Weird Essay Questions

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them 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.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni.

To begin working on your UChicago supplement visit, getstarted.uchicago.edu, the Coalition Application, or the Common Application.

2017-18 UChicago Supplement:

Required Question:

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.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

-Anonymous Suggestion

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History... a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/majors-minors.

-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017

Essay Option 4.

The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization." Tell us about your “armor.”

-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5.

Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.

-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021

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.

Newsletter

December 2010 Newsletter

Once you’ve finished writing your personal statement and activity essay for the Common Application, you breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief. Then, you take a look at the Supplemental Applications for the colleges on your list and you see even more essay prompts! You read the questions several times and think there’s no way that you can write some of these essays. But, if you like to use your imagination, you realize that you actually love these questions because finally you can do what you love best – you can be creative!

Known for its “Uncommon Application,” when the University of Chicago joined the Common Application three years ago, it was a difficult decision for the school. Like most colleges that subscribe to the Common Application, Chicago wanted to increase its applicant pool. Having to complete the “Uncommon Application” inherently deterred applicants who didn’t want to have to fill out additional forms that could only be used for one school. And yet the university also wanted to hold onto its fun, wacky, and thought-provoking essay questions that make its application unique. After much thought, the University of Chicago ultimately decided to join the Common Application but to keep their supplemental essay questions intact. It was a decision that generated increased applications without the cost of eliminating the school’s most unique questions.

We’ve gone through this year’s supplemental essay questions for the colleges that subscribe to the Common Application and have come up with a list of essay questions that can either be viewed as “no-way-am-I-applying-to-this-college” or “this-is-going-to-be-a-fun-one-to-write.” For colleges that care more about an applicant pool of students who can think outside-of-the-box, some of these supplemental essay questions can actually inspire you to write imaginatively.

So read through these questions and, just maybe, you’ll view essays that may at first seem challenging but, in the end, may in fact be rather fun to write.

  1. Find x. [University of Chicago]
  2. Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they? [University of Chicago]
  3. Salt, governments, beliefs, and celebrity couples are a few examples of things that can be dissolved. You’ve just been granted the power to dissolve anything: physical, metaphorical, abstract, concrete…you name it. What do you dissolve, and what solvent do you use? [University of Chicago]
  4. “Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favor, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be “conveniently honest,” what other virtues might we take more lightly? [University of Chicago]
  5. In the interest 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. [University of Chicago]
  6. Design an experiment that attempts to determine whether toads can hear. Provide the rationale for your design-explain your reasons for setting up the experiment as you did. Strive for simplicity and clarity. [Bennington College]
  7. French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know? [Brown University]
  8. Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.” [Amherst College]
  9. Imagine looking through a window at any environment that is particularly significant to you. Reflect on the scene, paying close attention to the relation between what you are seeing and why it is meaningful to you. [Williams College]
  10. One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Austrian writer and social critic Karl Kraus, famous for his provocative aphorisms, wrote “Civilization ends, since barbarians erupt from it.” Write a short commentary on what you think this might mean from your perspective 100 years later, and whether it makes any sense. [Bard College]
  11. Using the following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world: “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.” [Princeton University]
  12. It’s been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. History is filled with such linchpins – small events or decisions that have huge effects on the future. Make your own change somewhere in history and show us the effects on the world. [Tufts University]
  13. Alumna and writer Anna Quindlen says that she ‘majored in unafraid’ at Barnard. What does that mean to you? [Barnard College]
  14. Imagine that you are the director of admission at a highly selective liberal arts college and you had to choose from among a group of very well-qualified applicants. Aside from excellent academic performance, what one characteristic would be most important to you in making your decision? Why? [Smith College]
  15. One of the core values of Villanova, as an Augustinian university founded on the teachings of St. Augustine, is that students and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Villanova community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others? [Villanova University]
  16. Write a letter to your first-year roommate at Babson. Tell him or her what it will be like to live with you, why you chose Babson, and what you are looking forward to the most in college. [Babson College]
  17. At Bucknell, students are free to take creative and thoughtful risks. In fact, we encourage them to do so, and we support them along the way. As students realize their own potential through risk, so, too, do they better understand how valuable risk can be in understanding – and making a difference in – the world. We’re interested in the kind of positive risk-taking energy you would bring to our University. Please describe a time when you found the courage to step outside of your comfort zone to do something unexpected and completely unlike you. Why did you take this risk? What have you learned from the experience? `[Bucknell University]
  18. Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging. [Stanford University]
  19. Given the dynamic nature of the Honor Code and the opportunity you will have to shape and change the Code if you come to Haverford, what issues and ideas do you think are essential for an Honor Code to focus on, and how should an Honor Code address them? [Haverford College]
  20. It’s easy to identify with the hero-the literary or historical figure who saves the day. Have you ever identified with a figure who wasn’t a hero-a villain or a scapegoat, a bench-warmer or a bit player? If so, tell us why this figure appealed to you-and if your opinion changed over time, tell us about that, too. [University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill]
  21. Imagine it is the eve of your graduation from Lafayette and you are reading what the yearbook says about the impact you have had on the College during your four years as a student. What might the yearbook say? [Lafayette College]
  22. Please share an example of an instance when you feel creative thought really did matter. [Skidmore College]
  23. People face challenges every day. Some make decisions that force them beyond their comfort levels. Maybe you have a political, social or cultural viewpoint that is not shared by the rest of your school, family or community. Did you find the courage to create a better opportunity for yourself or others? Were you able to find the voice to stand up for something you passionately supported? How did you persevere when the odds were against you? [Lehigh University]
  24. If you had the opportunity to bring any person — past or present, fictional or nonfictional — to a place that is special to you (your hometown or country, a favorite location, etc), who would you bring and why? Tell us what you would share with that person. [New York University]
  25. Prepare a one-minute video that says something about you. Upload it to an easily accessible Web site and give us the URL and access code. What you do or say is totally up to you. [Tufts University]

 

As an aside to Question #25 – For someone who can demonstrate a particular talent, a YouTube video may have its benefits, but what does a student who’s involved in science research do? Does this student have to stand at the lab table behind some bubbling gases and sing “Monster Mash”? I can just see it – “I was working in the lab late one night when …” Will a YouTube video make this potential cancer researcher a stronger candidate? I think not! Read our March 2010 Newsletter on YouTubing the College Admissions Rapids and our March 8, 2010 Blog on More on YouTubing the College Admissions Rapids.

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