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Rockefeller Chapel is one of the iconic buildings on the University of Chicago campus. Applicants to the school face an "uncommon" essay question.

Quirky essay questions get prospective University of Chicago students thinking differently

by Nate Mickelberg
Apr 24, 2013

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Additional facts

•The University of Chicago admissions office invites current students and recent alumni to contribute ideas for essay questions.
•More than 1,000 people contributed essay prompt ideas this year, and a committee of admissions counselors whittled that number down to six.
•The “uncommon” essay question is one of four that potential undergraduates respond to as part of their application.
•Between the “uncommon” essays and the essays on the Common Application, admissions officers read tens of thousands of essays last year.
•One U of C alumnus said he took an entire weekend to prepare and write just his “uncommon” essay response when he applied to the school.

“Evaluate an ethical dilemma and its impact on you.” “Describe a person who has had a significant influence on you.” “So where is Waldo, really?” 

One of these college application essays is not like the others, but if you’ve applied to the University of Chicago, you already knew that.

For more than 30 years, prospective U of C undergraduates have been responding to these “uncommon” essay questions as a part of their applications. Applicants choose the “uncommon” question they’ll respond to from a list, a list that in the past has included such questions as, “How do you feel about Wednesday?” and “How did you get caught?”

Zach Binney, who graduated from the U of C in 2008, said the questions are a way for the admissions committee to evaluate applicants beyond the numbers.

“It demonstrates a few things,” Binney said. “It demonstrates critical thinking, creativity, a lot of things you can’t necessarily learn from a high school transcript, especially in a high-achieving group where you’d expect a high GPA and high SAT scores from anybody who applies to Chicago in the first place.

“It also gives you a sense of a student’s personality and how well they would fit in in a community like the U of C.”

Alumnae Hannah Kushnick, AB’08, echoed Binney’s belief that the essays serve as a kind of barometer for student-school compatibility.

“I was a B+ student with reasonable-but-not-incredible SAT scores, and I got in,” Kushnick wrote in an email. “So I think they must have placed a somewhat significant amount of stock in the intangible things like essays and interviews, which I benefited from in both the obvious way and the other way: spending four years around the smart weirdoes I prefer.

“Even today when I meet someone and I find them oddly easy to talk to and delightful, seven times out of 10 they went to the University of Chicago. So I think the approach they take to the essay questions points to and realizes that whole ethos.”

Rob Berki, an undergraduate recruiter at North Park University in Chicago, said that while the “uncommon” essay questions might work for some universities, at many schools these kinds of additional application components could deter some otherwise-interested applicants from applying.

“Common sense would indicate that the more complicated the process is, the more of a weeding out process it might be as well,” Berki said. “Some students might not on the front end be serious about applying, but once they do apply and get to know the school, they might be very interested in it.”

With more than 25,000 applicants last year alone, though, it’s safe to say plenty are interested in the U of C.