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Chicago Arch Nemesis Essay

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 


Quirkiest College Admissions Essay Questions

It's that time again! With the Common Application and Universal Application releasing their 2012-2013 editions on August 1st, along with several schools releasing updated supplements, the college application season has officially kicked off.  College admissions officers may read hundreds of applications and while a student’s “hard factors” including grades, transcripts, and standardized test scores, don’t leave much room for interpretation, a student’s “soft factors,” such as letters of recommendation, interviews, and resume give each applicant an opportunity to let their personality shine through.

An applicant’s college admissions essay and personal statement in particular, allow the application reader to picture the student as a living, breathing human being.  When reading an essay, the admissions board will try to determine: Who are you? Will you make a valuable contribution to your future campus community? What type of character traits do you possess? Are you responsible? Shy? Creative? A Leader? A nonconformist?  Some colleges take a particularly creative approach to the application essay prompt with the hopes that students will reply in kind. Here are some of the quirkiest college admissions essay questions that we’ve come across this year:

  • "From now on, I'll connect the dots my own way," says Calvin in the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" by Bill Watterson '80. What is "your way" of making sense of things? Are there dots you hope to connect? (Kenyon College)

  • A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents you know it’s going to be the best day of your life. What’s inside and how do you spend your day? (Brandeis University)

  • You arrive at one of your classes to find the room/lecture hall unexpectedly empty. In the room you find a potato, a book, and a tube of paint. Why are those things there, what is the connection, and where did everyone go? (University of Michigan, Honors Program)

  • Explain unicorns. (University of Michigan, Honors Program)

  • You just put a message in a bottle and threw the bottle out to sea. What is the message? (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

  • So where is Waldo, really? (University of Chicago)

  • "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." - Oscar Wilde.

    Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. The Autobots and the Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined). (University of Chicago)

Check back soon for more quirky college admissions essays from the 2012-2013 college application cycle.