How to Write the UChicago Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
July 31, 2019
A Guide to the UChicago Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
You probably already know that admission into the University of Chicago, with its acceptance rate of only 5.9%, is far from guaranteed. But as you gear up to apply to the school, you might get further thrown off by the essays you have to write. Alongside the required classic “why UChicago” question, this highly selective school also presents you with some rather unusual prompts in the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020.
You don’t expect to see references to Costco or Harry Potter spells when you’re getting into the mindset for convincing admissions officers why you’re a good fit for a school, and yet these have been part of past UChicago prompts. It goes without saying that UChicago’s quirky prompts aren’t your typical supplemental essay questions. But despite their unique nature, the goal of the university is the same as any other school - to understand your perspective, to get a sense of your goals, and determine whether your values align with those UChicago looks for in its students.
To guide you through each of the prompts for the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020, I have outlined the questions, how to go about tackling them, and more tips to help you write the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020.
The UChicago Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
UChicago prides itself on its provocative supplemental essay prompts. Use these as an opportunity to introduce yourself, what you’re passionate about, and your ambitions and goals. Although there is no set word limit for any of the prompts, InGenius Prep counselor Natalia Ostrowski, who worked as the Assistant Director of Admissions at UChicago, recommends that you limit the first essay (“Why UChicago”) to a page (double spaced in 12 point font). The second essay - the more weird and unusual one of the two - should be about two pages, double spaced and in 12 point font.
Your voice in your essay can be serious, you can let your creativity complete loose, or you can find an in-between take on any issue you’re writing about. According to Natalia, “UChicago admissions officers want to see how you connect ideas and get a front-row view into your critical thinking, intellectual curiosity and excitement for knowledge.”
So without further ado, let’s go through all of the prompts - including each of the odd ones - for the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020, and ways you could dissect and answer them:
Question 1 (Required)
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.
Although there is no strict word limit on this “why UChicago” essay, don’t go overboard with what you like about the university. Admissions officers already know it’s a great school. How do you narrow down what you love about the college? Well, look at the question for hints. The question asks that you elaborate on how UChicago can help meet your needs when it comes to the following:
When reading your response to this question, admissions officers are looking for whether you’ve done your homework on UChicago to determine how much you’d fit into the college. Below are a few questions that Natalia suggests you ask yourself to brainstorm for this essay:
- Why is the Core important to you? (And don’t just copy/paste what you wrote for Columbia and vice versa — they’ll know)
- What specific majors are you interested in and why?
- Has it always been your dream to work with [insert professor here] or study abroad in [insert location here]? Why?
- Which activities are you excited to contribute to? Why do you want to be a Maroon (yes, UChicago has sports!)?
Emphasize the community aspect - how do you hope to find your people on campus? Is it the opportunity to participate in student organizations such as Humor Magazine or the intramural wiffleball team that call out to you? Or are you keen to explore Chicago’s Revival Community Improv Theater within walking distance of the college? You might want to continue your community involvement work from high school by participating in the Neighborhood Schools Program, The Civic Knowledge Project, or one of the college’s several organizations that help give back to the greater Chicago community.
Since you have space, you can provide context on who you are, your passions, and the kind of values you hope to bring to UChicago. Whatever you choose to write about, make sure you prioritize what you’re looking for from your college experience and how UChicago is the ideal place to explore these interests or goals. Show admissions officers that you have done your research and can convincingly argue for your place at the school, clearly outlining the parts of campus you wish to commit to.
Nikki Champlin, a writing expert from Yale and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, talks about how to strategically answer "why this school" prompts here:
Question 2: Extended Essay (Required; Choose One)
Now we get to the weirder essays. At first - and even second or third glance - these questions are out of the box in comparison to other schools’ supplemental essays. But where do you even start? Natalia affirms that, “Admissions officers want to see how your brain works. It doesn’t matter what you write about or which question you answer — your ideas and how you write about those ideas is what matters.”
She also adds that from your essay, “Admissions officers will be able to have a glimpse of who you might be in the classroom, or when you’re deep in discussion in the dining halls or dorms, or walking through the snowy Harper Quad on your way to get some hot chocolate at Hallowed Grounds.”
The takeaway for admissions officers reading your UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 should be to understand what makes you tick and how you are going to contribute to the community. This is the goal you should keep in mind throughout your writing process.
Essay Option 1
Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?
—Inspired by Kedrick Shin, Class of 2019
If you’re immediately thrown off by this question, you’re most definitely not alone. Like we’ve established, the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 are unusual.
