How to Write the University of Chicago Essays: The Scholar’s Guide

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The University of Chicago has an acceptance rate of 8.4%, and its application process can be daunting for even the most stellar applicants.

The University of Chicago is well known for its rigorous academics, heavy emphasis on scholarship, and beautiful campus. Prominent alumni include over 50 Rhodes Scholars, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and astronomer Carl Sagan.

If you want to attend the University of Chicago, you need to be serious about dedication to your chosen academic field.

The school prioritizes writing across the disciplines, so you want to make sure your supplemental essays are tidy, insightful, and maybe even a little offbeat.

This guide will help you write the best essays for this top school.

What are University of Chicago supplemental essay requirements?

You’ll need to write two essays when applying to the University of Chicago.

The first – the “Why The University of Chicago” – doesn’t change. It’s the humdrum essay that has the ability to influence the admissions committee to admit you as a student as much as it can turn the committee the other direction and keep you out.

The second, the extended essay, is a choice from a series of quirky and provocative questions inspired by current students and alumni, and these change each year.

The “Why Chicago” 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.

This essay is a prologue to your masterwork, the extended essay. Like all good prologues, this is the “hook” which will spark the interest of the admissions officer and keep her attention. What will pique her interest?

Well, there’s a pretty clear clue in the words “particular” and “specificity.” UChicago makes it very explicit: They want students who own and love their unique subculture and singular curiosities and know how they will thrive at their university. Here are some examples of how “particular” and “specificity” can be portrayed in this essay.

  • It’s good to write “I love literature written by marginalized groups,” but it’s better to say something like “I have a penchant for Spanish-language literature published in urban centers in the United States.”
  • Rather than write “I really enjoy rock music,” you can express that “Although I enjoy the majority of rock music, my tastes tend toward 1980s Hair Metal and Glam Rock, which I’m constantly explaining the difference to my friends.”
  • Instead of “I’m fascinated by the study of genetics,” write about how you “love reading research related to twin theories because there are some experiences with my twin that are hard to explain scientifically.”

The first example also shows the admissions office that their commitment to the South Side of Chicago will align with your commitment to urban literature. The last one could be relevant in the research around quantitative biology and human behavior at UChicago.

The prompt wants you to focus on your “learning,” “community”, and “future.” While you don’t necessarily want three equal paragraphs that focus on each one, you want to be sure to cover each of the bases throughout, so you should brainstorm each.

The following thought processes will also work well for most “Why This College” essays.

When considering your learning:

  1. ask yourself “What are my values?” Check out a core value chart, choose two or three that stand out right now, and write them down.
  2. The academic questions that inspire your curiosity are likely connected to these values.
  3. If you value “balance,” for example, you might be interested in questions pertaining to health, fitness, mental wellness, and the human body.

In order to identify your studies:

  1. ask yourself “What sorts of questions drive my studies?”
  2. So you’re good at physics? This is fine, but not enough. What’s about physics motivates you?
  3. Tell them about how you get lost in thoughts about gravitational time dilation while getting a haircut, or how your interest in aerodynamics was inspired by an inquiry on the dimples on golf balls.

When considering your community:

  1. ask yourself “What type of people do I spend my time with? What are their dreams, what makes them sad, and what makes them laugh?”
  2. Take a look at the university’s student organizations page and see if any of the 400 groups appeal to you. How would I thrive at the University of Chicago? If you’re a West Coast surfer, maybe you’ll aspire to start a Great Lakes Surf Club. If you like hiking or trail running, maybe you’ll organize weekend groups to trek the Indiana Dunes.
  3. Think about how you will balance your academics and the rest of your life.

When considering your future:

  1. ask yourself “What sort of mark would I like to make in the world?” Think beyond, “I want to make the world a better place.”
  2. Maybe you want to make the workplace more equitable or help change the values of the pharmaceutical industry.
  3. You don’t have to be definitive about your career, or even your major, but you do want to have some kind of vision that aligns with your values. How will the resources of UChicago support this vision?

