The University of Chicago is famous for its unique essay topics. They're some of the most creative and off-the-wall essay prompts you'll see when applying to colleges, and it can sometimes be confusing to know how to tackle them.
What should you write about in your UChicago essays? How can you show that you're intelligent, creative, and worthy of a place at their school? As someone who spent a long time on my UChicago essays (and who got into the school), I've figured out exactly what UChicago is looking for in these essays.
Read on to learn all about the UChicago essays, what the admissions team expects to see in your responses, what topics you should write about, and which topics you should avoid. In this guide, we also suggest sample essay ideas for each of the 2021/2022 UChicago supplement essay prompts and analyze past University of Chicago essay samples so you can see what a great UChicago essay looks like.
What Are the UChicago Essays?
Before you can begin figuring out how you'll write your UChicago essays, you should know which prompts you'll be seeing and the rules for each one. You'll need to write two essays, and the UChicago essay prompts you must answer are commonly referred to as Question 1 and Question 2.
Question 1: Why UChicago?
The Question 1 prompt is the only UChicago supplement essay that stays the same each year, and it's also the only prompt that all applicants must answer (for Question 2 you'll have multiple prompts to choose from).
For this question, you'll need to write an essay that explains why you want to attend the University of Chicago and why you think the school is a good fit for you and your goals. UChicago doesn't have strict word limits for essays, but they suggest a response of 1-2 pages.
Here's the prompt:
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.
The nice part about this prompt is that it's a pretty standard "why this school" essay. And luckily for you, we have a complete guide that walks you through how to knock this type of essay out of the park.
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Question 2: Extended Essay
For Question 2, you have a choice of six essay prompts, and you'll choose the one you want to respond to. The essay prompts for this question change every year, and while there are always around six prompts, some years there may be one more or one less to choose from.
These are the more unique and offbeat essay prompts that UChicago is known for. Many of them were created by UChicago alumni and current students. Again, UChicago asks you submit a response 1-2 pages long.
Below are the essay prompts for the 2021/2022 school year.
Essay Option 2: What’s so easy about pie?
Essay Option 3: In Homer’s Iliad, Helen had a “face that launched a thousand ships.” A millihelen, then, measures the beauty needed to launch one ship. The Sagan unit is used to denote any large quantity (in place of “billions and billions”). A New York Minute measures the period of time between a traffic light turning green and the cab behind you honking. Invent a new unit of measurement. How is it derived? How is it used? What are its equivalents?
Essay Option 4: "There is no such thing as a new idea" - Mark Twain. Are any pieces of art, literature, philosophy, or technology truly original, or just a different combination of old ideas? Pick something, anything (besides yourself), and explain why it is, or is not, original.
Essay Option 5: It's said that history repeats itself. But what about other disciplines? Choose another field (chemistry, philosophy, etc.) and explain how it repeats itself. Explain how it repeats itself.
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.
The world is your oyster when it comes to answering UChicago essay prompts.
How to Answer the University of Chicago Essay Prompts
In this section, we explain what UChicago wants to see in your essays, give ideas for topics to write about for each of the essays, and discuss topics you are better off avoiding.
Question 1: Why UChicago?
For this University of Chicago supplement essay, UChicago wants to know why you want to attend their school, what you hope to get out of attending, and how University of Chicago will help you achieve their goals. Basically, they want to know why you think their school is a better fit for you than all the other schools out there. For more analysis of this essay, check out our in-depth guide to the Why UChicago essay.
What Do They Want to See in Your Response?
The "why our school?" is probably the most common essay prompt you'll see on college applications. Why do schools, including UChicago, ask this question?
UChicago wants to first see that you really want to go to their school. Students who love a school are more likely to accept an offer of admission and attend it, and they are more likely to be committed to their studies, participate in extracurriculars, and give back after they graduate. Your passion for UChicago should be shining through in this essay.