A question you have to answer when brainstorming this essay is whether you want to write about something real or imaginary. You can write about what you know, but don’t keep it too obvious - such as writing a two page essay on how humans have one life. That is too common unless you can take a really unique approach to justifying your choice. You can take inspiration from the “cats have nine lives” line and argue a case for why you believe the Giant Squid has six or badgers have twenty (or however many) lives. You can choose to write about something more serious and recount a story about how someone you know escaped a near death-experience and actually has more than one life. Whatever you write about, it’s important to explain the why part of this question. Why do you believe that the creature or object you’ve focused on has more lives? Unpack the explanation so that it leaves no questions unanswered.
Clearly your logic doesn’t have to be factual here, so go all out with your explanation and make admissions officers nod their head in agreement and say, “Hmm, that actually makes sense!”
Essay Option 2
If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options, as you can tell, are endless.
—Inspired by Yoonseo Lee, Class of 2023
UChicago encourages students to “dig deeper, push further, and ask bigger questions.” This prompt from the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 is a great place to show the school that you’re not afraid to tie everyday mundane things to academic areas. To tackle this prompt, you could use the basic principle of economics - demand is unlimited, supply is not. You could use a more spiritual reference and talk about the significance of bread in religion.
Remember though, that you are encouraged to get as creative as you want with these, so if you can use literature or film as your academic discipline and use logic from a fantasy novel or film that you enjoy, you could take that risk. At the same time, this question leans in a more academic direction than the others - since it explicitly brings up fields that you’d study in school and/or college. So if you’re not a fan of creative writing, this question might be more approachable for you since the answer can be framed with a scholarly angle.
For this prompt, I’d recommend having a third party read the essay to see if the logic you’ve used does indeed make sense. You don’t have to be scientific at all in your explanation - you just have to convince the reader.
Whichever approach you choose, make sure to answer the question: how are fast food places and chain restaurants able to offer food in infinite amounts if one of the biggest issues the earth faces is the depletion of valuable resources. It’s easy with such a question to swerve off-base, so avoid going off on a tangent! Since the question has provided you with some scope, take advantage of it and stick to it.
Download Every Supplemental Prompt Here!
Essay Option 3
A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a ______?
—Inspired by Arya Muralidharan, Class of 2021 (and dozens of others who, this year and in past years, have submitted the question “Is a hot dog a sandwich,” to which we reply, “maybe”)
You might already be familiar with the “Is a hotdog a sandwich” or “Is cereal a soup” kind of question from friends or internet memes. This is one of the most open-ended questions among the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020, because with a convincing enough argument, you might just be able to sway admissions officers to believe - or not - that a certain objects falls into a category that we generally might not consider them in. Even though the prompts provide food examples, your essay doesn’t have to focus on food at all.
Here are some questions to help get you started on your brainstorm:
- Is a bathtub a swimming pool?
- Is a bagel a donut?
- Is a black hole a sphere?
- Is pasta a salad?
- Is a magazine a book?
- Is a GIF a short movie?
- Is a watch a bracelet?
You can take any everyday object and try to form an argument that it falls under a larger group that people don’t normally associate with it. This prompt isn’t one where you should bring up your academic interests unless they flow in organically. But it is a great opportunity to show your humorous side and make the admissions officers laugh. This could start with your choice of question - for example the question “Is a GIF a short movie?” could be pretty funny. You might add to the humor by describing a GIF which has elements of a movie such as characters, a conflict, and a resolution. Even if you exaggerate in proving your reasoning, you can be deliberate in your stretch and bring a smile to your reader’s face.
You’re at liberty here to think out of the box. Since there’s no scientific reasoning or deep meaningful analogy behind the question in the first place, you’re more than welcome to flaunt your imagination for this prompt.
Essay Option 4
“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West
—Inspired by Elizabeth Mansfield, Class of 2020
You might be highly familiar with responding to quotes, so this prompt can be a go-to for you if the quirky nature of the other prompts make you nervous. You’ve probably noticed that there’s been no direct instruction provided on what to talk about in regards to that quote. Take advantage of that freedom - you can drive it towards any direction you want. You could talk about fiction as a broader concept - how does reading a work of fiction help understand the world better? How might a child who has very little knowledge of the world, experience a sense of paradigm shift through reading a work of fiction?
Your essay doesn’t have to limit itself to literature. You can talk about a fictional short story, play or movie, as long as it addresses both sides of the binary: fiction and reality. Finally, you should draw a conclusion on whether or not you agree with the quote. You don’t have to specifically say “I believe West is correct.” But, the admissions officer should take away your stance on the matter - with the appropriate evidence to back it up.
