University of Chicago Essay Prompts

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The University of Chicago requires two supplemental essays. One is a straightforward “Why Us” essay. The other is somewhat infamous, as UChicago asks strange questions for their second essay. The prompts are different every year and are submitted by current and former UChicago undergraduates.

These questions are difficult to answer. This is done on purpose, as the school is hoping applicants will self-select. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys thinking about and answering this prompt, you likely will not enjoy the overall experience at the school. Due to the nature of this prompt, it is difficult to give concrete advice about answering any specific question they ask. Instead, we will provide some examples of well-written answers and try to give general guidelines for answering these sorts of questions.

Why Us - Example

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.* (250-500)

Multispection (seeing from many angles) was never my strong suit. Instead, my innate desire to solve problems as efficiently as possible often gave me tunnel vision. It wasn’t until disaster struck my street during Hurricane Harvey that I learned the value of analyzing a subject from all sides.

I used the three weeks trapped in my house to wade into the muddy waters of public policy. It was only by scouring a vast array of disparate sources that I was able to painstakingly piece together the concrete consequences of decades-old decisions. How can we learn from disasters like Harvey to develop sustainable crisis response methods that prioritize personal safety?

UChicago’s emphasis on engaging with a wide range of perspectives from various disciplines when tackling pressing social issues will enable me to answer such questions. As a Public Policy Studies major, I am eager to dive into the dialectical relationship between economic pursuits and moral responsibility. While classes like  Modern Political Thought and Liberalism: Origins and Challenges will fuel my curiosity about how political systems can advocate for social justice, courses like Urban Economics and Industrial Organization will ground my lofty ideals in concrete data.

Hyde Park is more than just a group of English Gothic buildings filled with endless classrooms. Organizations like the Chicago Journal of Public Policy and Environmental Research Group will allow me to apply what I’ve learned in the classroom in a real-world urban setting. Furthermore, while engaging with Lean on Me and Camp Kesem, I will have the opportunity to add a little sweetness to The Windy City. I can’t wait to immerse myself in UChicago’s vibrant atmosphere as I munch on signature deep-dish pizza, stifling a laugh as I watch Off Off Campus’ latest set.

Why Us - Analysis

This is a straightforward question, especially compared to the other UChicago asks. Many schools want to know why you want to attend there in particular, and UChicago is no different. They do consider demonstrated interest, and this essay is one of the best places to demonstrate that you have considered the merits of the school, and show how they align with your interests. 

The goal of the essay is not just to discuss why you like the school, but to explain why its offerings make it the best possible place for you to go to college. All top schools have impressive academic offerings, but this does not mean that they are the same in all ways. Focus on what a school offers that you can’t find elsewhere. 

In the example above, the author does a good job by discussing why UChicago’s philosophy of learning appeals to them, along with more concrete academic and community offerings. While this is not necessary, it does show admissions officers that you are serious about the school, and that you will fit in with the kind of learning community they want to create. UChicago cares greatly about students’ intellectual vitality, and that they care about learning and discovering for their own sake. Showing how these aspects of UChicago appeal to you in this essay demonstrates your own love of learning.

The author also does a good job specifically describing what aspects of life both inside and outside the classroom appeal to them. The specificity is key, as it is with every why us essay. By being this specific, the author shows that they cared enough about the school to properly research it, and discover which elements spoke to them.

The author includes some aspects in this essay which read like a why major essay. This is entirely acceptable, as UChicago does not ask this question. The key is to frame your answer as why you want to study this major at UChicago specifically. While this isn’t necessary, if you are certain about what you want to major in, it can be a useful inclusion. The key, regardless of what you discuss, is to show genuine passion for whatever you’re writing about.


Other - Example

Find x.
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK



















Have you found X? If so, read on.


An X is made of two lines, two different parts that intersect. I see myself the same way – my life is composed of two parts and defined by the intersection of those parts. The first part of me can be found in the laboratory, study hall, and office hours. She finds new opportunities to gain knowledge through learning from her mistakes. The other part is out dancing, attending yoga classes, and playing the clarinet wildly; she’s spontaneous and creative in her ability to explore new modes of expression.

