want to avoid events that are too generic or well known — an essay analyzing the causes of the Civil War isn’t necessarily going to turn heads. But an essay that talks about how the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was an event that could only occur as a result of several independent contributing factors — including economic pressure, urbanization, lack of regulations, building constructions, and a lack of a worker’s rights movement — could be very interesting.


The key would be to discuss how the fire would not have occurred had any one of those elements been different.


Essay Option 3:

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. P.S.: 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.)


Once again, you can take a more personal approach to this essay, or a more academic or commentary-oriented one — it really depends on what your preferences are. The personal approach is to take some sort of common motif or phrase that applies to your life or personality and give the backstory.


This is particularly interesting if you can find a minor quirk in your personality or behavior and then tie it to something deeper and more reflective. For example, if you have a nervous tick where you tap your foot whenever you’re bored or impatient, you could come up with an interesting idiom like “drilling a hole.” Do note if you try to use this exact idiom, the plagiarism filters that the admissions counselors use will trip and you will be penalized. 


Come up with your own idiom — this is merely meant as an instructive example. So with “shaking the earth” as an idiom for impatience, you might explore the fact that you have a relatively impatient personality and some other instances where this comes into play in your life. Then, you could tie your impatience to your intellectual curiosity and desire to always be learning new things, and bring the essay full circle by highlighting one of your strengths.


Another approach that bridges the personal and detached viewpoints is to come up with an idiom that is highly specific to your field of interest, then use that as a vehicle to explore your passion for the field. For example, you might coin an idiom “going on a diet” to refer to any time when a country’s government decides to pursue an economic policy of austerity.


Then, you could use that idiom as a starting point to chart your intellectual journey in building a passion for economics, bringing up the various times you were exposed to the concept of austerity. For example, you could start by talking about how the first time you seriously discussed austerity was with an economics teacher, and that your after-class discussions with him about economics helped catalyze your passion. You can then expand your story to include your reading on the topic on the internet in your free time, and conclude with the moment when you won your regional Fed Challenge tournament by discussing monetary policy in the context of austerity.


This is also a great prompt to write social commentary, as idioms often are driven by the social context of a moment. The key with this approach is to make sure you establish the connection between your idiom and the underlying meaning, and then launch into an exhaustive and intellectually rigorous analysis of the underlying trend.


For example, you could coin an idiom like “walking off the cliff” to refer to the recent trend of people walking with their phone down and veering off the sidewalk onto the street and creating danger. You can then dive into the underlying societal trends about mobile phone usage and the like. There is opportunity to really explore social dynamics with this prompt.


Essay Option 4:

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


This prompt lends itself towards writing an essay about a dramatic change, whether it’s something real or imagined. The same themes are explored in the adulthood prompt on the Common App, so if you choose to answer that prompt, you may want to avoid this one.


The technique with a personal essay here is to describe how the event in question transitioned you from one “world” to the next. The theme can definitely be related to your passions, whether academic or otherwise. For example, if you have a clear interest in physics throughout your profile and high school career, then you might discuss a particular concept that was interesting to you in physics as the “portal” that took you from a world where you were unsure of your intellectual passions to a world where you were highly passionate about physics.


So, if your particular interest in physics was in circuits, an interest that you then parlayed into a spot on the Physics Olympiad team and a captaincy on the electrical team of your schools robotics squad, then the capacitance equation could be your portal into a new world.


You can also explore other passions that aren’t academic, and can even get a little bit of a bonus if your portal is something that could conceivably be described as an actual physical portal. For example, let’s say that you spent your high school years focused on marching band. If you spent hours every week in the marching band, counted many fellow members as your closest friends, and eventually achieved a leadership position, then you could talk about how the door in the fence walking out onto the football field the first time your marching band performed was a portal between two worlds for you.


If you are a creative writer, this is a great prompt if you want to highlight that skill. Because of the open-ended nature of the prompt, you can write in a variety of genres — everything from science fiction to post-deconstructive realism. But there are a few keys here.


The first is that you have to make sure that your story is well written and that multiple people find it interesting. There are many different types of admissions counselors, and if your story isn’t appealing enough to a broad(er) audience, then you run the risk of alienating the person assessing your application. At the very least, if you’re going to write a story from a more arcane genre, you should write a disclaimer at the beginning describing the genre that you’re writing so that if an admissions counselor who’s not oriented towards literature receives your essay, they know to ask for a second opinion.


