University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2015-2016: Crazy and Crazier

Or not.  I like U Chi’s  approach to essays and appreciate the challenge they throw down, and even if their prompts are sometimes pretentiously self aware of cleverness more than they are truly clever, they do open a window of fresh air into the stale halls of the college application essay.  If you need some help with getting into the spirit of things, just chant, “U Chi is to the application essay as Stanford is to the marching band.

One thing you can count on with Chicago is some latitude–the off-the-wall essay is more welcome here than anywhere else–but keep in mind that the usual warnings about being a whiner or offensive still apply. You are still writing to a human audience, and you still need to consider their response to you. And hey, even the Stanford marching band, where “anything goes,”  has discovered that not everything does go.  Same goes for the U Chicago essay.  You still need to use some judgment about how you look on paper.  And conduct some due diligence investigations before you write, otherwise known as research.  More about that below.

Directly below I splice in the U Chicago essay prompts, to save you opening multiple windows–under the prompts, I will begin discussing how to address some of them, including that wonderful new option of choosing an essay prompt from past years to write about.  Here are the prompts, followed by Part I of my analysis:

2015-16 UChicago Supplement:

Question 1 (Required):

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Question 2 (Optional):

Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?
—Inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015

Essay Option 2.

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” –Maxine Hong Kingston. What paradoxes do you live with?
—Inspired by Danna Shen, Class of 2019

Essay Option 3.

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, Class of 2016

Essay Option 4.

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” –Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?
—Inspired by Kaitlyn Shen, Class of 2018.

Essay Option 5.

Rerhceseras say it’s siltl plisbsoe to raed txet wtih olny the frist and lsat ltteres in palce. This is beaucse the hamun mnid can fnid oderr in dorsdier. Give us your best example of finding order in disorder. (For your reader’s sake, please use full sentences with conventional spelling).
—Also inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015. Payton is extra-inspirational this year!

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. 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.

Essay Option 7.

In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

College App Jungle Advice and Analysis on the U Chicago Prompts for 2015-2016 Part I

Things not to do in the U Chicago essay:

No true confessions of your darkest thoughts/fears/desires

No whining

No begging

No plagiarism

No (obvious) bragging

Remember:  they do not really know you. There will not be any body language for them to see, no nudge-nudge, wink, wink to convey that you are kidding; they won’t see you outside of the data and activities reported and the essays that you send–as with all college applications, you are a kind of holograph arising from a few screens of words and numbers.  So “honesty” and “being yourself” are hedged terms, even here, and even here you are crafting a self to present to an application reader.  Just ask this:  which of your selves would you let into college?   And then show that self, with maybe a shot of extra zany thrown in.

Things to consider doing:

Research.   You may not end up actually including any new information learned from research in your essay, and in fact your essay should not read like some plodding and serious piece of research, but doing some research helps frame things and may give you some ideas on how to be creatively weird (instead of factually correct and/or boring).  Doing research is always advice I give for the Chicago prompts, which inevitably have some kind of scientific or intellectual background, even when they intentionally warp it, and this is  especially true this year, because Chicago is taking us into the Wayback machine with their last essay option, above, which I repeat here:

Option 7: In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

When you click on the past essay questions, you will see that the first option they offer from their past questions is option 2 from last year, what I call the Sapir-Whorf question.  I wrote extensively about this prompt last year, so if you like it, give my commentary a  read before you dive in:  Writing About Option 2 from 2014: Sapir-Whorf.

See what I mean about framing things through research?  This was such a meaty question that I wrote a second post on it, in which I gave more specific suggestions for responding:  Sapir-Whorf Part II.

This example shows why I like the UChi prompts—-yes, you could simply due a non sequitur riff on the question without knowing anything at all, but knowing something helps a lot.

I would also point out that even the non sequitur in comedy depends on knowing what the sequitur is–in other words, if you do not know what is right or customary, you do not know when the comedian is intentionally getting it wrong.  In most cases, comedy appeals to what is broadly known or accepted, as when Steve Martin does a riff on Side Effects.   (Am I dating myself by name dropping this master of nuvo-Dada?  Probably)

So keep in mind, wiseguys and humorists:  Knowing up from down is important if you want to make down into up.

I have written about a number of other interesting prompts from U Chicago in the past, so in keeping with this post’s emphasis on research, you might look at those while you are waiting for my next post on this year’s U Chicago essay prompts:

The Heisenberg Prompt

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt

I think that is enough due diligence for now.  Stay tuned for my next post on U Chicago, and let me know if you need editing–three rounds of editing on single U Chicago essay starts at $160, ready to submit if you follow my editing.  Serious inquiries only, lest your e-mail be converted to processed, canned pork product.  Until next time,

Cheers.