Next, UChicago wants to see that you've done your research on their school and have an idea of what opportunities you want to take advantage of while there. You can do this by mentioning specific things you like about UChicago or that you plan to take advantage of as a student there. Potential things to discuss include professors you admire or are interested in working with, specific classes you want to take, and extracurriculars you want to participate in.
Finally, UChicago wants to see that you are a good match for your school. Your essay should explain how you'll take make the best use of what UChicago offers, how your strengths match the opportunities they provide, and how UChicago will help you reach your goals for the future.
Potential Topics to Write About
There are many ways you could approach this essay prompt; although since UChicago is best known for its academics (as opposed to killer sports teams, for example), most people will discuss the academic side for at least part of their response. Below is a list of possible topics; most people will discuss one to three topics in their essay.
- Majors or classes you're especially interested in
- UChicago's core curriculum
- Professors whose work you admire and whom you'd like to study with or conduct research with
- Unique events like Scav and Kuviasungnerk/Kangeiko
- Research opportunities you'd like to have
- University of Chicago students you've met who you admire
- Volunteer opportunities
- Financial aid opportunities UChicago offers that make it possible for you to attend
Topics to Avoid
The key here is to avoid generic topics that could apply to practically any school or any student. You want it to be clear in your response what opportunities the University of Chicago offers you that no other school does and how you're going to make use of them. Topics that won't show this include discussing:
- How pretty the campus is
- Chicago weather
- The food on campus
- Where UChicago places on college ranking lists
- Your future major and career path without connecting it back to what UChicago offers
- Bashing other schools
Question 2: Extended Essay
The extended essay is when you can get especially creative. This question requires you to move outside your comfort zone of typical essay topics and answer one of the prompts in a way that gives readers insight into who you are and what you care about.
What Do They Want to See in Your Response?
Your response Question 1 is meant to show what about UChicago you liked and how you were going to make the most of the opportunities it offered. Question 2 is less about UChicago and more about you. The admissions team wants to see who you are and what's important to you. Three main things they'd like to see in your response to this essay are:
- Your story
- Your personality
- Your thirst for knowledge
Who are you? What have been the important events in your life? What kind of person are you? What do you love learning about? These are the questions UChicago wants you to answer. They want to know what's important to you, what events from your past helped shaped you, what kind of person you are now, and what you want to accomplish in the future.
UChicago is particularly interested in students who love learning and have a lot of interests in different fields and topics. A mathematician who also does ballet? A creative writing major who started her own business? Bring it on! Make sure to show your love for learning in your essay.
Your passions and goals don't always need to be lofty though; in the second example essay below you can see how the writer took a quirky interest and managed to connect it to larger ideas. If you can connect one of your pet passions to an essay, do so!
Potential Topics to Write About
The great thing about these UChicago essay prompts is you can write about almost anything you want to since they're so different from each other and give you lots of chances to be creative. And you can tackle it from any angle you want. On their website, UChicago states that "[This essay] can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between." Just remember, you want this essay to give UChicago a good idea of the type of person you are and what's important to you.
Essay Option 1
What if the moon were made of cheese? Or Neptune made of soap? Pick a celestial object, reimagine its material composition, and explore the implications. Feel free to explore the realms of physics, philosophy, fantasy…the sky is the limit!
The UChicago Optional Essay prompts kick off with probably the wackiest option. You're allowed to let your imagination run wild with this prompt. Pick a celestial object (planet, star, moon, comet, etc.) decide what it's actually made of...and see where you go from there!
For this prompt, they want to see how imaginative you can be. What celestial object + material combination do you choose, and how does your choice reflect your personality?
Have fun with this prompt, make it as wacky and original as you like, but remember to tie it back to you. Say you go with the obvious option, that the moon is really made of cheese. What does that mean to you? Maybe you'll discuss your interest in ending world hunger and imagine that crews could be sent regularly to the moon to take hunks away and distribute it in areas that are having food crises. Or perhaps you imagine that Neptune is full of powdery snow and perfect ski slopes, and humans and aliens go there to compete in intergalactic ski competitions that show how sports can bring different groups together.
