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The 7 UChicago Essay Prompts: How to Write Stellar Responses

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Sep 15, 2019 12:00:00 PM

College Essays



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? 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 2019/2020 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 around 250-500 words.

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. UChicago recommends this essay be around 650 words. (While they can be longer, the admissions office recommends against it!)

Below are the essay prompts for the 2019/2020 school year.


Essay Option 1: 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?


Essay Option 2: 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.

Essay Option 3: A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a ______?

Essay Option 4: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West

Essay Option 5: UChicago has international campus centers around the world, but we don't have any interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional campuses… yet! Propose a spot in time or space, in this or any universe, for a new UChicago campus. What types of courses would be taught at this site? What cultural experiences await students who study there?

Essay Option 6: “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

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!



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
  • Discussing 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. 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.


Topic 1

You don't have to know anything about cat biology, retro video games, or chemistry to answer this prompt. At its core, this question is asking you to take a common idea--assigning objects a set number of "tries"--and apply it to something else.

Remember: the goal of these essays is to let your creativity shine while helping admissions counselors learn a little more about you. With that in mind, we recommend picking an item that either has personal significance to you or has significance in regards to your future major or career. For instance, if you're majoring in history, you might talk about the Titanic and its disintegration. It gives you the opportunity to discuss how we think historical objects have hundreds of lives and will be around forever, but they're actually delicate and temporary. This gives you an avenue to talk about why you love history and why the field is important.

You also have the chance to creatively tie this prompt to your personal life philosophies if you'd like. After all, you only have one life, and you want to spend part of it at UChicago.


Topic 2

At first glance, this topic seems pretty weird. After all, we all know that there's no such thing as truly "endless" breadsticks! But in actuality, this topic is asking you to combine two high-level skills: your knowledge of a specific field (like biology or theology) and your ability to apply that reasoning to a completely different question.

The trick here is to accurately represent the lens (or body of knowledge) you choose to use while thinking about the question from new and fresh angles. For example, if you're majoring in business, you might talk about how you could totally reimagine the supply chain to keep the breadsticks coming!


Topic 3

There are two steps to answering this prompt. First, you have to figure out how to fill in the blanks, then you need to talk about why you chose

At this point, you've already aced analogies on your SAT or ACT--so you can tell that the sentence is setting up a series of categorial comparisons. For example, if a sandwich is defined as meat between two pieces of bread, then a hot dog can be considered a sandwich! So your first step is to set up your own technically-correct-but-still-slightly-offbeat parallel. Take some time to make sure you're setting up an interesting comparison that matches the two examples you've been given: if you whiff on this part, you'll have a hard time answering the prompt correctly.

Once you do that, it's time to answer the question you've just posed! Once again, we recommend that you tie your answer back to your intended studies, your professional goals, or your personality. And because this prompt deals with perspective (is cereal a soup? That's kind of up to you!), you have a chance to showcase yours.


Topic 4

Ah, yes. The good ol' "throw out a quote and talk about it" prompt. The nice part about a prompt like this is that it's super flexible: as long as you're addressing the quote in a meaningful way, you're on the right track.

While there are tons of ways you can tackle this essay, we're going to give you two examples. The first way you can deal with such an open-ended topic is to address the substance of the quote itself. In this case, Ward is talking about art: while fiction isn't strictly true, it has the ability to reveal the truth in ways that straight-up facts might not. Do you think she's right? Why or why not?

The second way you could potentially address this prompt is by applying it to your own personal experience. Has there been a time in your life when something not true has felt or held more truth for you than reality?

Like we mentioned earlier, these prompts are all about creativity and creative thinking. These are just two approaches you can use...don't be afraid to come up with your own!


Topic 5

This is a great option for people who are creative problem solvers. Obviously UChicago can't actually set up a campus on Mars--this is more of a thought experiment that puts your logic and creativity on display! In some ways, this prompt is the embodiment of Jessamyn Ward's quote: by talking about something fictional, you'll have a chance to show the admissions committee something true about yourself.

Don't be afraid to use your imagination here. It might even be useful for you to write a longer description of the campus, classes, and programs before you tackle your essay. This can give you a stronger vision of what you're writing about, which will make your essay better, too. This is one of those prompts specifically designed to encourage you to push your limits, so embrace it!


Topic 6

If none of the other prompts speak to you, you can always come up with your own and answer it. This is a good option if you have something specific in mind you want to write about but the topic doesn't fit any of the prompts. When I applied to UChicago, I really wanted to write about a summer I spent on an archaeological team since it was important to me and I felt it showcased my strengths. None of the prompts that year fit, so I made up my own.


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 5, don't just state that you'd create a spell that blocked out all nearby sound. You'd want to tie it back to yourself and your life by explaining the reasoning. For example, maybe you have a grandparent living with you, and you want them to be able to relax in peace.)

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.


Question 1

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'




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.


Question 2

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.

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.

-Samantha M.


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.


What's Next?

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.

Are you working on the Common App essay? Read our breakdown of the Common App prompts and our guide to picking the best prompt for you.

If you're planning to take the SAT or ACT one last time, try out some of our famous test prep guides, like "How to Get a Perfect Score on the SAT" and "15 Key ACT Test Day Tips."


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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

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.

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