WordGuild

July, 2014 Update On College Admissions Essays (With Current Listing of Available Essay Prompts)

Update and How to Use this Blog

First a caveat: my blog has detailed entries on college admissions going back about five years, at this point.  My current policy is to keep most of my posts up, as a kind of archive of college application information and also because there are only so many essay types that the colleges can offer. Certain kinds of prompts show up every year, and in many cases, I have already written about the prompt type.  This kind of analysis continues to be useful.

I mention all of this because I can see what people are reading on my blog, and there are a number of you, Dear Readers, who are reading last year’s essay prompt from, for example, the University of Chicago, on the mantis shrimp (Note:  unlike the NSA, I do not see your metadata, cannot access your e-mails, am not storing information on you, and can only see the number of people who look at my posts, per day.  So no, I am not spying on you.  I just know, in aggregate, what you are reading.)

I think the mantis shrimp  is a fun prompt, and if I do say so myself, my  post on the mantis shrimp is also informative and high-quality; it just doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s University of Chicago essay prompts.  I have started discussing this year’s Chicago’s essay prompts in the two posts that precede this one, so have a look at those here:

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post One on Essay Prompt Two

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post Two on Essay Prompt Two

We are currently in the 2014-2015 application cycle, so use caution when visiting college admissions websites–at least for the next two weeks (I am writing this on July 21st, 2014; August 1st, 2014 is the date most app sites go live, with this year’s prompts and information).  Only a limited number of universities have so far posted this year’s prompts, or have confirmed that they will be retaining this year’s prompts–look below for more on these.

On the other hand, I have dozens of old posts on topics like writing about books, or on how application essays are evaluated or on how to write essays that don’t look like the typical, boring, five-paragraph essay format taught in high school.  These posts are still useful, so they should be read, by anybody who has to deal with an essay on a book or idea that interests them, or who wants to know how essays were and still are evaluated, or who wants to write a good essay that isn’t a rote exercise.  By all means, read and use posts like these; just don’t send Chicago an essay on the mantis shrimp this year.

Developments in Application Portals–Universal vs. Common App

The 900-Pound Gorilla Tag-Team of College Admissions includes Naviance and the Common Application.  This is due to the large number of colleges using both, and the fact that Naviance currently operates in coordination with the Common Application.  This tandem has become somewhat controversial, partly because it starts to look like a racket when so many students are directed to third-party organizations when they apply to college–organizations that take a cut of application fees–and partly because the Common Application web portal was such a disaster last year.  I hasten to add that I am sure the Common App people have their act at least somewhat better organized this year, but the trouble last year went on, literally, for months, and forced a number of big-name colleges to extend application deadlines.  In a way, this actually benefited some students, who were able to keep working on essays and other information, but at the cost of considerable stress.

One side effect of last year’s Common App fiasco has been an increase in the number of colleges adopting the Universal Application, which has the advantage of being simpler to use and generally easier to navigate.  Unfortunately, Naviance has not yet incorporated the Universal App into its system, and the Universal App does not have as many colleges using it as the Common App does–but many more have signed up in the last year, and I expect Naviance to adopt the Universal App by the 2015-2016 application season.  Here is an example of a college that adopted the Universal App this year:

Published February 18, 2014

uchicagCollege applicants next year will have more application options as the University of Chicago is joining the Universal Application.

“We decided to announce we will join the Universal College Application for the next application year now because we want applicants, families, recommenders, and the Higher Education community to know of our commitment to providing them with an application option that is easy to use, reduces stress, and simplifies the process,” said Jim Nondorf, Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Chicago. “We have been very happy with how easy it has been to work with the Universal College Application team.”

And here is a link to the Universal Application:  Universal Application Portal

Getting Started Now:  Some Application Essay Prompts are Already Available

The Common Application is using the same essay prompts this year as last year, which I will link below; some schools have posted early or are keeping last year’s prompts–University of Chicago has posted new prompts and Penn, for example, will be using last year’s prompts, so there are essays that can be worked on as of right now.  I also e-mailed Berkeley and was told that they will be using the same prompts (though, in a typical bureacratic maneuver, my contact also said that if anything changed,  I should see their website?!  Because this seemed a bit equivocal to me, I will not link the U.C. application portals yet.)

Links to some essay prompts that are already available below:

Common Application Essay Prompts, 2014-2015

Penn Essay Prompts

University of Chicago Essay Prompts

University of Georgia Essay Prompts

Boston College Essay Prompts

These are all prompts for this year, which is the 2014-2015 application cycle–this is your application cycle if you are a rising senior/will be graduating from high school in 2015.