Choose any combination that strikes your fancy, and use it to show a little bit about your personality, interests, or values.
Essay Option 2
What’s so easy about pie?
This is a classic UChicago question that allows you to answer the question literally...or not. (The year I applied, the version of this question was "Describe your table.") So, what is easy about pie? You can answer this literally and explain something like how your giant family all loves pie, so when you have family reunions, it's the obvious choice for dessert and allows people to focus on enjoying togetherness instead of worrying about food.
Or (as always with UChicago essays), you can take it in a totally unexpected direction. This prompt is a chance to put your interpretive and reasoning skills into action. In fact, you could almost think of it like a riddle, except that the answer is anything that you can come up with and justify.
Is pie easy because the word is short and easy to pronounce, which made it easy when you were learning English as a second language? Is pie easy because there are a set of directions to follow from start to finish, which you wish more things in life had? Or maybe you don't find pie easy at all!
Ultimately, responding to this prompt requires thinking outside the box about the wording of the question and the concepts included in the question. If you're able to come up with an interesting, logical explanation for why you think pie is easy, you'll be on the right track for a good response to this prompt.
Essay Option 3
In Homer’s Iliad, Helen had a “face that launched a thousand ships.” A millihelen, then, measures the beauty needed to launch one ship. The Sagan unit is used to denote any large quantity (in place of “billions and billions”). A New York Minute measures the period of time between a traffic light turning green and the cab behind you honking. Invent a new unit of measurement. How is it derived? How is it used? What are its equivalents?
This is a bit of a lengthier prompt, but what it's asking for is fairly simple: devise a new unit of measurement and explain it. If you struggled to think of a good topic for either of the first two prompts, you may have an easier time with this one, since it can apply to pretty much anyone.
To get some ideas, think about the parts of your life you find most interesting/fun/important/etc. Then brainstorm ideas of how they could include a new unit of measurement. For example, maybe you love cooking for others, and your new unit of measurement is a value for the volume of clapping you receive when testing out a new recipe for your family. Or maybe your new value is based on how many times you visit Wikipedia to look up a fact while reading a new book (A four-wiki-hole book?? That's the kind you love!). The standard guidelines still apply here: choose something that's unique and gives insight into who you are.
It's totally appropriate to get really specific in your answers here. The prompt itself asks you to dive into the nitty gritty of your new value and explain what it means, how it can be used, and if there are similar values (you can use either real or made-up values for the equivalents). You can be as wacky or as serious as you want with your response, just make sure it fully answers the prompt and gives a little window into what's important to you.
Essay Option 4
"There is no such thing as a new idea" - Mark Twain. Are any pieces of art, literature, philosophy, or technology truly original, or just a different combination of old ideas? Pick something, anything (besides yourself), and explain why it is, or is not, original.
This is one of the broadest options of the prompts. You have free reign to discuss why pretty much anything in the world is original (or unoriginal). So, what's something that has dazzled you with its originality? Or something that's made you roll your eyes because of how derivative it is? The prompt suggests focusing on something in art, literature, philosophy, or technology, but your choice doesn't need to fall into one of those categories. Is there a song you think is unlike anything else you've heard? Do you think all new technology is just a repeat of a past invention?
You can get as broad or as specific as you want with this prompt, discussing an entire field like literature or narrowing it down to a single book. You can take a quirky route (like how tattoo choker necklaces hearken back to Medieval fashion choices) or something more serious (like how current protests over racial/gender/economic issues are or aren't different from past protests).
Of course, choosing your topic and stance is only the first part. Then you need to explain why you feel that way. Explain your position thoroughly and give specific examples to back it up.
Essay Option 5
It's said that history repeats itself. But what about other disciplines? Choose another field (chemistry, philosophy, etc.) and explain how it repeats itself. Explain how it repeats itself.
This prompt is quite similar to #4, although it's less broad because it's only asking about academic disciplines and you must take the stance that the discipline does repeat itself. Some people prefer narrower prompts because it makes it easier for them to decide what to write about. If that's you, this prompt may be a great option!