Here you want to look up specific programs and classes. For example, if you’re interested in international business, describe how you plan to double major in Chinese and Economics and then spend a semester in Beijing.

  • Discuss what you hope to accomplish during your time there and what type of internship or experience will help you reach that achievement.

You’ll probably also want to take a campus tour. If you’re not able to visit the campus in person, take a virtual tour, meet with representatives at a college fair, and look at their brochures. Do your homework so you can speak with sincerity about the resources of UChicago, and how you can see yourself flourishing there.

  • While the essay has no instructions regarding word count or structure, the admissions office advises to keep it at 250-500 words.

Remember to keep your essay specific, and avoid generalities like “I will excel given the school’s rigorous academics.”

Tell them which academics, and how you will excel. Remember to cover everything – learning, community, and future – while artfully balancing both your aptitudes with an awareness of UChicago’s strengths and resources.

Need help with the University of Chicago essays and other applications? Our College Application Boot Camp will help you! Your first session is free.

The University of Chicago Extended Essay

The University of Chicago’s selectivity makes their quirky extended essay prompts all the more intimidating. Maybe this is another example of the school’s offbeat sense of fun.

In past years they’ve asked questions about odd numbers, vestigial structures, and mantis shrimps. There are some brief yet totally compelling prompts like, “Find x.”

  • All of their questions evoke a sense of play, and should demonstrate the applicant’s capacity for creative, incisive thought.

As the admissions office puts it, “We think of [the extended essay] as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.”

UChicago doesn’t give you a strict limit, but advises you to keep it under 650 words.

The following are a list of the 2017-2018 prompts, with tips and examples to help you as you brainstorm:

UCHI Essay Option 1

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.

-Inspired by Hannah Lu, Class of 2020 

Utilizing the “tree-mail” example, UChicago is interested to hear what physical objects you value in your life. You have the freedom to choose anything in the world as long as it’s something personal to you. Grab a piece of paper to start a list as you think through the following question.

  • What objects do you come into contact with each day?
  • What objects do you wish you had more contact with?
  • Are there any objects you’ll go out of your way to see?

Remember that object is an ambiguous term for this prompt. If a tree is considered an object, so can a building, purse, toothbrush, or stop sign. There is no size or quantity limit to what you decide is your valued object to write a letter to for this prompt.

Next, narrow your list to a few objects that have stronger meaning to you, and address what makes you value them.

  • Does the object ignite a positive memory?
  • Do the objects inspire you toward a future goal?
  • How would your life be different if you weren’t able to experience this object?
  • What emotions do you feel when this object is in sight or in your thoughts?

This prompt does provide a structure for your essay. You are writing a letter, so that means it should be structured like a letter.

  • Begin your essay with some sort of greeting like “Dear (object).”
  • End your essay with a salutation like “With Love” or “Yours Truly.”
  • Feel free to add a P.S. if it is appropriate and serves a purpose for your letter.

Keep in mind that the prompt mentions the “sweet and occasionally humorous letters” received, not the sad and depressing ones. Regardless of the content of your letter, you should aim for a sweet, humorous tone.

This is your opportunity to engage with your silly side while providing a well thought out letter that expresses why you value a certain object. If you’re laughing as you’re writing your letter, that is a good sign!

UCHI Essay Option 2

You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?

-Inspired by Chandani Latey, AB’93 

If you’ve ever wondered how someone could believe the Earth was flat, this is your chance to really put yourself in the mindset of those who thought that was true.

This is your opportunity to show off your problem-solving skills if you decide to try to get back on Earth, or at least to the other side. You can also show your sentimental side as you approach your impending doom because you just sailed off the edge of the Earth.

First, do some research about what life was like in the 13th century and what your life would have been like up to this point during that era. Create a story for yourself in a 13th-century setting.

  • Where you a noble person or a commoner?
  • What type of profession were you training for?
  • What was it like for the average 18-year-old?
  • What was your purpose sailing the seas at your age? What were you leaving behind?
  • Who and what would you miss if you didn’t return?

