UPDATE: For the 2016-2017 Chicago post, click here.
It’s finally here. The famous Admissions Hero dissection of the infamous University of Chicago supplement. These essays are annually notorious for their difficulty and peculiarity. Our very own Vinay Bhaskara (UChicago ’17) offers his best advice for tackling these questions in this comprehensive post.
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 is, for the most part, a standard “Why School X” essay, and our analysis of it is largely tied to that principle. The “Why School X” essay is what we like to call a “check-the-box” essay. It generally will not get you into a school unless your essay is incredibly good, but a poorly written or mediocre “Why School X” essay may keep you out. The key to this type of essay is to avoid platitudes, such as “the campus is beautiful,” or the “students have a tight knit community.” Whenever possible, you want to refer to factors that are specific and unique to the University of Chicago. Creating an exhaustive list of such factors would require several thousand words of writing; however, the following are a few distinctive factors gleaned from my time (admittedly brief) at the university. We would caution readers that there are plenty more factors than are presented on this list, and that research (at least an hour or so) would do well towards finding the specifics most suitable for each applicant’s profile. We would also warn readers that unless they plan on reading through fifteen years worth of Scav lists, name-dropping Scav will likely hurt you.
- The University of Chicago is a bastion of free market economics (at least relative to peer institutions) and is noted historically for housing Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, amongst other laureates of the “Chicago School” of economics
- The University of Chicago has a thriving political activism scene, but political debate at the university is unusually concentrated around the Institute of Politics, headed by political savant David Axelrod
- The “Where Fun Goes to Die” axiom has some truth to it, but it really should be translated as “If you enjoy learning and/or working hard, U Chicago is the place for you.” If you can have fun with academics, UChicago is an above average place
- The learning community at UChicago has an unusual fascination with Durkheim
- Theoretical knowledge is prized over practical knowledge, though as with all generalizations about UChicago, this effect has softened somewhat in recent years
- If you like to / are good at writing, the Core will be a happy / successful place for you.
- Grade deflation is fierce, but the ethos of truly earning an “A” or “B” is rewarding if you can survive the stress and deal with occasional failure
These are just a snippet, and between the internet, conversations with actual UChicago students, and even published materials, you can learn far more.
Question 2 (Optional):
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.
Another “Check the box” question, but here the key is to avoid giving the admissions counselors what they want to see. Pick some facet of your personality, or the organizing theme of your application, and generate lists of items in those spheres.
For example, I chose to list out my favorite airlines, airports, aircraft, aircraft programs, and other aviation-related items (see my biography if it’s unclear why).
And don’t be afraid to share some silly (non-academic or non-erudite) items, especially if they can be juxtaposed against a core theme to help balance out your personality. For example, I could have opted to list my favorite romantic comedies as a connoisseur of such films (Number 1 is It Could Happen to You for those interested in rom-coms). Don’t shy away from something like that.
EXTENDED ESSAY (REQUIRED; CHOOSE ONE)
1) What’s so odd about odd numbers?
-Inspired by Mario Rosasco, Class of 2009
This prompt offers a strong platform for discussing challenges in terms of ostracization or exclusion from society or even school. Topics such as bullying, struggles with sexual orientation, or racial identity could all be tackled by using the word “odd” as a basis to explore them, though choosing a light topic (such as the time you couldn’t go on a field trip because of a broken leg – unless written in a clearly satirical manner) would likely not be as impactful.
Another option is to use this prompt as a base to explore a passion for data analysis, math, numbers, or even patterns. For example, a particularly interesting approach to this essay could be to ruminate on your love for math in paragraphs with the sentence lengths of the Fibonacci sequence. Basically, you would write paragraphs in the following manner, each discussing a portion of why you love math, describing your experiences with math, or exploring how math guides your future plans. The first paragraph would be a blank space (0), two one sentence paragraphs (1,1), one two sentence paragraph (2), a three sentence paragraph (3), a five sentence paragraph (5), an eight sentence paragraph (8), and so forth. The text would just be presented as if it were normal, but at the end you could point out the pattern as well. Regardless of how you do it, use this essay as an option to explore a genuine curiosity in whatever “pattern” or “odd thing” you choose.