The ability to learn from my mistakes defines one part of me; my time researching the neurodegenerative disease Friedreich Ataxia (FA) has taught me to value it. After my first experiment went awry—I should have taken extra steps against cross-contamination—I was terrified to admit my error to the team, but I never would have guessed that I was actually going through a rite of passage for every scientist. I was stunned when a senior researcher beat me to the punch at our weekly lab meetings, telling us that she made the same error and discussing the protocol she should have followed. The small moment changed my perspective; I began to see research not only as living up to expectations, but as discovering new and improved techniques. Ultimately, what made the difference was a paradigm shift: beginning research afraid of mistakes, I finished with the Zen acceptance that these mistakes were an opportunity to self-correct. Now, I’ve become transparent, overcoming the awkwardness of admitting my own mistakes and freely sharing my learning experiences with others.

My other side holds my ability to comfortably step out of my comfort zone and into new, unfamiliar areas. Growing up as a classically trained dancer in the Indian style of Kathak, I was used to the familiarity of the beats, bells, and bhols (a sound used to identify rhythms). When I moved to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, I left my former dance guru behind and prepared a radical change by signing up for modern studio dance. Initially, I struggled with hip-hop – popping and locking didn’t really blend with my classical upbringing – but giggling at myself as I swung my arms and jumped with my friends helped me enjoy the new style. This made for the perfect end to my junior year, when I rallied my creative juices, choreographed my take on a Bollywood dance, and performed with my floormates for our school talent show. I spun to the beat, remembering my roots and exhibiting my Kathak-hip-hop rendition of Andy Grammer’s “Good to be Alive.” Since then, I’ve explored even more forms of dance, and come to appreciate that inexperience is just an opportunity to find new interests.

X is found by sharing. In the intersection between a mistake and its solution or a habit and a new experience, there’s a moment we decide to take the parts of ourselves we understand and incorporate something novel. It’s always a bit scary; whether I’m sharing with my lab group or performing in front of my class, growing is at least as demanding as it is fun. Over the last year, I’ve come to embrace that intersection of effort and recreation. I’m no longer the girl who hesitates. Novel situations no longer flood my body with nerves—rather, I’m excited to face new situations and embrace the unfamiliarity they bring, as epitomized by the intersection of the two lines of the X.

Other - Analysis

There are several ways to answer these questions. The first, and perhaps easiest, is to answer it in the style of other college essays. When you do this, you display multiple aspects of your personality and background to the school, let them know what you’ve experienced, and what you’ve learned from these experiences. With a bit of creativity, you can even reuse other essays you’ve had to write when assembling the UChicago essay, even if all of the framing will need to be done anew.

The other way to answer these questions is to lean into it. Give an answer to the question at hand, no matter how absurd, and in so doing demonstrate how you think logically and approach the problems ahead of you. This is more difficult, as many of these questions do not, at first appearance, have reasonable answers. Therein lies the challenge, and doing this well demonstrates your ability to think critically about difficult topics.

In the example above, the author opts for the first approach. They use the first paragraph to frame how they will answer the question, and they do so cleverly. By making the question reflexive, and then finding the “x” which represents them, they are able to both answer the question, and tell admissions officers more about who they are and what they’ve done.

The first branch of their X talks about an academic extracurricular, performing research in a lab. They show what they have learned from the experience, maturing enough to own their mistakes, and acquiring a new perspective on their purpose while pursuing research. The material used here would work well in another essay, and has merely been reformatted to answer a question they asked themselves.

The second branch of their X is about who they are outside of the classroom, and discusses how they transferred from traditional Indian dance, to stepping outside of their comfort zone and attempting new styles. In many ways, this resembles a community essay, and while the message has been changed to fit, they were likely able to reuse material between essays.

Finally, they tie the strings together, covering the convergence of both strands into the X which is them. This is a strong conclusion, and demonstrates their desire to continue learning and growing, expanding upon who and what they are. 

The point of this essay is to demonstrate how you think and approach a novel problem. The questions are esoteric on purpose; how else will they deliberately provoke the sorts of answers they wish to see? If you decide to take the more esoteric approach to answering the question, then know that your reasoning and logic matter far more than the answer you give. There is no right answer to a question such as this, which means that they are not looking for rightness in a response. Instead, admissions officers want to see how you think, and how you apply your thinking.

