Essay advice for University of Chicago applicants

I've never known a school whose application reflects its personality better than that of the University of Chicago. Even when they moved to the Common Application two years ago (and jettisoned their beloved "Uncommon Application"), Chicago's supplemental essay questions are still the same sort of intellectual, thoughtful and just plain quirky prompts we've come to expect from them. 

U of C is a place where fit is just as important as intellect.  The strongest applicants here are those who get giddy about the idea of immersing themselves in the experience that is unique to U of C, and they're able to express that on the application.  If you think you're a good match, here are a few tips to help make the most of the opportunities the application allows.

Before you start, really consider why you want to attend U of C.

I say that because U of C is almost certainly not the place for you if you are applying because "it's a great school" or "it has a great reputation."  You could say that about lots of other colleges, and proud Chicago students and faculty would be the first to tell you that the University of Chicago is most certainly not like other schools.  True matches are keenly aware of this fact.  I'll talk more about this below when we get to the essay question that asks why you want to attend.  

Here are the supplemental essay prompts with their directions. 

Respond to Question 1 – and, if you choose, Question 2 – by writing a paragraph or two for each question. Then choose one of the five extended essay options, indicate your choice, and write a one- or two-page response. This is your chance to speak to us and our chance to listen as you tell us about yourself, your tastes, and your ambitions. Each topic can be addressed with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between-it is your choice. Play, analyze (don't agonize), create, compose-let us hear the result of your thinking about something that interests you, in a voice that is your own.

Required Question 1. 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 Chicago.

To date, I've covered 23 other colleges as part of this series, and a number of them ask some version of the, "Why do you want to go here?" question.  So part of my advice here will be the same as I've given before.  Here it is.  The most important thing to remember when answering this question is that the college doesn't want to hear about itself; they want to hear about you

If you tell the University of Chicago that they have Nobel prize winning professors, small classes, and a beautiful campus located in a great city, you've just told them things they already know (and that are also true for lots of other colleges).  Your answer should reveal something about yourself and why you believe this is a place where you could be happy and successful for four years.  That's true for any college that asks this question.

If you'd like to see more detailed advice about just how to reveal something about yourself when responding to a "Why are you applying to our college?" question, I have more detailed advice in my entries about Bryn Mawr and University of Puget Sound.

But as with so many parts of the University of Chicago, things are a little bit different here.  As you're considering your response to this prompt, remember that as diverse as the student body at U of C is, they all share one common trait–a love for learning, one that they chose to spend four years indulging here. 

If you asked any University of Chicago student what classes she wants to take next semester, what her favorite class she's taken so far is, who her favorite professor is, or what one subject she wishes she understood better, I'd venture to say that any student on that campus would have emphatic answers to those questions.  The answers might all be different.  Some would be wildly contrasting (and maybe even a little bit strange).  But those students would have answers. That's not the case at every selective college in the country, and it's one of the reasons why it is a particular kinds of student who ends up, and thrives, at the University of Chicago.   

I'm not suggesting that your response should necessarily be "I love to learn"; that's too easy.  What I'm saying is that successful applicants will spend a lot of time considering their desire to learn.  They'll think about their academic experience in high school and how it it fulfilled (or maybe failed to fulfill) that desire.  They'll reflect on where they've best satisfied this curiosity.  And they'll consider how they want to satisfy it in college, and in particular, why they'd prefer to do so at the University of Chicago. 

That desire to learn isn't the only thing that makes U of C great, and it's not necessarily the only thing you should cite in your desire to attend. But it's arguably the school's most defining characteristic. And I don't believe you can give a convincing and engaging answer to this prompt without addressing your own desire to learn.  

Optional: Question 2. Would you please tell us about a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, magazines, or newspapers? Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

Yes, "optional" really does mean "optional."  But c'mon.   I am not, repeat, not, speaking for Chicago's admissions office here, but if I were one of them and an applicant skipped this question, I'd say to myself,

"Really?  You couldn't be bothered to tell me about your favorite books, poems, authors or movies?  How long would it really have taken you?" 

I just don't buy that any legitimate Chicago applicant who claims to want to jump into the academic waters at U of C would really pass up the opportunity to answer this question.

For those of you who decide to take on the optional essay, all I can say is this.  Geek out.  Geek out like you have never geeked out before.  Unabashedly share your favorites in the categories the prompt serves up (or in the category you add).

If you have watched every single one of the Star Wars movies more than a dozen times, this is the place to celebrate it.  If you've read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" over and over again, tell them why.  If you read US Weekly because celebrity gossip is like an addictive substance to you, say so.  If you think there should be a national holiday honoring Bruce Springsteen, or that you're pretty sure you will break down and cry if The New York Times ever stops publishing their Sunday edition, or that "The Godfather"…or "Crash" or "Tommy Boy" is a DVD you'd save if your house were on fire (I would save "Tommy Boy," by the way"), say so!

