Jan. 22, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 8

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    'Elvis' question gains national attention

    But unique application essays nothing new for Chicago You may not see the obvious connection between Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, wax fruit, J.D. Salinger, the metric system and Elvis Presley, but next year's College entering class will contain hundreds of students who persuaded the Admissions Office that there is one.

    "The Elvis question" has received national publicity, generating stories in papers from USA Today and the Chicago Sun Times to the Los Angeles Times, with broadcast pieces appearing on National Public Radio and CNBC, and more coverage expected in the New York Times and other papers. (As of press time, the New York Times was planning to run some answers to the Elvis question in its Jan. 25 Week in Review.) But if the attention to this year's question is unusual, the desire to produce an innovative essay question is not.

    "We expect Chicago students to think both seriously and creatively," said Michael Behnke, Vice President for Enrollment. "This kind of question simply does not allow for a generic, bland response."

    Dean of Admissions Theodore O'Neill explains that his staff has been producing distinctive essay questions for nearly 15 years. As he explained to USA Today, "We like to take some risks in order to elicit creative responses. The idea is to let them reveal themselves without feeling the need to talk directly about themselves."

    The Elvis question is optional, but about a third of the 5,500 applicants this year decided to take a chance on an essay that stretched them more than the standard application question. At a time when more and more universities are using a standard application, Chicago's unusual approach may be growing even more appealing.

    "Many students tell us the essay question helped them appreciate Chicago's distinctiveness," O'Neill said. "They are attracted by an institution that is willing to ask a bit more of them, which helps them see that they have more to offer.

    "In that way, the essay question reflects some of our distinctive nature. It also reflects our sense of humor, which is often based on ideas, a bit iconoclastic, a bit analytical and often bold."

    But the pleasure of creating a nationally recognized application question -- and the enjoyment of reading the most clever answers from nascent Chicago first-years -- is only the bonus. The real payoff is in identifying the bright and motivated students who will thrive at the University.

    As advisor Joseph Walsh, who devised this year's question, told USA Today "We are looking for people who can put together unrelated things in unexpected ways. That's the real art in a liberal arts education."

    To read the Elvis question, as well as some essay questions from the recent past, visit the News Office web page at: www-news.uchicago.edu.