That’s all for now.  I will be back soon with some thoughts on application trends and will be posting on a variety of essay prompts for popular colleges in the coming months.  If you need college advising or essay editing help, I am currently fully booked from roughly August 1st-15th, but will have editing slots open in the second half of August.  Good luck and good writing.

 

 

 

The University Of Chicago Essay Prompt On The Mantis Shrimp: Seeing Is Believing

This post will focus on another Chicago prompt with both humorous and philosophical  potential, yes that one on the mantis shrimp.  To refresh your memory, here it is:

ESSAY OPTION 4.

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, Class of 2016

There are many options for approaching this prompt, but all of them begin with perception.  Here’s the thing:  cones and rods shape what comes into the brain to be seen, but seeing takes place in the brain.   And I’m not sure how far you can really go in talking about what a stomatopod  sees, even with this kind of groovy visual apparatus to riff on, without talking about yourself–when it comes to consciousness, let’s put it in video terms:  you’re Halo and the mantis is Pong.  As soon as you have a thought beyond “eat now” or “run away” about what you are seeing, you do more than a mantis shrimp does with all its rods, cones, infrared, multifocal and other apparatus.  Though I’d hate to get into a game of table tennis with a human-size mantis shrimp.  Speaking of which,  you will likely have to move to an anthropomorphic approach pretty quickly with this prompt if you are going to do anything with it.

With that as a preface, I would like to observe that the cross-species  thought experiment proposed in the mantis prompt is more complex than it might seem at first, and it opens up the opportunity to be a bit philosophical, and even serious, if you wish.  I will discuss this more specifically  when I discuss what I call Option Two, below.  Keep in mind that, as in all of my prompt and essay analysis,  all of my “options” are arbitrary–these are just  starting points for ideas, not the last word.   But also keep in mind that the trick with a strange or open-ended prompt is to come up with some way to organize your thinking, first by understanding and breaking down the prompt and then by being able to list and categorize ways to approach it–if you don’t do this first, you may end up floundering as you try to slap together disparate ideas.

And also be aware  that when you talk about this shrimp you are really talking about yourself, showing the reader what you are like as an individual, which is, of course, the point of all the U Chicago prompts.

The most obvious way to break down the approaches to this prompt is,  first, to  try to walk a mile in the shrimp’s, uh, pereiopods, writing about the world the shrimp would perceive, then shift to some observations about and an elaboration on the interplay of perception and reality, or on how we are shaped by our environments, or pivot from what the shrimp sees to a humorous human topic.

And now a word from your author:  this post, my friends, is on a University of Chicago prompt from the year 2013-2014.  We are now in the application cycle for 2014-2015.  If you feel I tricked you by making you read a few paragraphs before telling you this, just consider how we have already had a look at perception and reality as well as having started to look at options for an essay like this.  You can continue reading for more, or you can go to the link immediately below, for a quick explanation about how to use my blog, as well as links to currently available college application essay prompts–most of them won’t be online for this year until August 1st, though many schools leave their old prompts up until August 1st.  Now that is tricksy.  For more on why this post is here, as well as posts on this year’s college app prompts, click here:  College Essay prompts and other information, 2014-2015

The First Approach:  My Life as a Shrimp

To start with, it’s not even a shrimp.  It’s called  a mantis shrimp because it has a resemblance to both of the species in its name.  So you could spend some time on the “shrimp,” learning a bit about it, then write.  Not that a whole lot is actually known about this creature.

By the way, the word shrimp, while misapplied here, comes form an old Norse word (that’s Viking-speak, to you) and seems to have originally been applied to denote a skinny if not starving cow, among other things, coming from a root verb having to do with shriveling up.  The word skimpy seems to be related to this root as well. I note all this because you have to start an essay somewhere, and even if the mantis is not really a shrimp, as noted above, when you are making stuff up,  start with some facts, however tangential.  Then take it somewhere surprising and interesting.  Maybe the mantis in your essay resents being called a shrimp and wants to talk about that.

On the other hand, consider what it’s like to be chased by a mantis, to be its prey, as here, where a mantis shatters an old glass a crab tries to use for shelter:  World’s Deadliest (video starts after an ad.  Thanks to National Geographic).  Hard to avoid being anthropomorphic here, as well, but that’s the way it is, with this prompt.