Students who would love the University of Chicago experience celebrate what they read, watch and listen to without apology.  Show them you can do it, too, in your response to this prompt.

What about the extended essay?

You get a choice of five prompts from which to choose.  It's important to remember that Chicago is a place where individuality is celebrated.  You should feel free to be yourself in responses.  In fact, you should feel compelled to do so.  Read the instructions again–they tell you not to agonize over this, to be playful, to analyze, to create or compose in a voice that is your own, etc  They're telling you be yourself.   So listen to them.

Here are a few tips.

1.  Choose a topic for to which you really have a desire to respond, something you want to share, or a story you want to tell. 

If you pick a topic and have trouble coming up with a story, you've picked the wrong topic.  The best college essays virtually write themselves because you have so much to say.  Someone who should respond to the question about getting caught/not caught isn't hung up on what to say; he's hung up on whether or not he can really share all of the glorious details of what he calls "the potato gun incident" in under 2 pages because it's just so damn funny to him (that was a story a Collegewise kid related in his essay). 

2.  Don't hold back.

I'm not suggesting that you should reveal things that are wildly inappropriate just to get their attention.  But you certainly shouldn't hold back from telling them something you really want to share.  Don't worry so much about what they want to hear.  Remember, this is the University of Chicago.  Self expression is rewarded here.  Be yourself and tell your story. 

3.  Write in a way that your best friend would describe as, "So 'you'."

That's good advice for college essays in general, but at University of Chicago, you can really follow it.  Your essay should sound like you, however it is that you sound.  Be funny, serious, sarcastic, deep, whatever it is that you are.  If you're a poet and the way you best express yourself is through haiku, hey, get your haiku on.  Compose song lyrics.  Whatever you want to do.  But don't do anything that's contrived to get their attention or impress them.  Be honest and revealing, and write in a voice that is yours.  Your best friend is often a good judge of this; he or she can call you out when your essay doesn't sound like you.     

4.  Speaking of "So 'you'," write something you would describe as, well, "So 'you'."

OK, I'm not going to lie.  This is about to get weird.  But it's the University of Chicago for crying out loud.  Weird topics beget weird advice.  You've been warned.

Your best friend can be a good judge of whether or not your writing sounds like you.  But when you submit this application, it doesn't matter what your friend, your parents, your counselor or anybody else thinks–you have to be happy with what you've submitted because you're the one being evaluated.  So here's a litmus test you can use to see if you've chosen the right topic, told the right story, and related it in the right way. 

You should write an essay at the end of which the following statement would be 100% true if you said it.

"This essay is me.  What I said, how I said it–when I go back and read it, it sounds like the person I am, not some contrived person I'm trying to be to please colleges.   And as much as I love the University of Chicago, if they decide they don't like this, I guess it wasn't the right place for me.  I'm proud of what I've written here, and I can't apologize for who I am or how I think."

I know, I know.  Repeating words of affirmation?  It's a little hack and I'm not trying channel Tony Robbins here.  But applicants who get into the University of Chicago can make this statement after finishing their essays.  They relax and tell the stories they want to tell.  They do so in a way that sounds like them.  They enjoy the opportunity for introspection and expression.  They're proud of who they are.  They never saw the point of conforming in high school, and they weren't about to start conforming when they wrote their college essays.

When you do those things, the result will be essays that you want to write, essays that sound like you (so "you," in fact) and help the admissions committee get to know you better.  U of C is showing their personality with the types of questions they ask.  Show them yours in your responses.   

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.


  1. Anthony To says

    This is great advice on UChicgao, it has certainty helped me a lot on my application. But I do have one question. For my extended essay, I was only able to fill up about a page as a response, even though it says one or two pages. Will the fact that it is on the shorter end work against me?I am afraid admissions officers will frown upon the fact i didn’t use all available space

  2. Kevin says

    The admissions officers at Chicago (and pretty much every college) are much more interested in what you say than whether or not you use all of the allotted space. In fact, brevity can be a mark of great writing. If you can express all your ideas clearly and forcefully in one page, no need to use a second page just to fill it up. Good luck!

  3. Colin Muller says

    Great post!
    Would you please read over my UChicago essays? It would be greatly appreciated!

  4. Charissa says

    You, sir, give great advice. It’s weird because the way you write is really similar to the way I write… I don’t even know you, but I feel like I can hear you talking when you’re writing. And that marital analogy on your UPS article? I made that exact same analogy on my Why Columbia supplement before even reading this. Funny, huh.