With that in mind, you should try to get feedback on your story from a couple of like-minded peers as well as your English teacher. The other key is that you want to avoid making your story too long. UChicago essays tend to have less of a hard-word-limit target than essays for other schools, but you still want to try to aim for fewer than 2,500 words, and ideally 1,500 to 2,000. Even if you’re a great writer, a long story can be problematic because the audience is a busy and overworked admissions counselor.


Essay Option 5:

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


The vestigial theme to this prompt lends itself towards a reflection on a gradual evolutionary process that discusses how you’ve changed over time. This is a contrast to some of the other options such as Prompts 1 and 4, which are oriented more towards single events or moments in time, so if you are interested in telling a more drawn out story in your essay, this is a great prompt to choose.


The key is to find a story where some element of your personality, experience that you had, relationship, or past behavior has become vestigial with the passage of time.


A perfect example is a variation on the friendship theme that we discussed in the context of Prompt 1. If instead of the two of you drifting apart as your interests diverged, you remained close friends, your friendship could very well be described as vestigial, especially if the friendship was originally based on close, shared experiences and interests (say, a karate class).


A particularly nuanced essay might draw on the fact that vestigial organs in animals tend to develop secondary functions later on even as their original function becomes irrelevant. That trait of vestigiality could be drawn as a parallel to the fact that even though you and your friend no longer share many interests, you are still always able to go to her when feuding with your core friend group to get an unbiased opinion and/or support and vice versa. In that sense, you could discuss the value that you draw from vestigial relationships.


This prompt is also set up well to use one of these vestigial elements in your life to discuss a prior hardship or difficult experience. For example, if you had a tough relationship with your younger brother growing up and the two of you always fought, you might pick a behavior that you have as a result. Perhaps you always tense up when someone asks “what do you want to watch” because you and your brother always fought over the TV remote.


Then you could talk about the circumstances that have changed that behavior into a vestigial one, exploring both your relationship with your brother and your joint maturation over time. Even if your relationship with your brother isn’t necessarily better, you can at least use the fact that you’re putting some distance between yourselves by heading off to college as a justification for calling the behavior vestigial. If there’s a negative tenor to the relationship, you’ll still want to end on an optimistic note. 


Essay Option 6:

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. 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.


As always, our advice is similar to previous years as this is an identical prompt that appears every year. 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, our founder Vinay Bhaskara’s essay 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).


Generally speaking, your best payoff to this essay comes if you want to try something unconventional, such as writing an essay that describes the four years of high school as Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, and Heaven, and is written in the style of the divine comedy.


There are a variety of possibilities here ranging from the idiotic (you probably don’t want to write your own variation on the KKK’s platform referring to events in your high school life) to the (relatively) overdone — they’ve probably seen several essays that write an essay in iambic pentameter as an ode to Shakespeare.


And we’ll reiterate the note above: this type of essay has the highest variance in terms of outcome. If done well, an unconventional essay can captivate the right admissions counselor in a way that no conventional essay can. Conversely, if the essay is executed poorly or even if it isn’t, your essay may go over the admissions counselor’s head or bore them. So this is only a strategy that you should try if you are confident in your abilities and have at least a couple of sources of high-quality feedback.


This is also an optimal prompt for truly diving into a passion that you have, particularly if it is of an advanced level or unique tenor. For example, if you know a lot about Norwegian history between 1842 and 1908, then writing a custom prompt that allows you to explore that passion may be easier than trying to bend that topic to match one of the prompts provided.


As with any academically oriented essay, you do want to make sure that any jargon you use is made clear, either via explicit explanation or context clues. You shouldn’t shy away from jargon — it’s one of the things that helps position you as an expert on the subject of your essay. But you don’t want to render the essay unintelligible to your reader. One broader note on writing your own prompt — it doesn’t have to be as complex or convoluted as the other UChicago prompts, and you mainly just want to find a prompt that matches the essay that you want to write, even if it is straightforward.


Note: the first two questions and the sixth extended essay prompt were repeated on the applications for the class of 2018, 2019, and 2020. As such, we have used and updated the information from previous posts for those questions for 2021.


Armed with this guide, you should be prepared to create an application that will wow adcoms and allow your distinct personality, skill set, and intelligence to shine through. We wish you all the best in your writing endeavors!


For more advice on applying to UChicago, feel free to look at the following posts:


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.

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