2)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, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
This prompt offers a strong opportunity to explore a deep interest or passionate hobby, and in certain cases, even lends itself to a bit of an academic and reflective tone. The key is to pull out a word, phrase, or even sound that is unique to that field and use it as a metaphor for your life, or to build a web of analogies to your life.
For example, a classically trained Indian singer might take the traditional Carnatic notes of “Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-…” might argue against translation into the standard Western musical notes “A, B, C, D, E, F, G” (these are not the direct comparisons I am aware, but I am not a musician by training) because the Carnatic ones carry the weight of India’s history of achievement and a certain freedom from Western control. This lends itself to rich and powerful academic writing, but the real trick will be to tie the essay back to yourself, perhaps by discussing how Carnatic music allows your Indian roots to resonate in a way that playing a song with Indian influences on the viola simply would not. You could also argue the converse and claim that blending Western and Carnatic music (by giving more Westerners the ability to play Carnatic music) would help in the process of cultural assimilation, and on a personal level, allow you to convey the meaning that your Indian heritage holds. Likely, you have your own interesting cultural idiosyncrasy; this is the essay to explore it.
3) 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, an incoming student in the Class of 2018
While it may be tempting to choose something with the preface “Three,” as hinted at in the prompt, a more palatable option might be to separate your personality/life into three distinct parts. Each part would represent a different facet of you, and tying them together would allow you to create a distinctive, yet harmonized personality. While the three items can be unique, one or several paragraphs should be devoted to explaining and exploring the interconnectivity. If your application has a common theme, picking three items within that theme would add to the novelty of the essay.
For example, my group of three would be Boeing Field in Seattle, London City Airport, and Hyderabad Airport. Boeing Field in Seattle (obviously) would represent aviation. London City Airport is the closest airport to Canary Wharf and the London School of Economics and thus would represent my academic interest, while Hyderabad Airport (Hyderabad is home to the Telugu movie industry) would represent my love for Indian films. The broader synthesis is that I was passionate about aviation, which took up the bulk of my time. In the same manner that investment bankers operate, I am rigorous and data-driven and tend to apply economic principles to make day-to-day decisions. And when I unwind (whether through film or sport), I head in the complete opposite direction towards as little thinking as possible, which is supported by the delicious inanity of Telugu film. Constructing an essay around these parameters would be the goal.
4) Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)
-Inspired by Joshua Harris, Class of 2016
Once again this essay offers an opportunity to explore one’s personality, and a conventional approach would place someone who is high strung and works well with stress (such as yours truly) at the top of the list with a high pH of 1 or 2 (remember that pH is an inverse scale), while placing someone unflappable at a pH of 12 or 13. This is certainly an option that you could pursue, and obviously this prompt has strong appeal to those who are passionate about science. For you guys, utilizing the chemistry peg of pH, perhaps to write a series of acid-base reactions that illustrate your personality (each one covering a facet), might be a useful strategy.
However, the secret opportunity here is for those who are passionate about art. Most paints (save watercolors) have a specific pH value. Pick your favorite color of paint, try to find out its pH value (and you can use the internet), and use that as the peg for your essay. Your favorite color is frequently a reflection of some facet of your personality, and considering that could provide you with an interesting opportunity.
5) A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of “here”, but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one).
-Inspired by Erin Hart, Class of 2016
This question seems rather existential, and that is a potential opportunity for those who enjoy philosophical discussions. In particular, this essay lends itself extremely well to various academic treatments. Those who are scientifically oriented could discuss the nature of matter (and the unresolved question of dark matter) or the physics of communication (speech – which enables human society to “be here”), while social sciences-oriented students could reference classical thinkers to build a case to answer the questions. While normally focusing exclusively on academic, or even dry content is a significant risk, the University of Chicago has a healthy respect for theoretical learning. And for students passionate about learning, or even research, this is conveying an essential part of personality.
Another direction for this essay is to explore a significant life event that has brought you to where you are. Examples include moving to different locations, changing familial situations that have interrupted your life, or even natural catastrophes you have faced. Whatever you choose, you can use this essay to tie in your life story – provided it is significantly unique or interesting. For example, a Chinese American who is not the oldest sibling in the family could write about how China’s One-Child Policy prompted his or her parents to move to the United States, bringing about a slew of different opportunities. The writer could then take this essay into a slightly academic direction, discussing China’s policy and its socioeconomic effects. Alternatively, one could take this essay into a cultural direction and discuss the cultural differences that exist between China and the US. Of course, this is just one example; it’s up to you to find a situation that conveys your story best.
