- Could not resist sharing these thought provoking essay prompts just released by the University of Chicago for this season's prospective students - included are also some classic questions from previous years. Actually, it's a read for anyone.
Essay Option 1
Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Essay Option 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?
Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006
Essay Option 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?
Inspired by Greg Gabrellas, A.B. 2009
Essay Option 4
“Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” - Overheard in the city of Chicago.
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?
Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second-year in the College
Essay Option 5
In the spirit 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.
Some Classic Questions From Previous Years
- Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
Chicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture and explore what it wants.
Proposed by Anna Andel, a graduate of Bard High School Early College, New York, NY (2007–2008).
- In Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, he writes a parable entitled “Borges y yo,” which translates as “Borges and I.” In it, Borges writes about “the other one,” his counterpart, who shares his preference for “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson,” but is not the same as he. “The other one” is the famous author; “the other one” is the one “things happen to.” He concludes this parable with the line “I do not know which of us has written this page.” Write a page. Who has written it?
Proposed by Zhuyi Elizabeth Sun, a graduate of Inglemoor High School, Bothell, WA (2007–2008).
- Modern improvisational comedy had its start with The Compass Players, a group of University of Chicago students, who later formed the Second City comedy troupe. Here is a chance to play along. Improvise a story, essay, or script that meets all of the following requirements:
It must include the line “And yes I said yes I will Yes” (Ulysses, by James Joyce).
Its characters may not have superpowers.
Your work has to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of a high school student applying to the University—this is fiction, not autobiography.
Your work must include at least four of the following elements: a paper airplane, a transformation, a shoe, the invisible hand, two doors, pointillism, a fanciful explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, a ventriloquist or ventriloquism, the Periodic Table of the Elements, the concept of jeong, number two pencils.
- “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)
Inspired by Jack Reeves, a graduate of Ridgefield High School, Ridgefield, CT (2006-2007)
- The Cartesian coordinate system is a popular method of representing real numbers and is the bane of eighth graders everywhere. Since its introduction by Descartes in 1637, this means of visually characterizing mathematical values has swept the globe, earning a significant role in branches of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus. Describe yourself as a point or series of points on this axial arrangement. If you are a function, what are you? In which quadrants do you lie? Are x and y enough for you, or do you warrant some love from the z-axis? Be sure to include your domain, range, derivative, and asymptotes, should any apply. Your possibilities are positively and negatively unbounded.
Inspired by Joshua Nalven, a graduate of West Orange High School, West Orange, NJ (2006–2007)
- The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
—“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
Perhaps you recognize this poem. If you do, then your mind has probably moved on to the question the next line poses: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” Saying who we are is never simple (read the entire poem if you need evidence of that). Write a truthful page about yourself for us, an audience you do not know—a very tall order. Hughes begins: “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem./I went to school there, then Durham, then here/to this college on the hill above Harlem./I am the only colored student in my class.” That is, each of us is of a certain age and of a particular family background. We have lived somewhere and been schooled. We are each what we feel and see and hear. Begin there and see what happens.
- University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric, Oyster Bay High School, Oyster Bay, New York (2005-2006)
- Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus’s escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the basic awfulness of string cheese, to the Old Norse tradition that one’s life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children’s game of cat’s cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
Inspired by Adam Sobolweski, Pittsford Mendon High School, Pittsford, New York (2005–2006)
- Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
Based on a suggestion by Katherine Gold of Cherry Hill High School East, Cherry Hill, NJ (2004–2005)
- People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you’re startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
Based on a suggestion by Kimberly Traube of La Jolla Country Day School, La Jolla, CA (2004–2005)
- If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net.)
Inspired by Emma Ross, a graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Plainsboro, NJ (2003–2004)
- Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Propose your own original theory to explain one of the 16 mysteries below. Your theory does not need to be testable or even probable; however, it should provide some laws, principles, and/or causes to explain the facts, phenomena, or existence of one of these mysteries. You can make your theory artistic, scientific, conspiracy-driven, quantum, fanciful, or otherwise ingenious—but be sure it is your own and gives us an impression of how you think about the world.
Love, Non-Dairy Creamer, Sleep and Dreams, Gray, Crop Circles, The Platypus, The Beginning of Everything, Art, Time Travel, Language, The End of Everything, The Roanoke Colony, Numbers, Mona Lisa’s Smile, The College Rankings in U.S. News and World Report, Consciousness
Inspired by Akash Goel, a graduate of Saint Bede Academy, Peru, IL (2003–2004)
- How do you feel about Wednesday?
Inspired by Maximilian Pascual Ortega, a graduate of Maine Township High School South, Park Ridge, IL (2002–2003)
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