You have the chance to really make a story that engages the admissions committee to understand your thought process. You’ll want to stay away from bringing modern concepts into your essay. Your reaction needs to read as if it were possible from a 13th-century standpoint.

  • Whatever your response and reaction to this prompt, you want it to be authentic to you. Do not write what you think is the “smart answer” or that you would simply accept that you’re going to die.

If you’re creative, you can even write about what you believe would happen if the Earth was flat and you did fall off. No one can prove what you propose wouldn’t happen, so be creative but not overly wild with your imagination.

Who says you won’t float in space and have an opportunity to rope yourself back to Earth?

UCHI Essay Option 3

The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

Have you caught on that UChicago really values creative and out-of-the-box thinking yet? This prompt is no exception to that theme. If you’ve been making up words to fit your life narrative, then this is the essay you should really consider writing.

You can write about a word that you already created or come up with a brand new one to wow the admissions committee. Your word doesn’t need to be as long as floccinaucinihilipilification, but it should have some significant meaning to you.

  • Consider a way to combine three words that people commonly use to describe you. If you’re caring, smart, and reliable, you might be “resmarcariable.”
  • You can merge words that have the same meaning to create a mega word. For example, “smequenaccolo” is a combination of “small” (English), “pequeña” (Spanish), and “piccolo” (Italian). It’s meaning might be “really really really small” and used when describing how much you like math.
  • Is there a phrase that you’ve heard all your life? Do some research on its origin and attempt to make it one word. “Every cloud has a silver lining” could become “seolforclotline,” which is a mishmash of the Old English origins of silver, cloud, and lining.

The possibilities are literally endless because you are inventing your own word. For inspiration, grab a thesaurus and dictionary to look up random words that have similar meanings or to help you come up with your own unique word that you’ll share with the admissions committee.

UCHI Essay Option 4

Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in it or what is it? What does it do?

-Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021 

Here is your chance to channel your inner witch or wizard. Not only will you create your own magical spell but you can to also create the theatrics behind it.

  • It might be simple to say, “My spell doesn’t require anything simple; just say the word and (action) will happen,” but where is the fun in that?

You’ll be able to write a compelling instruction for your incantation if you choose something that would be valuable to your life that. It can even include a step that includes a hobby you enjoy. Here are some questions to get your brain potion brewing.

  • What would make my life easier if I didn’t need to do it every day? This could be a particular chore, driving to school, or being able to stay up all night with no consequences.
  • What superpower have you always wanted that would translate to a spell? If you’ve ever wanted to fly, become invisible, or access the internet without a computer, your spell can make it possible.
  • Are you a prankster that would love to cast an unnoticeable jinx? Think of being able to magically tune someone out, but you can still hear your name, or you can make a piece of candy change its flavor briefly then return to normal.

Amp up your spell with some a physical aspect. The prompt mentions potions and other magical objects, but those could be anything.

  • If you’re a tea or coffee lover, make that part of your special spell that lets you up all night.
  • Perhaps you need to write down a to-do list with a magic pen, perform a special spin with the paper, and then you’ll be able to instantly fall asleep at night.
  • If you have a favorite hat or jacket, that could be your token to become invisible if you whisper the magic word to it before putting it on.

Be sure to include the intention behind your spell and when you’d use it in your real life. The intention of you spell can speak to your character, so make sure you’re up to know good instead of causing mischief.

Becoming invisible to sneak into any movie you want will probably be frowned upon by the admissions committee.

UCHI Essay Option 5

Imagine you’ve struck a deal with the Dean of Admissions himself, Dean Nondorf. It goes as follows: you’re guaranteed admission to the University of Chicago regardless of any circumstances that arise. This bond is grounded on the condition that you’ll obtain a blank, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, and draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint etc., anything and everything you want on it; your only limitations will be the boundaries of both sides on the single page. Now the catch… your submission, for the rest of your life, will always be the first thing anyone you meet for the first time will see. Whether it’s at a job interview, a blind date, arrival at your first Humanities class, before you even say, “hey,” they’ll already have seen your page, and formulated that first impression. Show us your page. What’s on it, and why? If your piece is largely or exclusively visual, please make sure to share a creator’s accompanying statement of at least 300 words, which we will happily allow to be on its own, separate page.