This prompt is also a great way to give the admissions team a deeper look at how you feel about your future major and why it interests you. You aren't required to write about your future field of study, but we do recommend it as colleges love to see students with a deep interest in their academics. However, as for all these prompts, choose what you think you can write the strongest essay on.
Once you have your topic, dive into how it repeats itself. Like we advised with prompt 4, use specific examples to strengthen your argument. Maybe you're focusing on international relations, and you mention different papers/theses/summits/ that happened at very different times but ended up looking quite similar to one another. Perhaps you decide to write about how, in literature, many novels follow similar plots. Mention the specific books and plot devices that support your take on this.
This is one of the more straightforward prompts, but don't feel like you need to take it super seriously if that's not what you're feeling. After all, UChicago even slipped a joke of their own into this prompt!
Essay Option 6
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). 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!
If you aren't feeling any of the other five optional prompts, you can respond to this one, which asks you to choose and respond to a past UChicago optional essay prompt, or write and respond to your own prompt. With either option, you'll want to consider your identity, interests, strengths, and goals, and let those factors inform which prompt you choose, how you write your own prompt, and how you craft your response.
You may not feel up to the task of writing your own prompt, but you might like the idea of tracking down an old prompt that catches your eye. Read through the past prompts and consider which one will allow you to play to your strengths. If there's a particular experience or skill that you want to showcase in your response, select a prompt that is conducive to that.
Alternatively, if there's a specific experience you want to write about, you can write your own prompt and respond to it. To write your prompt, use the tone and structure of the existing UChicago prompts as a guide. It'll probably come as no surprise that your original prompt should fit right in with the ones provided on the application. This means you might have to be a little goofy, cryptic, or risky...and that's a good thing!
Though this option allows you to write your own prompt if you so choose, it's important to remember that your response to the prompt should still focus on showcasing who you are, what strengths you will bring to UChicago as a student, and why UChicago is the perfect place for you. Don't get too carried away trying to impress admissions with punny phrases or cryptic logic; be authentic, be bold, and be you.
Some people shy away from this prompt because they feel like it's "cheating" or less impressive to not follow one of the specific prompts that UChicago gives. However, this isn't true! As long as you write a compelling essay that gives readers a better insight into who you are, your essay will strengthen your application. For what it's worth, when I applied to UChicago, this is the prompt I chose, and I was still accepted to the school.
Topics to Avoid
UChicago wants you to be creative here, so there aren't many topics that are off limits. However, you're trying to convince them that you'd be a great an interesting student to add to their school, so make sure you use your essay to show who you are and why UChicago would want to admit you.
This means you should avoid responses that don't give readers a good idea of who you are. (For example, if you choose essay option 1, don't just state that you're imagining Pluto to be made out of black diamonds. You'd want to tie it back to yourself and your life by explaining the reasoning. For example, maybe you have a treasured family heirloom with a black diamond, and you'd want to harvest those diamonds on Pluto so everyone could have a black diamond that means as much to them as yours does to you.)
Because these prompts are creative, it can be easy to run away with them, but always remember to answer the prompt completely and give UChicago better insight into who you are.
Additionally, don't feel that certain University of Chicago essay prompts are "better" or more impressive than others. UChicago wouldn't have chosen these essay topics if they didn't think applicants could write outstanding responses to them, so please choose the prompt that you can feel you can write the best essay for.
University of Chicago Essay Examples
In this section are two University of Chicago essay examples, each written by an accepted applicant.
Below each UChicago supplement essay we discuss what makes the essay work so well.