There are a variety of prompts each year, some more like this, others geared towards letting you discuss your own achievements more easily. When deciding which prompt to answer, and how to answer it, consider your strengths, and how to play to them. If you have fantastic achievements in extracurriculars you long to share, you can find a way to work those in. If your extracurriculars were worn out from the personal statement, and you long to write and reason for their own sakes, then consider answering the prompts in their own style, and respond as you have been asked. We’ll give an example of how to do that below.

Dreamer - Example

Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it. Give us your guess.

Inspired by Jill Hampshire, AB 08

Between the living and dreaming is a world of ideas. These ideas come as we are falling asleep, or just beginning to wake, and often flee with the remnants of dreams. But this state of ideas between dreams and reality is where the truly fantastical ideas come from. It is where anything is possible and nothing is forbidden, this strange landscape of our minds is where we come up with our most incredible ideas. This place cannot be called a dream, for you aren’t asleep, but you are not completely awake either. Technically it could be called daydreaming, but this is not quite correct. In daydreams we purposefully change our situations in ways we know will never happen, but wish were true. In the world of ideas between dreams and wakefulness are ideas that seem impossible, and yet just within our reach, if we only stretched out a little further.

Ideas exist between dreams and life because they combine elements of both. Like dreams they can be incredibly unrealistic or even magical, but like life you have some control over what happens. In dreams you are nothing more than a passenger, along for the ride, hoping it ends well. Ideas, on the other hand, can be changed or rearranged or even destroyed outright, if they do not suit our purposes as they are. In real life there are many things we are unable to control, but with our ideas, in the world of our minds, every detail and aspect can be made perfect. Transferring ideas to reality is much harder, but is not always impossible. Often the hardest part is coming up with a good idea in the first place, but that is where dreams come in.

In life, it seems everything that can be invented already has, and all else else is physically impossible. In dreams, however, anything and everything is possible, and flying cars are real and present as lightbulbs. In ideas, we combine the possibilities presented in dreams with knowledge from life experience. Before we could fly, someone dreamt of flight, saw the mechanics of birds, and combined the two into an idea of powered flight. Obviously this idea was not practically applied when it was first conceived, but the idea was there, and ideas have power. In the place between dreams and life, the ideas of others act as seeds in fertile soil, and give fruit to new ideas. The more knowledge and dreams there are, the more ideas can be conceived, and from them even more ideas. Ideas combine the impossibility of dreams with the practicality of life to bring new things out into the world. If we only had dreams, then nothing would be accomplished, because dreams are often impractical to the point of impossibility. If we only had life, and did not dream, we would have no inventions, and no sense of wonder. Ideas are the meeting place of the two, where impossible dreams are made practical enough to be able to succeed in life. Between living and dreaming are ideas, and from ideas the world as we know it was born.

Dreamer - Analysis

This essay seems to tell us nothing about the author. We do not learn what activities they did, where they succeeded or failed, what their life is like; indeed, this essay goes against most advice you will see on how to write college essays.

Yet the essay still works, because you do learn about the author through reading it, and because of what UChicago is looking for in these essays. The author shows us how they think, how they form an argument, and how they reach conclusions. Most importantly, they show how they fit into the ethos of UChicago. Among other jokes, UChicago is known as one of the most theory-focused universities. They did not add an engineering department until 2011, and it still serves grad students primarily, with undergrads an afterthought.

Thus an essay glorifying theory regardless of practicality fits quite well into how UChicago sees itself, and shows that the author would fit into what they are trying to build. By showing their ability to form and argue an opinion on a very weird topic, the author shows their intellectual capabilities. UChicago cares deeply about having students who are able to express themselves clearly through writing; a large part of the core curriculum is devoted to ensuring this. Thus demonstrating your ability to think and argue, especially on an esoteric topic like their essays provide, goes a long way towards showing your fit for the school.
While the essay tells us nothing about what the author has done, it does demonstrate some of who the author is, and how they think. A perfect essay would likely cover all three, but an essay of logic alone is enough here.

We should note that essays of this kind only work for UChicago. They ask weird questions in order to elicit weird and interesting responses, due to the kind of students they are trying to attract and admit. You should not write essays of this kind unless schools are clearly asking for them, and even then you do not have to. There is nothing wrong with writing a more standard college essay and making it fit the prompt. That said, if you want to write about something weird, and are capable of doing so at a high level, you can do so for these essays, so long as you demonstrate how you think.

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