UChicago is well known for its unusual essay prompts. (Photo: Aaron Brown, Flickr)
“What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?”
No, this isn’t a question from your philosophy 101 course. Nor is it a text from that friend who loves to start deep conversations at 2 a.m.
It’s actually an application essay prompt created by a current student at the University of Chicago. The university has long been known to stump its applicants with questions far more creative than the standard ones found on the Common App. In fact, these questions frequently appear on annual lists of the most “offbeat” or “ridiculous” essay prompts on sites like Business Insider, The Washington Post and BuzzFeed.
This month, the college released its newest wave of supplemental questions for applicants that hope to join the school in fall 2017. There are six total, and five of them were created by undergraduate students at UChicago who responded to a university-wide email asking for creative submissions.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of possible options from students and alumni each year,” said Associate Director of Admissions Grace Chapin. “Even though we think our admissions officers are pretty creative people, we’d never come up with the breadth of options we receive all by ourselves.”
What guides this unique process is the idea that students and alumni of the university have a “creative energy” that should be reflected in future generations, said Chapin.
“It’s pretty fun for our current students and alumni to know their ideas might be shared with future applicants,” she said. “And perhaps even better to have our prospective students see an essay question that speaks to them with a current student’s name credited and think ‘Wow, I want to go to a school with people who think like that.'”
Maya Shaked, a junior at UChicago, seems to agree with Chapin. The “square one” prompt is Shaked’s brainchild. While the prompt itself is creative, she believes that it can be answered in lackluster ways, and so can be used to differentiate stellar applicants from ones who might not possess the creative energy the school seeks. That’s precisely why she submitted it for consideration.
“What is square one? That’s particularly easy to answer poorly,” Shaked said. “People may use it as an opportunity to have a second personal statement. But I think that’s a poor use of the uncommon prompt and it’s not conducive to writing the quirky, creative essay that you want to write. I think it’s an opportunity to weed out those people.”
Still, the creativity of UChicago undergraduates doesn’t prevent them from occasionally coming up with the same idea. Shaked, who has long held a fascination with idioms, also submitted another essay prompt, asking applicants to create their own idiom and explain its origin. On the university’s website, however, the prompt is credited to two authors. Unbeknownst to Shaked, UChicago senior April Bell submitted an essay prompt that was nearly identical.
“I was taking a sign language linguistics class one quarter, and one day we were talking about idioms. We discussed how an idiom in one language makes no sense in another language, and especially in sign language because it’s very visual. That’s when I thought it would make a great essay question,” Bell said.
Bell and Shaked have never met, but if they did, they might talk about essay prompts, past and present. Bell says questions about essays are common icebreakers in conversations at the school, and most people will either recall the essay prompts from their year or the content of their answers. When Bell was applying to the university, she chose to describe the relationship between her and her “arch-nemesis.” Shaked’s essay was a response to the prompt “How are apples are oranges supposed to be compared?” In it, she discussed everything from the Hebrew language — in which orange translates to “golden apple” — to physics and philosophy.
Related: Student writes college essay about Costco, accepted into five Ivies
But it’s not just the students who remember their essays. They’re memorable to the admissions staff, too. Chapin still fondly remembers an essay that she read over five years ago. The prompt was a quote from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it.”
“The student wrote about Skymall Magazine — the magazine in the backseat of airplanes that tries to sell you weird products, like a toaster that also cooks hot dogs,” Chapin said. “Skymall was the ‘third thing’ because inventions are dreams, and they live where they are sold and used — and, in this case, the only space for some of the more offbeat inventions in the world to ‘live’ is in this magazine you can only read on an airplane.”
Chapin remembers the essay for its humor and originality, and believes it demonstrated the student’s ingenuity more clearly than his transcript or standardized test scores could alone.
Students seem to think UChicago’s application process is successful in its mission. Shaked said,
“That process is a window into what UChicago wants from you as a student and as a thinker. It manifests itself in class and in casual conversations with people. People here are funny, smart, creative and kind.”
Anjali Bhat is a student at University of California, Davis and a USA TODAY College correspondent.
Anjali Bhat, college applications, college essay, UC Davis, University of Chicago, News
To calm the waters, a Chicago admissions representative on Tuesday posted a response telling students not to worry if their essays were similar. “We sent out the essay to lighten the mood, but it seems that it might have backfired a bit,” the posting said, adding that the dean, James G. Nondorf, had asked to “pass on a sincere apology if it did not hit the mark.”
In response to a reporter’s question, Dean Nondorf, who is in his first year at Chicago, said in an e-mail message that the reaction his office received had been overwhelmingly positive and that he thought the essay reflected “the sort of clever, creative spirit that tends to thrive at UChicago.”
“Our general message in sharing it with prospective students,” he wrote, “was that they shouldn’t stress out about essay writing.”
The student who wrote the essay, identified only as Rohan, gave permission for his essay to be distributed, the admissions office said. And although the early action program under which he was admitted is nonbinding, he has indicated that he plans to attend Chicago in the fall.
The University of Chicago has long prided itself on the unusual essays it requires from applicants, and for many years, it resisted the trend to join the Common Application, which handles online applications for hundreds of colleges and universities. Until the current freshman class, applicants used what Chicago called the Uncommon Application, which included an array of quirky and thoughtful essay prompts, many of which came from current students.
Applicants are still required to write an essay responding to one of five unusual prompts. The first one this year is “How did you get caught? Or not caught, as the case may be.” Applicants also must do the standard Common Application essay and the “Why Chicago” essay that elicited Rohan’s essay: how Chicago would “satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community and future?”
In his essay, Rohan objected to the “why.”
“Your cup overfloweth with academic genius, pour a little on me,” he wrote. “You’re legendary for it, they all told me it would never work out between us, but I had hope. I had so much hope; I replied to your adorable letters and put up with your puns.
“I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around, I accounted for all that; I understand someone of your caliber and taste. And now you inquire as to my wishes? They’re simple, accept me for who I am! Why can’t you just love and not ask why? Not ask about my assets or my past?”Continue reading the main story