UChicago Essays: How Real Students Approached Them

Located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the University of Chicago is known for its rigorous academic experience and engaged student body. In 2020, the school ranked 6th on the US News’ Best Colleges Rankings. For the 2019-2020 admissions cycle, UChicago accepted only 6.2% of applicants.

 

One thing that sets UChicago apart from other schools during the admissions process is its unique and unconventional essay prompts. To help you get an idea of how to write the University of Chicago essays, we spoke to current students who shared what they wrote about and why.

 

Want to know your chances at UChicago? Calculate your chances for free right now.

 

What are the University of Chicago Essay Prompts?

 

The first prompt, which all applicants must answer, asks how the University of Chicago fits your academic and community needs, as well as your future plans. The suggested length for this response is 500 words. This prompt is a typical “why this college” essay:

 

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 (500 words suggested).

 

The second essay that you’ll need to write is far more open-ended. The suggested length is 650 words, and you can choose from six prompts, all of which are highly unconventional. Each prompt is inspired by current UChicago students or recent graduates. You can also choose to answer any of UChicago’s old prompts instead. Some examples of this prompt from the 2019-2020 cycle are: 

 

A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a __ a __?

 

If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options, as you can tell, are endless.

 

Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?

 

In this post, we’ll be focusing on the second, open-ended essay. Learn more about how to write the first UChicago essay prompts.

 

How Real Students Approached the UChicago Essays

 

In this video, four current students discuss what essay prompts they chose, how they wrote their essay, and what made it stand out to admissions officers.

 

 

Here are the specific prompts they chose:

 

“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.”

 

“In 2015, the city of Melbourne, Australia created a “tree-mail” service, in which all of the trees in the city received an email address so that residents could report any tree-related issues. As an unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees sweet and occasionally humorous letters. Imagine this has been expanded to any object (tree or otherwise) in the world, and share with us the letter you’d send to your favorite.”

 

“Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because ‘it’s so bad, it’s good.’ Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they ‘have more character.’ And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.”

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Writing Techniques Used In These UChicago Essays

 

Think and write unconventionally. 

 

The UChicago prompts are really “out there,” so you should approach them in a creative and unconventional way. Even the more straightforward prompts are meant to invite a unique response.

 

Take the prompt “Find x,” for example, which was a 2010 essay topic (that’s it—no more guidance than that). While some may be tempted to write a tutorial on how to solve for an unknown variable in an equation (especially if you’re a math enthusiast), that would be too obvious of an answer. It wouldn’t show your creative thinking skills at all, nor share more of your story. 

 

That doesn’t mean that you can’t write about math—it just should be tied to a personal story. For instance, a math tutor might describe their experience working with a student and teaching them how to solve for x. You could also interpret the prompt totally differently—there’s no “right” way to interpret it. Maybe you love geocaching—you could interpret the “x” in the prompt as “x marks the spot,” and talk about your experiences searching for “treasure” in the form of geocaches. Or, maybe you want to use the prompt “Find x” as a segue into a time you were at a crossroads (like the form of the letter “x”). 

 

It’s worth noting that you can even get creative with the more straightforward first prompt, about why you want to attend UChicago. One student in the embedded video clip wrote the essay in the form of a letter to Hogwarts, explaining why he was turning them down since he wanted to attend UChicago instead. Don’t feel limited just because the prompt seems straightforward!

 

Don’t force anything.

 

Every year, UChicago has an option that allows students to make their own prompt, or to pick a past prompt. 

 

This was last year’s sixth prompt: 

 

“Don’t be afraid to pick past prompts! I liked some of the ones from previous years more than those made newly available for my year. Also, don’t worry about the ‘correct’ way to interpret a question. If there exists a correct way to interpret the prompt I chose, it certainly was not my answer.” – Matthew Lohrs, Class of 2023

 

If you don’t like any of the prompts, there’s no need to try to make them work. Pick whatever stands out to you, even if it’s from past years, or make your own prompt.

 

In that same vein, don’t try to force something super quirky if that’s just not you. You can still respond to the first “Why UChicago?” prompt in a straightforward way. You should still try to think creatively for the second prompt, but don’t stress about making it super dramatic, impressive, or striking. The goal is to reveal more about who you are and what you care about.

 

For instance, one student in the livestream clip formatted her essay so that it looked like a balloon. You can get creative with the essay’s appearance, but proceed with caution. You never know how the formatting will actually turn out once submitted to admissions officers, and this sort of thing can seem gimmicky if it doesn’t fit well. Since this student was discussing helium, it made sense and didn’t seem forced.

 

Enjoy the process.

 

Your essay doesn’t have to be deep or profound. Write about anything you care about, even if it doesn’t seem that “intellectual.” One student in the livestream clip decided to write about her love for “low-brow” soap operas and why she thinks they’re valuable as entertainment. She had a lot of fun doing it, and that likely shone through in her essay. 

 

You have your transcript and test scores to prove your academic skills, so the point of these unconventional prompts is to give you free rein to showcase your personality. Several of the prompts do involve some critical thinking, but there’s no need to make your writing pedantic, even if you choose those.


Choose a topic that inspires you so that you’ll enjoy writing your essay. This will result in a more engaging essay and reading experience for admissions officers. 

 

Write about something that’s important to you—get personal.

 

The challenge with these prompts is that they seem broad/philosophical and may not directly apply to your personal life—you have to make it about you. You don’t have to explicitly talk about yourself, but you need to use the opportunity to at least show your passion, personality, and critical thinking.

 

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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.