The University of Chicago Admissions Essay for 2019-2020: How to Write for Prompt Two.

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

Cats 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

If 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

A 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

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West
—Inspired by Elizabeth Mansfield, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5

UChicago 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

“Don’t 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:

Lost in Translation Analysis

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: 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.
—Anonymous Suggestion

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
Present: pres·ent
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 imagined).
—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

Find x.
—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.
—Anonymous Suggestion

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 super-huge mustard.
—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 (mis)pronunciation.
—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 favorite.
-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

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.
—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

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:


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:

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.