Essay Option 5
UChicago has international campus centers around the world, but we don’t have any interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional campuses… yet! Propose a spot in time or space, in this or any universe, for a new UChicago campus. What types of courses would be taught at this site? What cultural experiences await students who study there?
—Inspired by Peter Jasperse, Class of 2022
This topic is a way to unleash both your creative side and show that you’re aware of different aspects of UChicago. In fact, this essay could complement your “why UChicago” essay and keep the essence of the school’s features which appeal to you. Address classes and cultural experiences as the question asks. Directly describe the courses, school traditions, and types of extracurricular activities you’d want to see your students engage in. You could set your campus in a setting to elevate the researching capabilities to a whole other level - such as underwater.
And the setting of your school has no limit - your new campus could be in Mars, and encourage a complete different outlook on the way Astronomy is taught currently. Your school could be set in the same world as Harry Potter and you could explore what higher education might be like in J.K. Rowling’s universe. This is an opportunity for UChicago to learn what your priorities are when it comes to education, as well as learn more about the way your creativity and imagination work. Since this prompt is all about painting a picture, you need to describe this world in a detailed and strong way in order to transport the reader there.
Remember that you’re applying to college. While you might be hesitant to write about a fantasy or imaginary land, if you write with a level of maturity and conviction, admissions officers won’t care. You have the freedom to set this campus anywhere and you’re in charge of how it’s run. Lay out all your ideas for a cultural experience that will leave them wishing it were true!
Essay Option 6
“Don’t be afraid to pick past prompts! I liked some of the ones from previous years more than those made newly available for my year. Also, don’t worry about the ‘correct’ way to interpret a question. If there exists a correct way to interpret the prompt I chose, it certainly was not my answer.”
—Matthew Lohrs, Class of 2023
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). 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!
If you don’t like any of the other options, why not look at 30 of the previous years’ questions that UChicago has provided to inspire you. The question “How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy” might appeal to you more than any of the new prompts for UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020. And that is okay.
Note that UChicago is giving you an incredible amount of choice here by providing access to their past prompts. If you decide to go the alternative route and come up with your own question, it HAS to be good enough. It wouldn’t be the wisest decision to go with your own lame prompt with the plethora of options in your arsenal.
While UChicago doesn’t prefer that you answer questions 1-5 rather than 6, carefully weigh your options before you decide to pick number 6. Is there nothing you might have to say for the first 5 essay questions? If that is indeed the case, and you’re willing to take the risk (and UChicago appreciates risk-takers) put your unique spin on a previous - or completely original - question!
Additional Tips for Writing the UChicago Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
Now that you’ve taken a look at the prompts for the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020, here are a few tips to help your brainstorming process:
- Standout essays for standout prompts - The prompts for the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 are without a doubt, highly strange. It’s okay to feel intimidated, and you might choose a prompt which asks for a more academic-leaning response if you’re not a creative writer. While it’s not an issue to find an option that’s tailored towards your assets, note that other applicants will be writing all sorts of weird and highly imaginative essays. So you need to come up with something memorable and original to stand out among the competition.
- Consider multiple approaches - Each of the questions for the UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 have different routes you can choose. For some, such as the “Is a hotdog a sandwich?” or the topic of your choice questions, you can write about anything. So don’t restrict yourself into thinking there is a right answer. While it might feel like the college may want you to answer a certain way, UChicago wants to understand your personality and background. Stay true to yourself and authentically convey who you are and the way you view the world.
- Don’t let the prompts discourage you from applying to the school - While the prompts set by the University of Chicago are definitely unusual and undoubtedly tricky, they are not impossible to answer. The school has set a standard for similarly quirky questions and hundreds of students still get in every year. So the minute you see these on the Common App, don’t be tempted to run away and remove UChicago from your school list. It’s a great school, and if you have a strong application to compete with other top students, don’t miss out on the chance just because the supplemental essays seem a little intimidating!
The UChicago supplemental essays 2019-2020 can add depth to your application and help admissions officers understand who you are and what you’re looking for from you college experience. The “why UChicago” prompt is your chance to convey how you would be a good fit at UChicago and vice versa. On the other hand, the essay question is a great component to capitalize on so that admissions officers understand your interests, creativity, and how you view the world. The task at hand might seem like a tough uphill battle, but it’s definitely not impossible. Good luck!