So I do encourage research–as you can already see, I have done some–but more of a tangential nature than of the formal research paper kind, though if you want to take a scientific slant, you could go all kinds of directions–what is happening to the kind of shallow-water habitat that the mantis needs as the oceans warm with climate change; or how ocean acidification is affecting shellfish of various kinds (hey, the mantis as a species is literally going to see these changes in its habitat –the fact that it has no clue about what is going on both emphasizes the fact that you do, or can, if you conduct a little research, and it also emphasizes the responsibility that those of us with human consciousness have for those changes, both in addressing them and in bearing responsibility as their cause.)

You could also write a kind of faux-scientific entry on the shrimp–you know, start with the facts, then invent a whole set of  new “facts” or do a takeoff on something, making a turn into satire–a home improvement show for a mantis shrimp, shopping with a mantis, Mantis Iron Chef.  Whatever.  If you want to do humor, start listing ideas, the more ridiculous the better, then you begin with what it sees and take off into fantasyland from there.   Pimp my Mantis Ride.

After looking at the mantis as predator, it’s also interesting to consider it as dinner, as I found here:  yum, yum.  And if you happen to live in northern California and want to see one in captivity–this does not happen often, for reasons the link with the prompt makes clear–the Monterey Bay Aquarium has one on display currently:  On Display.

Option Two

Use the shrimp as a starting point to talk about a philosophical matter raised by this imaginative activity–in other words, work with what this prompt says about  what it means to be human or what it means to be sentient at all.  This could focus on human imagination, perception, creativity, all of which you have to call on to write about what shrimp sees when it sees.  This prompt raises  serious philosophical issues in the realms of ontology and epistemology  the shrimp is having an experience, but one quite different from you, one that his determined by its physiology and environment, just as yours is. What does it mean for you to imagine yourself as that animal?

Others before you have thought about thinking about the experience of being another creature–the philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, who used a similar trope  to examine materialist assumptions about the mind, and argued that a purely mechanistic view of the brain leaves out what it feels like to be embodied as a specific creature.    Nagel discussed this back in the 1970’s, in a famous essay entitled, What Is It Like To Be A Bat?  He noted that we can think about what it means to be a bat–nearsighted, using sound to navigate, etc–but we can never know what it really feels like to be the bat itself; there is something to the individual experience that remains ineffable and unknown from the outside.  Something that demands respect.  I think his critics have missed that last point as they felt he was attacking the materialist approach to the brain as a sort of mechanism, a biological entity which can be broken down.  It certainly is, but that hologram we call the self that arises from it also deserves some respect.

For more, take a look at Nagel’s original essay here–I recommend it most highly;  the first paragraphs alone will give you a lot to think about: Nagel.  

From Nagel’s point of view,   we can only talk in a superficial way about what a mantis shrimp can see, from its point of view,  because to do so means talking about its conciousness, not just a range of the visible spectrum–there are a number of ways to talk about why it sees what it sees, including habitat, evolution, the mechanics of its trifocal eyes, etc–but we have to pull back from claiming to know its actual, individual experience.  Yes, I know, the consciousness of a being this far down the cognitive scale from us is hardly a consciousness at all, but Nagel is also indirectly making a profound argument that we should respect the subjective experience of every sentient being as he discusses what it’s like to be a bat–we are more than we appear to be, all the time, and only we know and own our own experience–even if we are the fascinating, ferocious but cognitively primitive mantis shrimp.

I find it interesting that most of the counter arguments  to Nagel which have been written since do exactly what he suggests they cannot do, by presuming that we will, at some point, be able to map brain activity well enough to show what it is like to be any sentient being and/or that, in being able to manipulate the cognition and experience of a mind, through chemical manipulation, for example, tinkering with dopamine or some other brain chemical, that we know it.  Messing with my head is not the same as being me–a point Nagel would agree with.  And reading a map, even in 3-D, on a screen, even via a virtual reality helmet or goggles, is not the same as being in the territory, or being the territory itself, whether of a stomatopod, a mantis shrimp, a human or  a bat; only the creature  in the moment can be the consciousness,  in the moment  (The map vs. the territory or vice versa is an interesting thing to explore and has been, in philosophy and fiction–I’ll leave that one to you to look up).  I also find this interesting to consider this issue in the age of Facebook and other social media–just as even a relatively simple creature like the mantis shrimp is beyond our real understanding, so are we all more than what an FMRI scan can show, or a Facebook profile, or our meta data, for that matter.  What does it mean to know or to be known–the biggest ontological question of all, folks.

Do some research and start scribbling down ideas and be aware of what you assign to the shrimp, Oh Human.    Good luck and see you soon.  I may return to the Chicago prompts within a week or so, but I’d also like to get to some of the slowpokes (Princeton, I’m talking to you) in the Ivy league.