6) In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. 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.
Here we will repeat our advice from last year’s identical prompt, because it still holds true. This essay really poses the highest risk but also the highest potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to write an innovative essay that either tackles a difficult or controversial topic (for example, my essay from last year tackled why mainstream Hollywood films are more valuable than seemingly more intellectual independent films), or presents the information with a unique format (such as a conversation with a dead historical figure).
For more ideas in the train of thought needed to tackle these UChicago essays, check out Vinay’s dissection of last year’s supplement. As application time rolls around, we will continue to update this post with more suggestions to ensure that your UChicago essays are excellent, so keep checking back. However, this should be enough to get you started. Best of luck!
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
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Writing the Scholarship Essay: by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
The personal essay.
It’s the hardest part of your scholarship application. But it’s also the part of the application where the ‘real you’ can shine through. Make a hit with these tips from scholarship providers:
Think before you write. Brainstorm to generate some good ideas and then create an outline to help you get going. Be original. The judges may be asked to review hundreds of essays. It’s your job to make your essay stand out from the rest. So be creative in your answers. Show, don’t tell. Use stories, examples and anecdotes to individualize your essay and demonstrate the point you want to make. By using specifics, you’ll avoid vagueness and generalities and make a stronger impression. Develop a theme. Don’t simply list all your achievements. Decide on a theme you want to convey that sums up the impression you want to make. Write about experiences that develop that theme. Know your audience. Personal essays are not ‘one size fits all.’ Write a new essay for each application-one that fits the interests and requirements of that scholarship organization. You’re asking to be selected as the representative for that group. The essay is your chance to show how you are the ideal representative. Submit an essay that is neat and readable. Make sure your essay is neatly typed, and that there is a lot of ‘white space’ on the page. Double-space the essay, and provide adequate margins (1″-1 1/2″) on all sides. Make sure your essay is well written. Proofread carefully, check spelling and grammar and share your essay with friends or teachers. Another pair of eyes can catch errors you might miss.
Special thanks to the scholarship specialists who contributed these tips:
TROA Scholarship Fund
Kathy Borunda, Corporate Development
Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Foundation
The American Legion
Patti Cohen, Program Manager
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation
AFSA Scholarship Programs
Thomas Murphy, Executive Director
Konieg Education Foundation
Lisa Portenga, Scholarship Coordinator
The Fremont Area Foundation
Practice Session: Common Essay Questions — by Roxana Hadad
The essay — It’s the most important part of your scholarship application, and it can be the hardest. But the essay shouldn’t keep you from applying. Take a look at some of the most commonly asked essay questions and use them to prepare for your scholarship applications. Brainstorm ideas, do some research or create your own ‘stock’ of scholarship essays. When the time comes, you’ll be ready to write your way to scholarship success!
Your Field of Specialization and Academic Plans
Some scholarship applications will ask you to write about your major or field of study. These questions are used to determine how well you know your area of specialization and why you’re interested in it.
- How will your study of _______ contribute to your immediate or long range career plans?
- Why do you want to be a _______?
- Explain the importance of (your major) in today’s society.
- What do you think the industry of _______ will be like in the next 10 years?
- What are the most important issues your field is facing today?
Current Events and Social Issues
To test your skills at problem-solving and check how up-to-date you are on current issues, many scholarship applications include questions about problems and issues facing society.
- What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
- If you had the authority to change your school in a positive way, what specific changes would you make?
- Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
- What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?
Scholarships exist to reward and encourage achievement. You shouldn’t be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.
- Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
- Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
- Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your field of study and your future goals.
- Why are you a good candidate to receive this award
Background and Influences
Who you are is closely tied to where you’ve been and who you’ve known. To learn more about you, some scholarship committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.
- Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
- Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
- How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
- How has your education contributed to who you are today?
Future Plans and Goals
Scholarship sponsors look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.
- Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
- Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
- Why do you want to get a college education?