Dear University of Chicago,It fills me up with that gooey sap you feel late at night when I think about things that are really special to me about you. Sometimes I just hunger for more, but I keep that a secret. The mail you send is such a tease; I like to imagine additional words on the page. Words like "you're accepted" or "you're awesome!" or "don't worry, she still loves you!" but I know they're all lies. You never called after that one time, I visited you thrice, but you never come around anymore. Tell me, was I just one in a line of many? Was I just another supple "applicant" to you, looking for a place to live, looking for someone to teach me the ways of the world? The closeness between us was beautiful, it couldn't have been just me that felt it, I know you felt it too. The intimacy was akin to that of scholar and original text, your depth as a person is astounding! To be honest, I must confess I had already dreamt of a rosy future together, one filled with late nights and long discussions over the Gothic era and the ethical stage of Kierkegaard, we would watch the sunset together and spend every Christmas snuggled in blankets. Eventually we would get older, I would become a well-educated corporate lawyer and you would enrich yourself within the domain of human knowledge. Your cup overfloweth with academic genius, pour a little on me. You're legendary for it, they all told me it would never work out between us, but I had hope. I had so much hope; I replied to your adorable letters and put up with your puns. I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around, I accounted for all that; I understand someone of your caliber and taste.
And now you inquire as to my wishes? They're simple, accept me for who I am! Why can't you just love and not ask why? Not ask about my assets or my past? I'm living in the now, I'm waiting for you to catch up, but you're too caught up in my past, I offer us a future together, not a past to dwell upon. Whenever I'm around you, I just get that tingle deep inside me that tells me you're the one; you have that air of brilliance and ingenuity that I crave in a person, you're so mature and sophisticated, originality is really your strongest and most admirable trait. I wish we could be together, I still think in my heart of hearts we were meant to be, but you have to meet me halfway, dear. I'm on one knee here with tears welling up in my eyes, the fireworks are timed and ready to light up the night sky for you, just say 'I accept...you.'
Why Does This Essay Work?
- Creative take on a standard prompt: The writer chose a very unique angle for this essay: comparing the University of Chicago to a lover. He's probably the first applicant to answer the essay prompt this way, which definitely makes this a memorable essay. In fact, UChicago loved this essay so much that they mailed it out to thousands of potential applicants (which actually got them a bit of backlash). You absolutely don't have to take as unique an approach to this essay as the above writer did, but doing so can definitely help your essay stand out.
- It answers the entire prompt: Even though this is an unusual essay, the writer still manages to answer everything the prompts asks for. He mentions his goal for the future (to become a lawyer), mentions varied interests he has (the Gothic era, the philosopher Kierkegaard), and explains what he likes about UChicago (the brilliance, ingenuity, and originality the school offers). He even manages to mention that he visited campus three times, which shows a serious interest in the school. If you choose to write an especially offbeat essay, it's key to do what this essay did and still answer the prompt while being creative.
This essay is from several years ago, so it doesn't use a current prompt, but it's still helpful to read and analyze.
Here 's the prompt:
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.
Now let's take a look at the successful essay:
The Illuminati changed my life. Three years ago, I found my first ambigram in one of my favorite novels, Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I turned the page, and there it was: the word "Illuminati" printed into the exact center of the book. It was styled like a newspaper masthead, exquisite and complex, yet oddly symmetric. Curious, I rotated the book upside-down.
Impossibly, the inverted word was still "Illuminati." Gazing closer, I realized that the letters, I-L-L-U-M, actually shaped into a flipped I-N-A-T-I. Suddenly, I was reading it in both directions. My eyes waltzed along the broad curves and sharp twists of the calligraphy, striking poses in a glamorous font against a sheet of creamy whiteness, sliding between the dense vertical strokes, peering at the edge of the defined serif as it angled away, then bent boldly toward me. Every line was deliberate, every flourish smiling with purpose, and the whole word balanced on the delicate cord that joined two letters into one. It was unforgettable.
Ambigrams are words that can be read from different directions. Actually, "ambigram" is an umbrella term that encompasses dozens of distinct types of visual wordplay. The most popular ones are rotational, mirror image, and-my personal favorites-symbiotic ambigrams, which can spell two different things when viewed normally and upside-down.
