Unique UChicago essay questions spark students’ creativity

Prompts encourage applicants to think beyond traditional admissions essay conventions and freely express themselves

Whether it is finding where Waldo really is, considering who Sally sells her seashells to or exploring what can actually be divided by zero, every University of Chicago undergraduate since the 1980s has written an essay as part of the College admissions process. 

While the first supplemental essay on the UChicago application essentially asks “Why UChicago?”, the Extended Essay encourages creative liberty and provides a window into a prospective student’s personality and passions.

The legendary UChicago Extended Essay dates back to at least 1984, when a prompt invited applicants to imagine themselves as astronauts on Mars and asked them whether they would prefer to be teleported molecule-to-molecule back to earth, or to be the person running the teleporting machine. Prompts were initially developed by College Admissions staff, but in 2000, the practice of inviting admitted students to contribute questions first began. 

According to Peter Wilson, AB’10, MBA’17, assistant vice president of enrollment and student advancement and director of undergraduate admissions, the essay gives prospective students an opportunity to demonstrate how they utilize critical thinking and rigorous inquiry to confront unfamiliar situations. 

“When students come to the College, they will invariably be met with a situation or problem they have never encountered before, be it academics-related or otherwise” Wilson said. “This prompt gives Admissions counselors a way to evaluate how students will navigate those situations once they are at UChicago.”

John W. Boyer, the dean of the College, said the fundamental idea behind the Extended Essay is to invite prospective students to be creative in a serious but intellectually playful way in response to an open-ended challenge. 

“These essays not only reveal much about the qualities of mind of our students, but they also show our students something of the intellectually dynamic culture they will be joining if they matriculate here as members of our community,” Boyer said.

Each year, applicants choose from six essay options—five are prompts selected for that application cycle, and the sixth allows applicants to choose a prompt from past years or create one of their own. 

“We offer a number of options because we understand students are different—they have different interests and backgrounds, a wide variety of experiences and views, and they engage different parts of their brains. We are interested in diversity in all its forms, and a wide variety of questions allows for a wide variety of ideas to be represented,” Wilson said. 

Selecting new prompts every year begins with soliciting members of the UChicago community, both past and present, and asking them to submit ideas. Those interested in sending in their ideas for the 2022-23 application cycle can expect to see a call-for-submissions email next May.

By engaging current students and alumni in the process, the Extended Essay connects prospective students with the UChicago community. After receiving an average of nearly 1,000 essay prompt submissions each year, a small group of Admissions counselors then meet to review and finalize the year’s list. 

Grace Chapin James, AB’11, is very familiar with the process, having served as the chair of the essay committee for eight of the 10 years that she worked in the Office of College Admissions. 

“When we give people these creative questions, the goal is to open up their minds and see if they have a level of creativity or flexibility and exploration that will lend itself well to being in a UChicago classroom,” said James, who is now director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. 

Overall, Wilson says the essay shows prospective students that the University is interested in getting a sense for how they think before they step foot on campus. 

“It also signals to prospective students that we are an institution that values and celebrates novel ways of thinking and solving problems,” he added.

Below, view two of the 2021-2022 essay prompts for prospective students and the thought process behind their creation. The rest of the prompts can be found here.

Applications for the Class of 2026 are open through the Coalition and Common Applications. For more information, visit getstarted.uchicago.edu.

In Homer’s Iliad, Helen had a “face that launched a thousand ships.” A millihelen, then, measures the beauty needed to launch one ship. The Sagan unit is used to denote any large quantity (in place of “billions and billions”). A New York Minute measures the period of time between a traffic light turning green and the cab behind you honking. Invent a new unit of measurement. How is it derived? How is it used? What are its equivalents?

—Inspired by Carina Kane, Class of 2024, and Ishaan Goel, Class of 2025

The first thing that rising second-year Carina Kane, a pre-medical student and anthropology major, learned about UChicago as a prospective student was that it had unusual essay prompts. Because of this, she decided to apply.

“I really liked the freedom [of the essay], because I could pretty much choose anything and then weave whatever story or anecdote into it and make it my own question. And I definitely knew when I was answering the question that I wanted to include something that I was interested in, but I wanted to mostly talk about something that would give some indication about who I am.” 

At the end of her first year on campus, inspired by past prompts, Kane submitted her own with the goal of giving students freedom to present their stories. From chemistry to economics to architecture, nearly every field includes a unit of measurement, and Kane hopes applicants will apply their knowledge in their subject of expertise. 

“I hope students will choose something that they're really interested in, and take that freedom that comes with the question and extend their knowledge in that subject to a fantastical realm. Everything's rigid when you're working with certain subjects, and I'd hope that they could take that and turn it into something invented and imagined.”

"There is no such thing as a new idea" - Mark Twain. Are any pieces of art, literature, philosophy, or technology truly original, or just a different combination of old ideas? Pick something, anything (besides yourself), and explain why it is, or is not, original.

—Inspired by Haina Lu, Class of 2022

Haina Lu, a rising fourth-year majoring in economics and public policy, chose to submit a prompt because the Extended Essay was one of her favorite parts of the College application process. 

Her idea was partly inspired by the “ship of Theseus” paradox, which asks whether an object that has had its components entirely replaced fundamentally remains the same object. It was also inspired by late-night conversations with her housemates in Cathey Dining Hall. 

“The Extended Essay makes the overall undergraduate body more creative and colorful,” she said. “Having an Extended Essay prompt allows students to present their ideas in a more freeform way, which contributes to making a more curious and eccentric—in the best way— student body.”

—This story was also published on the College website.