August 14, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 20

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    There’s nothing standard about College application essay options

    By Julia Morse
    News Office

    Photo by Yvette Dostatni

    Some prospective College students get a taste of the University’s Gothic surroundings with a campus tour last week. High school students who apply to the College will then sample the intellectual curiosity of students enrolled at Chicago by answering one of five essay questions offered on the College application. Applicants can choose from four questions—selected from 700 submissions written by Chicago students—or create their own question as a fifth option.

    The five essay options for the University’s 2009-2010 College application are as uncommon as ever and allow prospective students to write responses that are more interesting than the standard “tell us something about yourself.”

    The first option suggests that applicants respond to a quotation from Letters to a Young Poet, written by Rainer Maria Rilke. The second option describes a scene in a short film and challenges the writers to adjust, then readjust, the focus on their chosen subjects. The third presents the writer with an idea Chicago author Nelson Algren once proposed. The fourth essay option asks writers to examine the universe in a new light. And the fifth option says: “Take a little risk, and have fun,” allowing students to create and address a prompt of their own.

    “Asking questions is at the center of Chicago’s education—asking big, curious, difficult questions, which we hope we do, translates that spirit and spiritedness to prospective students,” said Ruth Martin, College Admissions Counselor, who assisted in the selection of the essay options.

    Each year in the past, the Office of College Admissions asked newly admitted incoming first-year students to offer thoughts and suggestions for the following year’s essay questions. However, this year, that pool was expanded to include all College students—more than 700 suggestions and ideas for essay questions were submitted.

    “Students care about these questions. Most current students, even alumni, remember the question they chose, and the essay they wrote remains important to them,” Martin said. “Perhaps no one had ever before asked them to question themselves in such a way—an adventurous and adult way. Perhaps because the kind of people attracted to this place, and to our essays, are natural questioners. It’s how they ‘dig in’ and engage the world.”

    After sorting through and categorizing more than 700 suggestions, Martin and Ted O’Neill, Dean of College Admissions, turned to colleagues to eventually whittle down to the final four. O’Neill said that not only does the admissions staff enjoy reading the essays, but the students also enjoy writing them.

    “We provide essay options that are interesting, challenging and fun to answer,” O’Neill said. “Over the years, we have found that applicants have thanked us for our essay questions, and many have applied to Chicago specifically because of the essay.”

    He added that the essay allows admissions staff and prospective students to better understand if the College is the place for them.

    “One of the disheartening developments in admissions over the past 25 years or so is the tendency for college application essays to become more and more generic. Chicago’s essay options help us distinguish ourselves, while offering an opportunity for students to help represent themselves at their best,” O’Neill said.

    “Through the essay, students have the opportunity to provide evidence of clear and original thinking, and a willingness to play with ideas and tackle that which is not obvious. I think the essays we get really help us in selecting an ideal Chicago class.”

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