Many scholarship providers have a charitable goal: They want to provide money for students who are going to have trouble paying for college. In addition to asking for information about your financial situation, these committees may want a more detailed and personal account of your financial need.
- From a financial standpoint, what impact would this scholarship have on your education?
- State any special personal or family circumstances affecting your need for financial assistance.
- How have you been financing your college education?
Some essay questions don’t seem directly related to your education, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a more well-rounded sense of your personality.
- Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
- Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.
While you can’t predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications. Start brainstorming now, and you may find yourself a winner!
Essay Feedback: Creating Your Structure — by Kay Peterson, Ph.D.
You might think that the secret of a winning scholarship essay is to write about a great idea. But that’s only half the job. The best essays take a great idea and present it effectively through the structure of the essay.
To see how important structure is, let’s look at an essay by Emily H. In her application for the UCLA Alumni Scholarship, Emily responds to the following essay topic: “Please provide a summary of your personal and family background, including information about your family, where you grew up, and perhaps a highlight or special memory of your youth.”
Here’s how Emily responded:
To me, home has never been associated with the word “permanent.” I seem to use it more often with the word “different” because I’ve lived in a variety of places ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California. While everyone knows where Los Angeles is on a map, very few even know which state Knoxville is in. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live in the east and west and to view life from two disparate points.
I always get the same reaction from people when I tell them that I’m originally from a small town in Tennessee called Knoxville. Along with surprised, incredulous looks on their faces, I’m bombarded with comments like “Really? You don’t sound or look as if you’re from Tennessee.” These reactions are nearly all the same because everyone sees me as a typical Californian who loves the sunny weather, the beach and the city. They don’t know that I lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, before I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then moved again to Knoxville, Tennessee. The idea of my living anywhere in the vicinity of the South or any place besides California is inconceivable to many because I’ve adapted so well to the surroundings in which I currently find myself. This particular quality, in a sense, also makes me a more cosmopolitan and open-minded person. Having already seen this much of the world has encouraged me to visit other places like Paris or London and the rest of the world. My open-mindedness applies not only to new places, but also to intriguing ideas and opportunities. This attitude towards life prepares me for the vast array of opportunities that still lie ahead in the future. From my experiences of moving place to place, I have also come to acknowledge the deep bond I share with my family. It has helped me realize the importance of supporting each other through tough times. Moving from Tennessee to California meant saying good-bye to the house we had lived in for six years, longtime friends and the calm, idyllic lifestyle of the country that we had grown to love and savor. But knowing that we had each other to depend on made the transition easier. It also strengthened the bond we all shared and placed more value on the time we spent with each other, whether it was at home eating dinner or going on a family trip. Now when I think of the word “home,” I see the bluish-gray house I live in now. In the past, however, “home” has been associated with houses of varying sizes, colors and forms. The only thing that has remained unchanging and permanent is my family. I have acknowledged this constancy, knowing well enough that it is, and always will be, a part of me and a unique part of my life.
Los Angeles is one of many places in which I’ve lived. This fact by itself has had a tremendous impact on me.
This kind of essay topic can be difficult because it is very general. Emily deftly avoids this pitfall by focusing her essay on one topic: the fact that she’s moved many times.
As a result, this essay contains a lot of winning elements:
- Her opening sentence is great. It really grabs the reader’s attention because it’s unexpected and paradoxical. We want to learn more about her.
- Her story is unique; she doesn’t rely on clichés.
- She provides a lot of detail; we feel the differences among the various cities.
- She’s focused the account so we learn just enough, not too much.
- She tells us why these events are important. Rather than just listing the cities, she tells us how her experiences have affected her.
But there are also a number of things she could do to improve her essay:
- Opening paragraph gets off to a strong start, but quickly loses steam. The last sentence is too vague.
- The second paragraph is far too long, and covers too many ideas.
- The transitions among the various ideas are underdeveloped. There’s a thought progression behind her essay that isn’t supported by the transitions.
- Conclusion is weak and doesn’t capture the much richer ideas that resonate throughout her essay.
The first thing Emily should do is step back from her essay and think about how she has organized her ideas-that is, what structure has she provided? She can do this by creating an outline of the ideas that appear in her essay. It should look something like this:
a. Emily has lived in a lot of places
b. Emily has viewed life from two disparate points.
