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Last updated March 28, 2023

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How to Write the UChicago Supplemental Essays

Key Takeaway

The University of Chicago supplemental essays are some of the most infamous in college admissions. You'll be asked to respond to one "quirky" prompt and one "why us" prompt. The key to acing the UChicago essays is in striking the right tone.

The University of Chicago requires you to write two supplemental essays. For both, you’ll upload a separate document instead of pasting your essay into a textbox.

In this post, we’ll address the elephant in the room (those pesky, infamous UChicago prompts), and we’ll go over the best strategy for answering them.

Let’s dive in.

Prompt #1: The Quirky Prompt

First, some logistics. You’re required to choose from one of the following six prompts, and your answer should be one to two pages in length. Make sure you put your prompt choice at the top of the page!

Now for the strategy. Perhaps some of the most famous prompts in college admissions, the University of Chicago questions are well-known for being quite odd. But their quirky and intellectual spirit perfectly lines up with the learning culture at UChicago.

To show that you belong at the University of Chicago, you’ll need to choose the best prompt for you and answer it in a way that aligns with what UChicago admissions officer are looking for. It should also align with your cohesive application narrative.

Since Chicago is known for its robust intellectual culture, these essays are your opportunity to show that you belong in that culture. No matter the prompt you choose, your approach should be intellectual, creative, and even interrogative. You should show a passion for the life of the mind and a natural ability to pose and answer questions. Your unique perspective and original thought should be clear. In short, you want to show that you can hold your own in a UChicago classroom.

Let’s take a look at the prompts.

1. Was it a cat I saw? Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo (Japanese for “the world is a warm place”). Moze jutro ta dama da tortu jezom (Polish for “maybe tomorrow that lady will give a cake to the hedgehogs”). Share a palindrome in any language, and give it a backstory.

—Inspired by Leah Beach, Class of 2026, Lib Gray SB ’12, and Agnes Mazur AB ‘09

Here, you can pick any of your favorite palindromes. You might pick one in English, or, if another language is important to you, you could find one in another language, too. Your backstory could be funny or serious. But it should definitely be thoughtful and creative. Write about the person who invented it, the situation that led to its first utterance, or even a mytholgy behind it.

2. What advice would a wisdom tooth have?

—Inspired by Melody Dias, Class of 2025

Avoid. Cliches. If you pick this one, please don’t write about a truism your admissions officer will have read a thousand times. You’ve got to have a real piece of wisdom. It can still be fun or humorous or creative, if that’s who you are. But don’t let it be generic.

3. You are on an expedition to found a colony on Mars, when from a nearby crater, a group of Martians suddenly emerges. They seem eager to communicate, but they’re the impatient kind and demand you represent the human race in one song, image, memory, proof, or other idea. What do you share with them to show that humanity is worth their time?

—Inspired by Alexander Hastings, Class of 2023, and Olivia Okun-Dubitsky, Class of 2026

You can take this essay in so many different directions. You can take a more intellectual approach and choose something about which you are an expert. You could use the prompt as an opportunity to exhibit a particular passion for art, music, math, or more. Or you could take a more creative approach and choose something a bit unconventional. As you’re deciding how to answer the prompt, you can think about which areas of your application need bolstering. Is your application STEM heavy so you want to show a bit of your humanities background? Are you missing a little personality, so you want to say a bit about your interest in art? Figuring out where gaps are can help give you direction.

4. UChicago has been affiliated with over 90 Nobel laureates. But, why should economics, physics, and peace get all the glory? You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

—Inspired by Isabel Alvarez, Class of 2026

This prompt is maybe the tamest of the six options. Your answer could be more straightforward, too. Maybe you genuinely believe that there should be a Nobel Prize in the study of history or sociology. If you can make your case, great! Your answer doesn’t have to be quirky. It can simply be genuine and thoughtful. Of course, you can still have fun with the question, if you want. Answers like “babysitting” or “pizza making” will probably catch your UChicago admissions officer’s attention. You’ll just have to be careful to actually answer the prompt: include your explanation, the “why” behind it, and the necessary criteria. Remember that the goal of your essay is to show that you’re a good cultural fit for UChicago, so be mindful of what your answer contributes to your overall application narrative.

5. Genghis Khan with an F1 racecar. George Washington with a SuperSoaker. Emperor Nero with a toaster. Leonardo da Vinci with a Furby. If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be, and why do you think they’d work so well together?

—Inspired by Braden Hajer, Class of 2025

What do you notice about the examples at the beginning of the prompt? They’re all funny and totally out of left field. They’re pairings of famous people with some of the most random objects you can think of. If you want, you can take that formula and run with it: pick your favorite historical figure, then pick a random object that is memorable and humorous but that you can also make a good argument for. Alternatively, you can take the opposite approach. Pick a piece of technology you want to write about, and then match it up with a historical figure that makes for an interesting story. Your essay can show creativity, humor, ingenuity, critical thought, and more.

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.

This option is the most bold. If it’s good enough, you may even inspire future prompts. But if you’re going to take the risk, you’ve got to go big. Your prompt should be one that’s truly thought provoking and original. Study current and past prompts to get the tone right. You’ll want to write several drafts of the prompt to get the wording just right. Run it by your friends, loved ones, and teachers to get feedback. And once you have the prompt, your essay will have to match it in quality and level of thought. Good luck!

Prompt #2: Why UChicago

After answering your odd prompt, you’ll quickly shift back into a standard “why us” essay with this next prompt.

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.

As with any “why us” essay, you’ll want to start with some research. Look into academic and campus life. Reflect on UChicago’s values, mission, and motto. Do in-person or virtual information sessions or campus tours, and go down any rabbit holes that call to you. In particular, spend time looking at courses, faculty, student research, clubs and organizations, communities you align with, educational atmospheres that are appealing, and interesting research or internship opportunities.

Once you’ve figured out what you like about UChicago, return to the question at the center of the prompt: how does it “satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future?”

One part of this prompt that students often neglect is the “your own wishes” detail. Your essay shouldn’t just be about UChicago—it should be about why UChicago and you are a good mutual fit!

So in your essay, lay out your own wishes—your goals, hopes, and plans—and describe the specific parts of the University of Chicago experience that will help you fulfill those wishes. It’s all about showing fit.

And you’re off! It’s time to start your UChicago essays. I know these are some of the most daunting ones, but relax and have some fun with them. If you haven't already, be sure to check out our post on the University of Chicago Common Data Set and our How to Get into University of Chicago guide. And if you find yourself needing more essay support, you can always look to the Essay Academy, our digital college essay course that covers everything you could ever want to know about college essays.

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