Compelled by the striking art, I could not help but try my own hand at designing ambigrams, and slowly I felt the pitiful stick-figure artist inside me shrink away as my inner energetic graphic designer sprang up. Before early volleyball tournaments, I work myself up by filling up pages and pages of experimental letter combinations, gleefully satisfied at the way that a rounded lowercase "a" was a perfect upside-down lowercase "e." In my AP Literature class, I drew "She's a witch!" which revealed, when flipped, "Communist" to reflect Arthur Miller's contemporary motives for writing The Crucible. On a challenge from a friend, I even drew an ambigram of "Jay-Z" and "Beyonce" on a bumpy bus ride back from a leadership retreat.
In the last few months, I have also practiced drawing ambigrams as fast as I can. I dream about the day when I can effortlessly write out a message saying "Hi, how are you today?" normally and "The password is cherry268" upside-down, without pausing or rotating the paper. I imagine a world in which everyone had this ability, and could literally write two things at once. How would that change communication? Encryption? Trust? My legs swing comfortably from this innovative edge, excited to take a stab at the answers.
The best part about the ambigram is that it refuses to define itself as just one thing. It is a linguistic passion, a cryptographic endeavor, an artistic design, and an ironic illusion. I relish the fact that ambigrams force both the artist and the audience to reject first glances and embrace secret identities.
This may just be a nerdy obsession, but ambigrams have taught me far more than how to sketch fancy words. Their multidimensional truth implies that my hobbies of both writing Italian sonnets and solving logical riddles are not opposing functions of my left and right brains, but rather, a perfect conglomeration of my passion for creating and solving puzzles. The beauty of the most surprising combinations reminds me to take bold risks in both my life and my designs.
Above all else, ambigrams have taught me that I can create the impossible. I can make true and false the same word depending on something as simple as a 180-degree head turn. Victory can be defeat. Open can be closed. Am amateur piano player with an obsession for cryptology can learn how to program iPhone apps and get the game-winning kill at the varsity volleyball championship. A girl with divorced parents can make time for both families, and an inspired teenager from California can write her name into world history--both normally and upside-down.
Why This Essay Works
- Shows passion: This essay focuses a pretty unusual and specific topic: ambigrams. While many people may not even know what an ambigram is, the writer is clearly passionate about them. She discusses how much time she spends trying to create different ambigrams, what her goals for ambigram creating are, and some of her favorite ambigrams she's created. UChicago loves people who are passionate about something, even it's an unusual or offbeat interest. It makes UChicago believe those students will bring that passion with them onto campus.
- Gives insight into the writer's personality: The majority of this essay is about the author's interest in ambigrams, but she also manages to cleverly slip in multiple other references to her personality and interests. From her essay, we learn that she's a volleyball player, writes Italian sonnets, and loves solving puzzles. Adding these details gives UChicago a fuller look at what makes her tick.
- Connects it to a bigger picture: The writer chose to write about a very specific topic: ambigrams, but was still able to connect that to bigger concepts, such communication, truth, and how she's able to balance her different interests. She's able to take a quirky topic and show how it influences her worldview.
Final Advice: UChicago Essays
When answering the University of Chicago essay prompts, keep in mind that the main reason UChicago is reading these essays is to find out who you are as a person and if you'd be a good fit at their school.
The University of Chicago wants students who are passionate about learning, creative, are excited to make the most of their time on campus, and have big dreams for themselves, and the UChicago supplement questions are designed to help you show these sides of yourself to the school.
For the "Why UChicago?" prompt, you'll want to show the school why you want to go there, why you think you're a good fit for the school, and how UChicago will help you achieve your goals during college and beyond.
For the extended essay, you can (and should) be more creative. These UChicago essays are more "out there," and in your response, you should show your personality and passion for learning.
For both University of Chicago essays, remember to show who you are and what you're passionate about, include details about yourself and the school to help you stand out from other essays, and mention your plans and goals for the future.
If you want a more in-depth look how to write about Question 1, check out our guide to the Why UChicago Essay, which includes an additional sample essay along with analysis of how to answer this prompt.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.