2. Body (one paragraph)
a. People don’t guess that Emily is not originally from California.
b. That’s because she has adapted so well to her current environment.
c. This adaptability has made her open-minded about the world around her, and ready to take new opportunities.
d. She’s also learned to recognize and value the bond with her family, which gives her a sense of permanence throughout all the changes.
3. Conclusion: Los Angeles is one of the places she has lived.
As we can see, Emily’s essay is jam-packed with good ideas. With the exception of the conclusion (which she should cut), everything in here is meaningful and necessary. What she needs to do now is identify the most important idea for the whole essay and then rearrange the points so that they support that idea.
What is the overriding idea? I identified a number of fruitful ideas that involve these various points:
- Constant change has been challenging, but learning how to deal with change has made Emily ready for more challenges in the future.
- Constant change has had a paradoxical effect on Emily: It’s taught her both how to be adaptable and how determine what is truly permanent (i.e. her family).
- Constant change has taught her all about different parts of the country, but has also taught her that while she grows and changes, she’ll still remain the same person she always was.
Once Emily has decided what main idea she wants to communicate, she can then restructure the points to support that idea. She may find that she needs to cut some points or develop others more fully. The key is to make it clear how those points relate to the central idea and to use meaningful transitions that point the way to the next idea.
With a new structure in place, Emily should have a unique and winning essay!
**OTHER WINNING TIPS**
Once you have determined which scholarships you will apply for, write to them and ask for their scholarship application and requirements. The letter can be a general request for information “form” letter that can be photocopied, but you should be specific about the name of the scholarship you are inquiring about on the envelope.
Write to each source as far in advance of their scholarship deadline as possible and don’t forget to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) — it not only expedites their reply, but some organizations won’t respond without one.
Remember, on the outside of the envelope, list the name of the specific scholarship you are inquiring about. That way, the person opening the mail will know where to direct your inquiry.
Here is an example of what your letter might look like:
XYZ Corporation (Ian Scott Smith Scholarship)
1234 56th Street, Suite 890
Metropolis, FL 00000-0000
Dear Scholarship Coordinator:
I am a (college) student (give academic year) and will be applying for admission to (a graduate) program for academic year 20__ – __.
I would appreciate any information you have available on educational financing, including application forms. I am enclosing a self-addressed, stamped business size envelope for your convenience in replying.
Daniel J. Cassidy
2280 Airport Boulevard
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Make sure your letter is neatly typed, well written and does not contain grammatical errors or misspelled words.
When filling out scholarship application forms, be complete, concise and creative. People who read these applications want to know the real you, not just your name. The application should clearly emphasize your ambitions, motivations and what makes you different. Be original!
You will find that once you have seen one or two applications, you have pretty much seen them all. Usually they are one or two pages asking where you are going to school, what you are going to major in and why you think you deserve the scholarship. Some scholarship sources require that you join their organization. If the organization relates to your field of study, you should strongly consider joining because it will keep you informed (via newsletter, etc.) about developments in that field.
Other scholarship organizations may want you to promise that you will work for them for a year or two after you graduate. The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund offers a scholarship for up to $20,000 for journalism, broadcasting, and communications students with the understanding that the student will intern for them for two years. This could even yield a permanent job for the student.
Your application should be typewritten and neat. I had a complaint from one foundation about a student who had an excellent background and qualifications but used a crayon to fill out the application.
Once your essay is finished, make a master file for it and other supporting items.
Photocopy your essay and attach it to the application.
If requested include: a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), extracurricular activities sheet (usually one page), transcripts, SAT, GRE, or MCAT scores, letters of recommendation (usually one from a professor, employer and friend) outlining your moral character and, if there are any newspaper articles, etc. about you, it is a good idea to include them as well.
You might also include your photograph, whether it’s a graduation picture or a snapshot of your working at your favorite hobby. This helps the selection committee feel a little closer to you. Instead of just seeing a name, they will have a face to match it.
Mail your applications in early, at least a month before the deadline.
**Dr. Peterson has won numerous college and graduate scholarships, including the Jacob Javits Fellowship, the University of California Regents Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship.