How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essays 2017-2018
The University of Chicago, located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, is a private research institution that ranks #3 in U.S. News and World Report’s Best National Universities.
If you’re working on your University of Chicago application, you know getting into UChicago is no simple task — the class of 2020 had an acceptance rate of 7.9%. The writing supplements can be a challenge to tackle because of their open-ended and creative nature. This post will help guide you through all of the University of Chicago’s essay prompts.
Read on to understand how to tackle Chicago’s unique application essay prompts for 2017-2018.
University of Chicago Application Essay Prompts
Like many other schools, UChicago asks applicants to answer what is essentially a question asking, “Why do you specifically want to attend this school?” This is a common prompt at many top schools, and it is what we like to call an “essay of elimination.” By itself, the “Why School X?” essay rarely gets a candidate into a school, as it is really difficult to write an answer to this question that is truly unique and meaningful.
Instead, schools like UChicago use this application to separate the candidates who are truly passionate about attending the school (it has too many strong applicants for a limited number of spots in the incoming freshman class). That’s why a poorly written or mediocre “Why UChicago?” essay can keep you out, even if a great one cannot get you in.
And the only way to actually mess up this question, beyond obvious errors, like making grammar mistakes or saying something offensive, is if you don’t write an essay that is specifically about the University of Chicago.
Generic statements like “I’m excited to spend the next four years in Chicago,” “UChicago students have a tight knit community,” or “the campus is beautiful” — that apply to dozens of colleges around the country — should be avoided. The university wants to know that you want to specifically attend it, not just that you want to attend any Top 15 university in the United States. Specificity is key.
Unique Things About UChicago
To help you as you write your Why UChicago essay, we have included a few special and unique things about the University of Chicago, according to CollegeVine team members from the school. This is by no means a fully comprehensive or complete list, and it would behoove you to do your own research as well, as ideally, you will find specific reasons for attending UChicago that align with your own admissions profile. We would also warn that unless you plan on reading through 15 years worth of Scav lists, merely name-dropping Scav will likely diminish the specificity and strength of your essay.
Note: As this question is asked every year by UChicago, these notes borrow heavily from the lists we presented in our blog posts for the essays for the classes of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.
|Unique Things About UChicago According to CollegeVine Team Members|
|There’s no unified culture at UChicago. Instead, it’s an amalgamation of several different cultures, and even more so than other schools, it runs the gamut from an academically driven subculture centered on serious intellectual debate to a fun-loving, party-oriented one. The school 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, among 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 ten Nobel Prizes in economics, more than any other institution worldwide (Princeton is next with six), 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 a future career in 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 its 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 policy and foreign affair 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 meditating 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 actually should be translated as “if you enjoy learning and 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 write and are good at writing, the Core will be a happy and fruitful 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.|
Extended Essay Questions: Choose One
The key words in this prompt are “victory” and “progress,” which indicate that the prompt is set up nicely for you to draw a contrast between the topic that you think is important but under-discussed and other topics.
One natural axis with which to approach this essay is policy or politics. It is pretty easy to draw a contrast between issues that are politically contentious, like abortion or free speech, and issues that are highly impactful but less debated, like malaria in Africa or the opioid crisis in the United States. If you go down this path, it’s important to note that questions like abortion and free speech are certainly important.
Instead of just arguing that they are not important, you can draw upon the prompt in saying that discussion of those issues is usually conducted in such a manner that no progress is made. Instead, it’s usually about trying to yell at the other side.
As long as you make this clarification, you can then turn to the real or underlying issue and explore it further, laying out why you think it’s important. This essay archetype can be made more effective if it is interwoven with a strong personal narrative that ties you to the important and under-discussed issue (for example, perhaps you have cousins that have gotten addicted to opioids). But it is still possible to write an excellent essay in this vein even if you don’t have a personal connection to the essay.
Another angle to take with this essay is to focus on a highly specialized or niche area within a topic or field of interest and write a deep-dive essay that shows off your passion for a subject. This can obviously be something like a deep academic treatise on an overlooked aspect of Russian history between 1640-1700, but it doesn’t have to be about a purely academic topic.
For example, if you’re an avid soccer player and fan, you can write an essay about why the 3-5-2 formation is under-discussed and under-utilized, despite allowing several underdog teams to pull upsets in international tournaments. The important thing isn’t that the idea is particularly academic or erudite, but rather that you know the topic extremely well and can display your love for it through the essay.
This prompt certainly lends itself to an essay with a more humorous tone, and it is quite easy to slip into a joking treatment of “Bromance Languages” or “Ant History.” There are certainly interesting essays that can be written in this vein, but we would caution that it is really difficult to pull off a humorous tone in a written format because so much of humor is contextual and specific to the tastes of the audience.
You can still write an essay that attempts to leverage humor with this prompt, but you should keep your audience in mind. Admissions counselors at top universities tend to be younger, highly educated, and politically progressive. So it’s probably not the best idea to slip that “edgy” (i.e., racist) joke that you found on Reddit into this essay. And regarding tone, you should be going for something closer to Mel Brooks or Woody Allen than to Adam Sandler.
However, you don’t have to tackle this prompt with a humorous lens. Instead, you can use it as an opportunity to show off your intellectual chops and flexibility, or highlight multiple academic themes on your profile.
For example, let’s say that you’re interested in both linguistics and gender and sexuality studies. Instead of cracking the all-too-easy jokes about Bromance Languages, you could reframe your exploration of the topic by using it as a launchpad to discuss the concept of toxic masculinity and how that prevents effective communication in male friendships by creating a taboo around discussing one’s feelings openly.
This essay is going to work best if you find a pun or fusion that aligns closely with your profile. To share just one more example, let’s say that you renamed “Social Sciences” to “SoCal Sciences” and are interested in studying urban studies and history. You could frame the renamed major as the study of how the historic presence of industry and the military (the hard “sciences”) in Los Angeles shaped the urban geography of the city and made it harder for the city to densify its neighborhoods once those industries left.
Again this is just one of numerous possible examples with the dozens of majors on that list. You should think carefully about your own.
This prompt is the first to really lend itself to a highly personal narrative, as you can use it as a vehicle to comment on the broader psychology or organizational patterns of the society around you while weaving in your personal experience. As an example, if you struggled with self-esteem and communicating with peers when you were younger, you might argue that your place in the world is driven by the combination of confidence, intellect, and the ability to communicate or connect with other people.
If you mixed your analysis of these topics with intensely personal and negative memories of times that you struggled in each area, it could be the foundation for an incredibly powerful essay.
Conversely, you can easily lay out a more positive case and tell your story that way. For example, you could propose that the world is composed of altruism, Smithian self-interest, and random chance. Using this as your foundation, you could argue that every event in your life falls into one of these categories, and share anecdotes of how your life displays each of those traits.
Once again (as with most UChicago essay prompts), there is also a more academic angle that you can take, perhaps illustrating your knowledge of sociology, economics, or neo-Marxist analysis. The key with this type of approach is to ensure that you are displaying both your intense passion for the field and your in-depth knowledge of it. UChicago is the rare school that will accept your display of an academic or quirky passion in a college essay, but you cannot fake it — your essay needs to display the deep love and passion you have for the subject or field.
This is probably the prompt that lends itself most to a personal narrative or story, for obvious reasons. One tactic that you can take is to describe a personality trait or common behavior of yours as your armor — for example, confidence or sarcasm — and interweave that with anecdotes that prove the point. In general if you take this approach, you want to try and choose less common or clichéd personality traits.
Sarcasm is about the most conventional answer that you can give that still makes for a compelling essay, anything more narrow than that (like confidence) will likely come off as clichéd. A slightly more innovative approach in this style is to use it to show that you’re willing to engage with your flaws a little bit, especially if you are a strong applicant on paper. Obviously you don’t want to go overboard, but (as an example) describing a nervous tic where you rub your pen during a test to help calm yourself down could serve as an essay that humanizes you and takes a more innovative approach to the prompt.
Another angle to take with this prompt is to use it to explore an extracurricular activity or passion that you display in your profile. For a specific activity or passion, you could then talk about a fundamental skill or “go-to move” that you fall back on when things aren’t going smoothly in this activity, which thus makes it a form of “armor” that you use to avoid failure in the activity.
The sports examples are easy to think of: For example, perhaps your go-to move in basketball is a fadeaway jump shot. But the concept can also be applied in a non-sports context. If you are a Lincoln-Douglas debater, then maybe there is a rhetorical trick or technique that you always fall back on when you’re in a tough debate. Or if you conduct a lot of physics research, perhaps you always fall back on your understanding of data when you see results that you can’t replicate or that are confusing. Regardless of the arena, the point is to highlight a foundational skill that you use in the activity to reiterate your passion and dedication to the activity.
One final approach is to engage literally with the question and talk about your favorite piece of fashion or clothing. Perhaps you have a favorite shirt or there’s a pair of shoes that has a special place in your heart. But if you do write about an actual piece of clothing, you shouldn’t just skim the surface level, i.e., “I like this shirt because I look good in it, and it makes me feel good.”
Instead, you should use it as a jumping-off point to reflect on who you are as a person and share that with the admissions counselor. For example, you might write an essay about your favorite pair of sweatpants because you always do your best work in those sweatpants (and cannot do your best work unless you are comfortable and warm). You might also extend the essay to talk about why you sometimes feel the need for solitude (which the sweatpants implicitly represent) amidst the social strain of being in high school.
This is a prompt that is naturally set up for you to share something that’s quirky or offbeat about yourself. One angle to take is to focus on some sort of hobby or pastime that you enjoy that isn’t particularly mainstream.
For example, if you collect antique furniture from the 1940s or really love riding in older Amtrak trains for the authenticity of the experience, then this is a prompt that lines up really nicely to explore that. If you can tie the various quirks of the hobby or pastime to your own personal journey, then that takes the essay to the next level. For example, if you first experienced an Amtrak train with your grandfather and heard his stories, that could create a highly personal and compelling narrative.
Another approach with this essay is to write about some sort of “guilty pleasure” that you have, say if you like bad movies like the Transformers series or cheesy pop music. If you are then able to use your guilty pleasure as a vehicle to explore society at large and your place within it, then that can create a truly innovative and interesting essay.
For example, if you’re a male in more traditional settings whose guilty pleasure is watching romantic comedies, you could then explore the fact that this is considered an “unmanly” pastime and how you feel about that fact in a reflective and incisive essay. This is possible with any number of “guilty pleasures,” but you do want to be careful about how your assessment will be viewed by the reader.
For example, it’s perfectly fine to write an essay that says that you love the Transformers movie series despite its uneven gender politics if you are a woman. But the same essay written by a man might come off as tone deaf given who admissions counselors are.
This is a 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).
Using a prompt from past years also allows you to write an essay that is thematically and tonally different from many other applicants (as they will mostly be writing about the first five prompts offered above).
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 alt-right’s platform referring to events in your high school life) to the (relatively) overdone — they’ve probably seen several essays that have been written in iambic pentameter as an ode to Chaucer.
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 an academic passion, particularly if it is of an advanced level or unique tenor. For example, if you know a lot about Soviet cars produced between 1957 and 1983, 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.
We wish you the best of luck writing your UChicago essay!
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