Writing for U Chicago in 2020: This post was originally written for 2017-18, but basically, U Chicago’s essay prompts never die, and then don’t even fade away. They may go in the deep freeze for awhile, but Chicago likes to offer you the opportunity to write on prompts from earlier years. So due to that, this post is still live in 2020 and beyond . . . read on for the gist.
And this year, the essay prompts from U Chicago, a.k.a. “The Place Fun Goes to Die” are a little more lightweight and also more personal than in previous years. Overall, this year’s U Chicago prompts are more about a quirky personal response than deep philosophy–though you can always find something deeper, or at least interesting to say with these prompts, with a little extra thought.
And if you wanted to take a risk while writing an essay, this is the place: Chicago pretty much begs you to take risks, wake up the app reader, show a little originality. So be anything but boring.
To show what I mean, we will now take a look at the first two of the University of Chicago Extended Essay Prompts for the 2017-2018 application season:
Extended Essay Questions:
(Required; Choose one)
Essay Option 1.
“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert
Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?
So let’s look into the background of this prompt before we look at an example of how to write about it: it is based on the relatively obscure Enlightenment French author, Joseph Joubert, and it seems aimed at our present national moment of mutual incomprehension: What, you have never heard of Joubert? Neither has 99% of the populace.
He actually is quite the dead white guy, a man who wrote aphorisms that read like the best haiku. But he was also a writer who never actually wrote that book he was going to write; instead he wrote many aphorisms and short descriptions that distilled the essence of this or that, as he hung out and engaged in witty conversation in the great salons of Paris and pretty much “enjoyed the journey.” The journey over the destination is a cliché, of course, but if you read some of his stuff, like his Pensées, you will see what I mean. Not that you need to read Joubert much to write this prompt . . . but it could help. For example, this–
A hard intellect is a hammer that can do nothing
but crush. Hardness of intellect is sometimes no less
harmful and hateful than hardness of heart.
Some persons there are who, intellectually, are
reasonable enough, but whose life is quite irrational ;
and there are, on the other hand, those whose life is
rational and whose minds are devoid of reason.
The last one sounds like a pretty good sociological take on America today, no?
For those of you acquainted with Montaigne, Joubert is what Montaigne claimed to be–a free explorer of whatever was on his mind. Here is what his most recent translator into English, Paul Auster had to say about Joubert, in part:
“Neither a poet nor a novelist, neither a philosopher nor an essayist, Joubert was a man of letters without portfolio whose work consists of a vast series of notebooks in which he wrote down his thoughts every day for more than forty years. All the entries are dated, but the notebooks cannot be construed as a traditional diary, since there are scarcely any personal remarks in it. Nor was Joubert a writer of maxims in the classical French manner. He was something far more oblique and challenging, a writer who spent his whole life preparing himself for a work that never came to be written, a writer of the highest rank who paradoxically never produced a book.”
So take all that together, and you have some sense of the spirit of the question posed by Anonymous here; while you can pretty much riff off of a U Chicago question in any way that you can invent, they do offer some prompts that seem to have a political or cultural slant, and this is one of them, a prompt for a polarized age of argument in which most of use are having trouble understanding the other side (Qualification: Understanding does not mean agreeing, and I believe that the conflict in the U.S.A. is over real values . . . and will have a real impact on lives).
If you like the prompt, but nothing is coming immediately to mind, a public e-text of Joubert’s Pensées is available in jumbled form here: Pensees. Just scroll down past all the documentation and introductory material to get right to it. You might find an idea by going to the source. Note that this does not mean you have to use the quote in your essay–that can be its own cliché–the idea may work well put into your own words.
Another way to look for topics that are not discussed enough is to look at some topics that are almost certainly discussed too much, at least in kind of blind arguments that Joubert deplored : politics, race, climate change, Trump (Trump is as much a sociological and psychological as he is political, so I give him a separate category. So true).
Does that mean you cannot and should not write about any of these for this prompt? Well, no. Surely there is some aspect of these that is overlooked, or more to the point, surely most of our conversations about these things are clichéd, and clichéd in that deepest sense of using clichés to avoid dealing with the truth? Take Trump. I see him as an excellent example of the outcome of Winner-Take-All . . . parenting. And I am not talking about Trump’s kids; I am talking about Fred Trump here. Think of Donald Trump as a boy, and you have a different kind of discussion. Maybe even some empathy–which does not mean agreement, by the way.
Let me sum up our lesson on the U Chicago essays so far: If there is a background (like Joubert), it is better to know about it; it may not be useful, but you may be missing the point of the prompt if you know nothing about the background. Not that being clueless will necessarily hurt, as a clever non sequitur can also be a winner. But still, I would want to be choosing to write my essay as a kind of alternate-universe response that uses the opening quote as a way to go somewhere totally unconnected; I would not want to be doing that by accident.
And now, more briefly, a typo prompt for number 2:
Essay Option 2.
Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/majors-minors.
So the obvious place to start would be with your actual interest area–take me; I would have been looking at things like Comparative Literature; hmmm . . .
Comparative Bitterature? The knowledge and Study of all things bitter, from the best espresso sourced from a tribe of failed hipsters who now populate a long-lost South American coffee plantation, producing the deepest, darkest bitterest espresso ever known to man; to the bitter souls of internet trolls or the sense of defeat experienced by ex-presidential candidates.
Notice that in changing the majors via a typo, you are, in fact, inventing your own major, so you do not have to actually look at any subject you are interested in. Look for the words you can change in interesting ways–and that is the obvious intention of this prompt: to test your spirit of invention.
I will leave it at that, other than to add that I would conclude my essay on Comparative Bitterature by explaining the purpose of my created major: Comparative Biterature aims to reacquaint the cotton-candy culture of my own country, the U. S. of A, with the benefits of the bitter, which my tai chi master taught me when he said, as I stayed down in a full horse-stance squat, “You must eat bitter before you appreciate sweet. Which is why you will hold build up enough strength to hold that horse stance for 15 minutes before I teach you the next form . . . Ouch.
Start creating some typos; I will be back in the next week or so for another post on this year’s U Chicago prompts.