Next up: the Off-the-Wall, otherwise known as Chicago’s Essay Number Two. Below you will find all of the prompts, which includes new prompts for this year and a selection of golden oldies from years past that you may also write about. See my links for commentary and analysis on multiple prompts.I will also choose a couple of the new prompts to analyze in separate posts in the coming weeks, so come back soon.
With that, here they are:
University of Chicago Question 2 for 2019-2020–see below for the past question option, on which I offer detailed analysis:
Extended Essay (Required; Choose one)
Essay Option 1
have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives.
How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?
—Inspired by Kedrick Shin, Class of 2019
Essay Option 2
there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along
with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly
unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of
analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options,
as you can tell, are endless.
—Inspired by Yoonseo Lee, Class of 2023
Essay Option 3
hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a
—Inspired by Arya Muralidharan, Class of 2021 (and dozens of others who, this year and in past years, have submitted the question “Is a hot dog a sandwich,” to which we reply, “maybe”)
Essay Option 4
reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West
—Inspired by Elizabeth Mansfield, Class of 2020
Essay Option 5
has international campus centers around the world, but we don’t have any
interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional campuses… yet! Propose a spot
in time or space, in this or any universe, for a new UChicago campus. What
types of courses would be taught at this site? What cultural experiences await
students who study there?
—Inspired by Peter Jasperse, Class of 2022
Essay Option 6
be afraid to pick past prompts! I liked some of the ones from previous years
more than those made newly available for my year. Also, don’t worry about the
‘correct’ way to interpret a question. If there exists a correct way to
interpret the prompt I chose, it certainly was not my answer.”
—Matthew Lohrs, Class of 2023
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). 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!
Some classic questions from previous years…
“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
What is the sound of one essay getting you into the U of Chicago? Up to you, but here is my post on this essay prompt, again from a few years back:
How to Write the University of Chicago Zen Essay
Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020
Here is my analysis on this essay from a couple of years ago; keep in mind that some references reflect events in that year, not this year: Vestigiality Essay Analysis
In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness.” In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
—Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018
Click on the link below for my analysis of this “translation” essay:
The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
—Inspired by Tess Moran, AB’16
Ah, the Mantis Shrimp, most entertaining of pets. Here is my Analysis of this Mantis Shrimp prompt, from a few years back:
How to Write the Mantis Shrimp Essay
Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
—Inspired by Doran Bennett, AB’07
Ah, uncertainty–here is my analysis on the Uncertainty Principle and its applications from days past:
You Want a Schroedinger’s Cat? How to Write About Heisenberg
Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
Susan Sontag appears with some frequency in the U Chicago prompts because A, she was a brilliant writer and who could do art, science, social topics, you name it and, B, she was a U Chicago grad. Here is my analysis of her for this topic:
The Dark Lady, Susan Sontag, Speaks
“…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” —The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc.—pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB’16
Nothing like rabbinical science fiction–here is my post on this Rose Rabbi prompt from a few years ago:
The Rose Rabbi–Back to the Future.
The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.
-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022
If you are ready to coin a word, or just interested, here is my post on this essay prompt–
How to Write the U-Chicago New Word Essay
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves
Click this link for how to play what is not there: Miles Davis.
“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”
–Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and
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
—Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB’16
So where is Waldo, really?
—Inspired by Robin Ye, AB’16
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible
answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics,
linguistics, and philosophy.
—Inspired by Florence Chan, AB’15
The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it,
don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat
around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake.
Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards.
PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, AB’17, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)
Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice,
musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for
composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and
describe why and how they fit together.
—Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018
—Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the
Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
—Inspired by an anonymous alumna, AB’06
How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
—Inspired by Kelly Kennedy, AB’10
Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his
whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just
Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound
in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane,
of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or
imagined or metaphorical.
UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What
Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
—Inspired by Anna Andel
University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan
Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the
questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and
seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without
obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
—Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric
Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the
physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe.
Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus’s
escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the
single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that
one’s life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds
of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children’s game of cat’s cradle,
to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain
the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
—Inspired by Adam Sobolweski
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store
like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot
and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about
other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined
uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of
other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by
—Inspired by Katherine Gold
People often think of language as a connector, something that
brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc.
We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the
peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking
most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you’re
startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even
understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to
think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or
—Inspired by Kimberly Traube
In 2015, the city of Melbourne, Australia created a
“tree-mail” service, in which all of the trees in the city received
an email address so that residents could report any tree-related issues. As an
unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees sweet and occasionally
humorous letters. Imagine this has been expanded to any object (tree or
otherwise) in the world, and share with us the letter you’d send to your
-Inspired by Hannah Lu, Class of 2020
You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the
tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?
-Inspired by Chandani Latey, AB’93
Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the
need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell,
charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an
incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in
it or what is it? What does it do?
-Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021
Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader
Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment,
location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB’16
Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020
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.
—Inspired by Josh Kaufman, AB’18
What’s so odd about odd numbers?
—Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB’09
Imagine you’ve struck a deal with the Dean of Admissions himself, Dean Nondorf. It goes as follows: you’re guaranteed admission to the University of Chicago regardless of any circumstances that arise. This bond is grounded on the condition that you’ll obtain a blank, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, and draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint etc., anything and everything you want on it; your only limitations will be the boundaries of both sides on the single page. Now the catch… your submission, for the rest of your life, will always be the first thing anyone you meet for the first time will see. Whether it’s at a job interview, a blind date, arrival at your first Humanities class, before you even say, “hey,” they’ll already have seen your page, and formulated that first impression. Show us your page. What’s on it, and why? If your piece is largely or exclusively visual, please make sure to share a creator’s accompanying statement of at least 300 words, which we will happily allow to be on its own, separate page.
PS: This is a creative thought experiment, and selecting this essay prompt does not guarantee your admission to UChicago.
-Inspired by Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022