Welcome back to the final installment for the University of Chicago Essay series. Let's get to it!
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
This is probably the prompt that lends itself most to a personal narrative or story, for obvious reasons. One tactic that you can take is to describe a personality trait or common behavior of yours as your armor — for example, confidence or sarcasm — and interweave that with anecdotes that prove the point. In general if you take this approach, you want to try and choose less common or clichéd personality traits.
Sarcasm is about the most conventional answer that you can give that still makes for a compelling essay, anything more narrow than that (like confidence) will likely come off as clichéd. A slightly more innovative approach in this style is to use it to show that you’re willing to engage with your flaws a little bit, especially if you are a strong applicant on paper. Obviously you don’t want to go overboard, but (as an example) describing a nervous tic where you rub your pen during a test to help calm yourself down could serve as an essay that humanizes you and takes a more innovative approach to the prompt.
Another angle to take with this prompt is to use it to explore an extracurricular activity or passion that you display in your profile. For a specific activity or passion, you could then talk about a fundamental skill or “go-to move” that you fall back on when things aren’t going smoothly in this activity, which thus makes it a form of “armor” that you use to avoid failure in the activity.
The sports examples are easy to think of: For example, perhaps your go-to move in basketball is a fadeaway jump shot. But the concept can also be applied in a non-sports context. If you are a Lincoln-Douglas debater, then maybe there is a rhetorical trick or technique that you always fall back on when you’re in a tough debate. Or if you conduct a lot of physics research, perhaps you always fall back on your understanding of data when you see results that you can’t replicate or that are confusing. Regardless of the arena, the point is to highlight a foundational skill that you use in the activity to reiterate your passion and dedication to the activity.
One final approach is to engage literally with the question and talk about your favorite piece of fashion or clothing. Perhaps you have a favorite shirt or there’s a pair of shoes that has a special place in your heart. But if you do write about an actual piece of clothing, you shouldn’t just skim the surface level, i.e., “I like this shirt because I look good in it, and it makes me feel good.”
Instead, you should use it as a jumping-off point to reflect on who you are as a person and share that with the admissions counselor. For example, you might write an essay about your favorite pair of sweatpants because you always do your best work in those sweatpants (and cannot do your best work unless you are comfortable and warm). You might also extend the essay to talk about why you sometimes feel the need for solitude (which the sweatpants implicitly represent) amidst the social strain of being in high school.
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
This is a prompt that is naturally set up for you to share something that’s quirky or offbeat about yourself. One angle to take is to focus on some sort of hobby or pastime that you enjoy that isn’t particularly mainstream.
For example, if you collect antique furniture from the 1940s or really love riding in older Amtrak trains for the authenticity of the experience, then this is a prompt that lines up really nicely to explore that. If you can tie the various quirks of the hobby or pastime to your own personal journey, then that takes the essay to the next level. For example, if you first experienced an Amtrak train with your grandfather and heard his stories, that could create a highly personal and compelling narrative.
Another approach with this essay is to write about some sort of “guilty pleasure” that you have, say if you like bad movies like the Transformers series or cheesy pop music. If you are then able to use your guilty pleasure as a vehicle to explore society at large and your place within it, then that can create a truly innovative and interesting essay.
For example, if you’re a male in more traditional settings whose guilty pleasure is watching romantic comedies, you could then explore the fact that this is considered an “unmanly” pastime and how you feel about that fact in a reflective and incisive essay. This is possible with any number of “guilty pleasures,” but you do want to be careful about how your assessment will be viewed by the reader.
For example, it’s perfectly fine to write an essay that says that you love the Transformers movie series despite its uneven gender politics if you are a woman. But the same essay written by a man might come off as tone deaf given who admissions counselors are.
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.
This is a prompt that appears every year. This essay really poses the highest risk but also the highest potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to write an innovative essay that either tackles a difficult or controversial topic (for example, our founder Vinay Bhaskara’s essay tackled why mainstream Hollywood films are more valuable than seemingly more intellectual independent films), or presents the information with a unique format (such as a conversation with a dead historical figure).
Using a prompt from past years also allows you to write an essay that is thematically and tonally different from many other applicants (as they will mostly be writing about the first five prompts offered above).
Generally speaking, your best payoff to this essay comes if you want to try something unconventional, such as writing an essay that describes the four years of high school as Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, and Heaven, and is written in the style of the divine comedy.
There are a variety of possibilities here ranging from the idiotic (you probably don’t want to write your own variation on the alt-right’s platform referring to events in your high school life) to the (relatively) overdone — they’ve probably seen several essays that have been written in iambic pentameter as an ode to Chaucer.
And we’ll reiterate the note above: This type of essay has the highest variance in terms of outcome. If done well, an unconventional essay can captivate the right admissions counselor in a way that no conventional essay can. Conversely, if the essay is executed poorly or even if it isn’t, your essay may go over the admissions counselor’s head or bore them. So this is only a strategy that you should try if you are confident in your abilities and have at least a couple of sources of high-quality feedback.
This is also an optimal prompt for truly diving into an academic passion, particularly if it is of an advanced level or unique tenor. For example, if you know a lot about Soviet cars produced between 1957 and 1983, then writing a custom prompt that allows you to explore that passion may be easier than trying to bend that topic to match one of the prompts provided.
As with any academically oriented essay, you do want to make sure that any jargon you use is made clear, either via explicit explanation or context clues. You shouldn’t shy away from jargon — it’s one of the things that helps position you as an expert on the subject of your essay. But you don’t want to render the essay unintelligible to your reader.
One broader note on writing your own prompt — it doesn’t have to be as complex or convoluted as the other UChicago prompts, and you mainly just want to find a prompt that matches the essay that you want to write, even if it is straightforward.
We wish you the best of luck writing your UChicago essay!