PS: This is a creative thought experiment, and selecting this essay prompt does not guarantee your admission to UChicago.

-Inspired by Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022 

Consider this prompt an intensively creative “Tell me about yourself” question that is popular in interviews. Also, this prompt is almost limitless when it comes to how you can express yourself on the page.

You can literally do “anything and everything” on the page. The only limit you can interpret from this prompt is that you can’t change the size of the page.

You might be wondering how you’ll even start. Well, you’ll want to consider what it is you really want everyone to know about you since this will follow you the rest of your life in this scenario.

Since your admission is theoretically guaranteed, your goal should be to impress as much as it is to share who you are.

  • What is important that people know about you? These can be personality traits, physical characteristics, and hobbies you enjoy.
  • What accomplishments are you proud of in your life? What do you hope to accomplish? The prompt doesn’t limit you to things that have already happened so it’s fair game to portray a future goal on your page.
  • What are defining moments in your life so far? What moments do you hope will define you later? These might not be accomplishments, but maybe the birth of your sibling was a defining moment, or when you realized that you’re really good at chess.
  • Who is important to you? Is there someone you want in your life that isn’t yet? You’ve probably heard that the people you keep around you are a reflection on who you are, so who do you like to keep close? You can also imagine your future family or work environment and how that could play a role in who you hope to become.

After you’ve identified what you want to show the admissions committee to express what you want them to know about you, you’ll need to decide how to express it.

  • If you’re a prospective English major, consider writing as your medium. You can write an essay, draft a poem in iambic pentameter, or provide a page from the screenplay of your life.
  • For those gifted in visual art, you can choose to paint any style, draw with any tool, and more.
  • If you’re a film lover, you might draw a storyboard of important moments in your life using stick figures. You don’t have to be a world-class artist to draw something on your page.
  • A psychology major could paint an entire color spectrum, the include a description of how they identify with each color emotionally over that section of the page.
  • If you have an alter ego, express both on each side of the paper how you see fit.

Keep in mind that you have 300 words to describe anything that is purely visual. If you get carried away with filing your page with images and colors, but not words, make sure you can explain your decisions completely in 300 words.

This essay might end up not being an essay at all. The prompt says, “Show us your page.”

You are going to create the page, not describe it in an essay. Whatever you create, make sure you can scan it if you’re manually creating it, or if your chosen medium is digital, save it as a PDF.

UCHI 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.

So, in the end, they open up their coffers and allow you to write from a popular past prompt or create a prompt of your own. If none of the first five options speak to you, you can carefully read through the past prompts, and follow your gut.

Whether you choose a new prompt or an old one, you’ll want to honor your immediate reaction. The one that calls something to mind immediately is probably “the one” that will merit the best storytelling.

While other essays ask you to put your best foot forward, this one asks you to dance, and you dance with feeling, not just logic.

Your goal is to tell the admissions committee something about yourself that they don’t already know that will make them see you as a positive contribution to the UChicago community.

  • Whatever you do, keep it personal and try to tell a story. Feature some kind of tension or conflict that allows you to extrapolate a lesson learned or aspect of your personality not previously covered in your application.
  • What is still hidden from UChicago that you want to expose about yourself?

“Take a little risk” is provided in this create-your-own-prompt option, but some risks are better not taken.

Consult with trusted friends and family about your choice if you’re comfortable to see if they feel your decision will best compliment your application and is authentic to you.

Conclusion: Writing the University of Chicago Essays

The University of Chicago is a school that prides itself on academic, quirks, and offbeat traits. When writing your essays, don’t be afraid to demonstrate your uniqueness and vulnerability.

If you have special interests or perspectives that weren’t mentioned in your other supplemental essays, the University of Chicago essay is a great place to input those quirks.

The admissions site says these essays “can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between,” so really let your real personality shine.

Always check your work, revise with precision, and strive to craft a narrative.