University of Chicago 2017-18 Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide
The Requirements: 2 essays of 1-2 pages each
Supplemental Essay Type(s):Why, Oddball
This is it, the infamous U Chicago supplemental application. These quirky prompts have been a rite of passage for generations of applicants. So before you dive in, just remember that if they could do it, so can you! Your goal in writing your Chicago extended essay should be the same as ever: to reveal something new to admissions. It might even help to have a few ideas in mind before reading through your options. These prompts are so specific and strange that, in the end, the key is just to follow your instincts. What speaks to you right away? What inspires you?
Respond to the required essay and choose one of the six extended essay options and upload a one- or two-page response.
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.
Think of this run-of-the-mill why essay as the overture to your magnum opus (i.e. the Extended Essay). Chicago wants you to cover all the bases – “learning, community, and future” – so as with any why essay, you’d best buckle down and do your homework. The more specific details you can incorporate into your essay, the more sincere and personal it will feel (and be!). Explore both academic and extracurricular opportunities. How will you pursue your interest in oceanography? With a major in biology and a semester in Australia? What research opportunities will you pursue? Will joining the club crew team help you feel more connected to aquatic life despite your midwest location? One thing you won’t find on the school website, though, is that third piece, that “future” thing. Think about where you’d like to be five or ten years from now – your career or the impact you’d like to have or even just a geographic location. How will a U Chicago education help you get there? How will your scholarly and social pursuits help you grow? Show admissions how U Chicago is the bridge between the person you are and the person you hope to be.
Extended Essay Questions: (Required; Choose one)
Before you read these questions, remember that you only have to pick one. So brace yourself and follow your gut. We’re going in.
Essay Option 1.
“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert
Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed? -Anonymous Suggestion
The rambling setup for this prompt disguises the simplicity of its essential question: what matters to you? In more specific terms, what is deeply important to you, but hard to talk about with others? Maybe your fascination with cicadas has taught you a thing or two about global warming, but friends and family are grossed out by insects and afraid to face the changes taking place in their immediate environment. Or perhaps you think it’s time to end the stigma surrounding mental illness by talking about it openly. You could also confronta less dire, but equally unsettling truth, like the fact that people knew what Sia looked like before she started wearing that wig. Whatever you choose should be a matter of personal importance. Show admissions what you’re willing to commit to in the face of skepticism or disapproval.
Essay Option 2.
Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/majors-minors. -Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018
Are you a portmanteau wizard or a pun queen? This could be the word-playful prompt of your dreams. And honestly, what else do we even say? We don’t want to take the fun out of inventing your own bizarre major! Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to just the (actual) majors that interest you, but you do have to have to honor the limits of the prompt! You’re only allowed one typo. So what’ll it be? Egonomics? Bib Problems? Herstory? Classical Studies: Green and Roman Studies? Commit to whatever you choose and create a deep course of study: what are the names of the classes you would take, the texts you hope to read, the typical career path for alums? Tackling this prompt requires wit, creativity, and a quirky sense of humor – all qualities the university prides itself on. Do you have them?
Essay Option 3.
Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world. -Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017
Think of this as the kooky cousin to Common App prompt #1, which asks you to describe some aspect of your background. This prompt is asking to see the world through your eyes and to catch a glimpse of the experiences that have informed your perspective. What crucial experiences have composed your sense of the world? What elements compose your day to day life? Maybe growing up in a family that cooked all the time has taught you to interpret your environment based on flavor, and your world is composed of a swirling combination of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Or perhaps you believe that more intangible things, like kindness and concern, make life on earth possible. Maybe your love of geometry and photography has you seeing the world in obtuse, acute, and straight angles. Whatever your paradigm, make sure to explain where it comes from. What people or experiences have taught you to see the world in this unique way?
Essay Option 4.
The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.” -Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020
In other words, what do you want the world to see (or not see) when it looks at you? How do you present yourself? Maybe you don’t leave the house without pulling on your chunky black combat boots as they seem to tell the world that you’re not the man or woman to mess with. Perhaps you wear the old locket your late grandmother gave to you everyday and it gives you the strength to face your fears throughout the day. Don’t feel limited though – you absolutely do not have to be a fashionista to tackle this prompt. In fact, clothing is really just one point of entry to answering the essential questions. Maybe you don’t think much about what you wear, but put on a certain posture every time you walk through your neighborhood. Perhaps you grew up with superstitious parents who always made you wear protective amulets before going on big trips or taking big tests. Maybe your makeup is your armor as it gives you the power to shape (or contour?) who the world will see you as that day. What do you do to make yourself feel safe? What aspects of your physical presence do others seem to respond to? Your outer appearance is just the jumping off point for you to reveal something new to admissions.
Essay Option 5.
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. -Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021
This prompt is so weirdly specific! If this one calls out to you, chances are it’s because something springs to mind right away — a love of bad metaphors or the musky complexity of burnt toast. But if you want to try to brainstorm, think about the things that people tease you about. What do your friends and family lovingly poke fun at? The childhood blankie you still keep on your bed? The pungent cheeses you insist on storing in the family fridge? The old knock-knock jokes you like to tell? The great thing about this prompt is that, when you finally land on a topic, it will be unique to you and no one else (a core tenet of CEA’s essay-writing philosophy). Writing this essay will give you an opportunity to reveal your creativity and compassion: the requisite qualities for seeing potential or beauty in something or someone’s flaws.
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.
This is your life preserver in a sea of oddball prompts. If all else fails, you can recycle an essay you’ve written for another school, but it had better be good. It had better be some of the best writing you’ve ever done. U Chicago has made its expectations clear for applicants who choose to go their own way. So, if you choose to use something you’ve already written, be sure to get creative with the prompt. Take a hint from the other essay options and lead off with a quote or theoretical musing that points towards some essential question.
You might also choose this option because none of the other prompts provided ample latitude for you to tell the story you really want to tell. In this case, you should craft your essay and prompt somewhat concurrently. As you brainstorm, keep an eye on essential themes that you can weave into a creative prompt, or that your essay can put a fun twist on. Were you born with a congenital eye defect that literally (and metaphorically) affects how you see the world? (Q: How is your perspective on the world unique?) Or maybe your joint interests in computer science and urban planning have led you to muse on what it really means to go “off the grid.” This approach works best when you already have an idea in mind, but no matter what you write about, have fun with it! Writing your own prompt gives you a excellent opportunity to display an extra level of meta thinking and self-awareness.
Some classic questions from previous years…
Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16
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
What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09
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
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, Class of 2018
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, Class of 2018
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, AB'16
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, AB'15
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. PS: 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.)
"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.
Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07
Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16
So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006
How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10
Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel
"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves
University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric
"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold
People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube