written by
Julia Riew

UChicago Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

Essay Examples 17 min read
Photo courtesy of UChicago University

The following essay examples were written by several different authors who were admitted to University of Chicago and are intended to provide examples of successful UChicago application essays. All names have been redacted for anonymity. Please note that CollegeAdvisor.com has shared these essays with admissions officers at University of Chicago in order to deter potential plagiarism.

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Question 1 (Required; Choose one) 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.

AUTHOR 1

When I visited UChicago, a friend invited me to step into her Comparative Literature class: Monstrosity and the Monstrous. Desperate for refuge from the cold (as a Bay Area resident, I hadn’t packed for the Chicago winter), I quickly obliged. I expected to silently observe, but when I mentioned that I’d read Antigone, her professor was thrilled--he immediately invited me into the discussion. For an hour and a half, we weighed the pros and cons of civil disobedience: did Antigone’s actions permanently destabilize Thebes, and in the modern day, when does protesting against a government cross the line? Was Antigone justified in interpreting the will of the gods? And, if so, would Sophocles support pardoning well-intentioned criminals? Beyond the enthralling analysis of the play, I was captivated by the spirit of UChicago: a campus that invites everyone (including a loitering high school student) to contribute and develop their ideas.

Now, it’s surreal to imagine taking “The Economics of Crime” from someone as renowned as Professor Levitt (I’ve been a fan since reading Freakonomics) and staying after class to clarify the finer points of the latest Freakonomics podcast (I particularly enjoyed “Speak Softly and Carry Big Data,” on using data analysis to perfect foreign policy decisions). I hope to add to UChicago’s legacy of pushing the boundaries of our economic understanding by participating in undergraduate research, and perhaps put my findings to use through crafting social policy for the Harris School’s Public Policy Practicum. Prior to graduating, I’ll sample tastes of future careers through the Fried Public Policy and Service Program or the Trott Business Program. Simultaneously, as someone who enjoys conversing and respectfully challenging ideas, I look forward to immersing myself in the Core Curriculum and obtaining a strong foundation of knowledge. Above all, I appreciate that UChicago teaches students how to think, encourages dialogue, and prompts students to question norms.

Beyond an unparalleled education, UChicago boasts an incredible student body. Whether it’s over $1 milkshakes, at a desk beneath the stunning glass dome of the Mansueto library, or over a game of pick-up basketball, students at UChicago have a reputation for cultivating the most interesting conversations, both miscellaneous and profound. I hope that culture will only intensify within groups like the student government, Muslim Student Association, or the (undefeated) Model United Nations team. Though I look forward to Scav, the prospect of another scavenger hunt is even more enticing; over the next four years, my peers and I will discover the impact we intend to have on the world. Whether I end up delving into politics, finance, or the nonprofit sector, I know UChicago will guide me through that process--more importantly, as a member of a campus of visionaries, I hope to learn how I’ll change any field I enter. I look forward to four life-changing years--this time, with a warm winter coat.

Why this UChicago essay worked, from an ex-admissions officer

The author of this essay did a great job highlighting their familiarity with the faculty's research and the university's traditions. In doing so, admissions officers know that this student conducted the necessary research and is not solely interested in the university based on its rankings and reputation but rather the intangibles- the things that set UChicago apart, from other colleges/universities.

AUTHOR 2

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting UChicago’s campus. What I found was exactly what I’d hoped for: an absurdly specific and drawn-out debate over which poem was better, The Iliad, or The Odyssey.

It happened in a dorm. After my official tour, a good friend of mine, Lizzie, who I’d met two summers ago on a writer’s retreat offered to show me around campus. The insider tour: coveted by many, enjoyed by few. As we were leaving the common space on her floor in Max P., we were discussing our respective class schedules. We came to find that we were doing similar coursework with regard to Classical studies, and with a simple groan at my mention of the adventures of Achilles in Ilion, the battle began.

Quickly, I found myself drawing my spear—the initial jab: “The portrayal of Odysseus in The Odyssey is lackluster and inconsistent with prior descriptions at best.”

She dodged, “Maybe, but The Iliad is just a bunch of gore. I want a real story.” The phalanxes were starting to form; war cries echoing, bouncing off doors which held the empty beds of students wintering at Mansueto, I stopped.

“Listen,” I said, with a ring reminiscent of a sword being gloriously drawn from its sheath. “Homer may not have even been the mind behind much of The Odyssey. On top of that, how do you reconcile Odysseus’ supposed military genius spanning ten years with his seemingly cavalier attitude towards his men’s safety on the voyage home?” In turn, she threw her arms up with a sigh of exasperation—a shield, a deflection.

“Maybe, but Achilles’ melodramatic fits aren’t worth reading. If I wanted to witness overwrought pouting, I’d go find a four-year-old. Besides, an inconsistency doesn’t damn a story to the pits of inadequacy.”

Round and round we went, like Achilles and Hector around the city of Ilion, neither of us gaining an inch, and neither of us drawing nearer escape. But then, for us, escape wasn’t the point, was it? It was the chase. The Iliad would have been far less exciting had Achilles settled for glory, fought for Agamemnon, and killed Hector immediately. Likewise, The Odyssey is nothing but a story of a journey, and therefore wouldn’t have a leg to stand on without the chase. From my point of view, this is what UChicago is all about—the chase; the journey—the questions asked and examined, not only those answered. Lizzie and I never came to a conclusion about which poem is better (thankfully we could agree that The Aeneid was objectively well written, and well told), but we had a riveting, impassioned conversation on a dime. My favorite part of this? It happened on the way to her Physics discussion.

That’s why I love UChicago; this is what I crave. The perpetual hall pass to unapologetically geek out with fellow cats whom curiosity didn’t kill, but strengthened. To walk by the chapel, and hear the bells playing Kiss the Girl, to sit in the Reading Room and write, to marvel at the marketing genius behind the naming of Grounds of Being; to have conversations with poetry nerds, language lovers, people who can rant about the beauty of the C7 chord or the curvature of a parabolic function. I can only see myself in a place that emphasizes interdisciplinary studies, that offers a slew of majors, minors, and career courses—that not just allows, but encourages exploration—that finds its students discussing Homer on the way to a physics class. I would not be able to function without the camaraderie that comes with the $1 shake, or the friendships born of mutual vitriol at the notion of their disappearance. This community is not tied, but melded together—one that challenges, one that nips stagnancy in the bud. So, paint me maroon and point me towards Axelrod; I’m ready to join this Odyssey-loving, manhole-cover-thieving, Royal Tenenbaum-esque family.

Why this UChicago essay worked, from an ex-admissions officer

In this essay, the writer connected her seemingly random conversation with a friend to the interdisciplinary focus of the university and the ways in which, others challenge her views. Oftentimes, when we think of a college education- there is so much focus on the rankings, reputation, and major, career opportunities, return on investments, and salary-- all of which, are very important; however, one could argue that that true purpose of college is to challenge yourself, to step outside of your comfort zone, meet new people and challenge others as well. This writer understands those values are paramount to an education at UChicago. The admissions officer reading this essay, knows this student will thrive at UChicago, but most importantly, this student will leave UChicago in a better place than where they found it by challenging those around them.

Question 2: Extended Essay (Required; Choose one)

Editor's Note: The UChicago supplemental essays change each year, as the University is known to reach out to newly admitted and current students for essay prompts. These are examples of previous successful approaches to essay prompts.

2017-2018 UChicago Essay Prompt

What’s your Armor?

I won’t knock on wood for luck if the wood isn’t demonstrably pure as the waters of the Piscine Molitor. When I say I won’t, I don’t mean that I will knock on a table, or a bench occasionally through gritted teeth if I’m in dire need of cosmic intervention, no, I mean I will not, under any circumstance, on a train, a plane, or even in Spain, knock on anything other than natural, uncoated in any way, wood. I recognize the scientific irrationality, not just of superstitions, but of being picking nits within a particular superstition. I have my reasons.

Two years ago, while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I stumbled across a disconcerting “fact” that probably wasn’t a fact. The post asserted that more than ninety-percent of all wooden tables, benches, chairs, etc are not, in fact, strictly wooden. Rather, they are a mix of synthetic materials and wood. Granted, in most cases, the synthetic is likely just a coat of protective varnish, but you see, that tarnishes the product for the superstitious. It was a moment of earth-shattering ramifications. In a matter of three seconds, I questioned every bit of trust I’d ever placed in the universe. It all seemed futile, meaningless. Now, I’m not knocking on wood, I’m knocking on wood that has been coated once, twice, ninety-six times with preservative varnish. At that point, it’s just a synthetic graveyard with a foundation of wood. There is no luck to be found in an ungodly cemetery of bones like that. I might as well knock on glass, or grass, or a plastic container. It surpasses trivial in the scheme of things, but imagine I were to have something especially important looming, something that has the potential to frame the context of the rest of my life, something like college applications. Why would I take a chance on something that merely resembles pure wood for luck? I wouldn’t. I’d run straight outside, find the nearest tree (the only real guarantee), and knock until my knuckles resembled shredded calf-liver. It’s really not worth the risk.

Why does it even matter, though? Who, and/or what enforces frivolous matters like outdated pseudo-religious compulsions? I like to imagine that there is a being in charge of each superstition, both the common and obscure. The Being of Repetition would oversee all attempts to cheat one’s destiny by uttering a word thirty-seven times, the Being of Self-Induced Discomfort would superintend those who hold their breath while they cross bridges or drive past cemeteries, and the Being of Sylvan Knocks would assure that not a single soul who bops their knuckles on a tarnished, synthetic-wood abomination receives their prize of favor. This being watches and keeps tabs on those foolish enough to put their faith in the preternatural equivalent of fool’s gold, and shames them by leaving their worlds deservedly unaltered. However, those who are devoted enough to search out the nearest tree and give it a few raps for good measure, will find magnificent rewards from their generous karmic sugar daddy. Call me a purist, call me ridiculous, but I’m convinced that this is the indisputable truth.

So convinced, in fact, that those closest to me have picked up on my idiosyncratic neurosis. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the friendship of observant souls, one of whom, named Jack, happens to be a skilled woodworker. Upon confessing to him my cognitive dissonance of being vehemently non-superstitious, while also controlled like a marionette by this irrational belief, he took it upon himself to, at the very least, ease the inconvenience of finding a tree in my panic. He gave me a teardrop-shaped, knuckle-sized piece of pure wood. Not just that, but he put a small hole in it so that it would fit on my keychain. I carry it everywhere. I give it a little knock every now and then just for the extra luck. Knowing that no matter the place, no matter the scenario, I’m always in the good graces of the Being of Sylvan Knocks means that I never again have to add “find a tree” to my mental to-do list. It means release—means freedom.

Maybe one day I’ll get over my manneristic malady, but until that day comes, I’ll keep carrying my teardrop everywhere I go, and hope that Jack never tells me that my charm is anything less than Piscine pure, unadulterated luck. Knock on wood, right?

2013-2014 UChicago Essay Prompt:

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu. What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

The red and purple hues of the sunset warm the chilly summer evening; the soft pastels blend perfectly under my fingers to emanate the photograph; each Van Gogh and Renoir mesmerize me as I creep through the brightly lit museum. Photographs and paintings capture the beauty that we see with our eyes. Our almighty sense of sight allows us to be immersed by the extraordinary, but at the same time, it hinders us.

Although breath-taking to witness, the mantis shrimp, majestic as a unicorn or narwhal from the outside, relates more closely to a soul-sucking dementor. Its mighty claws enable it to chomp nearby prey instantaneously. Is it possible that the violent behavior of a mantis shrimp is related in someway to its heightened abilities of sight?

Segregation, discrimination, isolation; so many “tion”s can be attributed to our sense of vision. In elementary school, the concept of being popular is already engrained in our minds. As a first grader, I got my first glimpse of this when a girl was forced to tell her best friend that they couldn’t hang out anymore because she “wasn’t cool enough.” And what deems someone to be popular? Of course, attitude and self-confidence are key, but popularity is equally derived from having the newest backpack and sparkly shoes that light up with each step. In the 1940s, having “the look” meant blonde hair and blue eyes with the emanating threat of concentration camps and execution. America, the land of the free, cannot forget its very own history of segregation that nearly split the nation in two. People were belittled and harassed due to the color of their skin. Throughout history, mankind has associated superiority with skin color and race. Our sense of sight has limited us oftentimes to fixate on seeing instead of understanding.

The kaleidoscopic exoskeleton of the mantis shrimp indicates its very own evolutionary emphasis on beauty. Why else would one attempt to look so radiant if not to mate and produce heirs? I would probably be pretty picky too if I had such a powerful pair of eyes—fixating on each segment, each tentacle, each antenna. Over the centuries, the selectivity of the mantis shrimp possibly eliminated less attractive members from the gene pool. It never thought “Oh well, maybe she has a nice personality and a good sense of humor.” In a world of plastic Barbie dolls and glossy magazine covers, I would hate to see an even greater emphasis on aesthetics.

As a child, I read A Wrinkle in Time and journeyed to the planet Ixchel where Madeline L’Engle’s fictional character Meg tries to explain the concept of seeing to a creature with no eyes. In response the beast states, "We do not know what things look like, as you say… We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing." As a child, I pondered the difficultly of explaining sight to someone incapable of it and all the words that a person wouldn’t understand—light, dark, colors, shades. When I initially read this prompt about the mantis shrimp, I was reminded of this passage. The difficulty of imagining all that the mantis shrimp can see is possibly just as difficult as it is for someone who is blind to imagine the red of a robin’s belly, the illustrious light blue sky, or the shades of skin tones. I was originally perplexed by the idea that seeing can be “a very limiting thing.” Over half a decade later, as I reread Madeline L’Engle’s words, I find the truth in this phrase. We do not need sight. It is convenient being able to color coordinate files and match shoes with shirts, but the ability to see can often overpower our other senses. We judge and make first impressions by the way a person dresses, often neglecting what that person says or thinks or knows.

Perhaps the mantis shrimp’s eyes allow it to see further than our color spectrum, into infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves. Maybe this allows it to see its predators inching closer before they devise an attack. The shrimp’s vision could possibly replace its sense of feeling and hearing—observing sound waves in the wavy, salty sea or having thermal imaging abilities. However, the extent to its abilities is far greater than we can perceive. It would be impossible to imagine the full capabilities of the mantis shrimp without having a “Freaky Friday” moment and switching brains. As humans, we have become too accustomed to our perception of superiority that it is difficult to imagine abilities greater than our own. What we lack, we attempt to compensate for with technology and scientific advancements. We have escaped the mentality of our cavemen and cavewomen ancestors—scavenging for food and hiding from predators. Machine guns and others weapons of mass destruction have given humans the mindset that we are on the top of the food chain.

The short novel Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott was enforced upon my Geometry class over spring break. Although initially a lesson about the multiple dimensions, Flatland also explores the challenge of explaining higher realms to those who cannot experience it. The king of Pointland is so narrow-minded and insular that he refuses to believe that there are objects larger than he is. When confronted with a square, all he sees is another point. As humans, our abilities are limited as well. We do not have the innate skills of the mantis shrimp with its sixteen receptors; however, centuries of innovation have made us inept to fully perceive the skills we are incapable of.

The mantis shrimp can see a greater spectrum of rays and waves and possibly some great unknown, but perhaps, it is better that its abilities remain a mystery. At this time, we are probably not ready for such visual capabilities; our current ones have already proven to be overbearing. Maybe the best things in life are not meant to be seen because they must be felt or understood.


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