The University of Chicago is famous for quirky and complex essay prompts. UChicago also places a relatively high weight on the essays when making admissions decisions. Submitting outstanding essays to UChicago can help you recover from a few poor grades, or even a slightly lower SAT/ACT score. UChicago always allows its applicants to submit their own essay prompt and corresponding essay, which is a particularly attractive option if you’re relatively creative. Because UChicago is one of the most popular schools amongst our students, and because we have generated so many acceptances to the school, we have decided to release one of our accepted essays to the University of Chicago to aid in helping you think about how to craft your essay. This student chose to submit a unique prompt, and specific details in the essay have been changed to preserve anonymity:
Prompt (Self-Written): Is there any value to popular culture? Or should society attempt to better itself with more refined art forms?”
Popular culture encompasses an expansive spread of art forms ranging from popular sitcoms to “gangsta rap.” And as with broader society, in cultural spheres such as film and literature there exists an amorphous “elite”- primarily academics and critics in each field and their sycophants. This elite’s response to each movie’s release is predictable: Transformers 2’s stellar 19% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes does not surprise anyone who understands film critics, who decry the “mindlessness” of big budget films while praising “smart” and complex independent films that have vibrant symbolism and social commentary. In short, they’d rather you watch Little Miss Sunshine than waste your time on Transformers 6, Iron Man 2, or the latest R-rated comedy featuring Will Ferrell. Such criticism misses two essential points, at least in my personal relationship with culture. The first is that when I watch a film, I am actually seeking precisely the banal and idiotic entertainment provided by big budget Hollywood film that they so vehemently disparage. I admit there are times when I can appreciate vibrant social commentary or hidden symbolism layered into a movie. But mostly, I just want to relax and be entertained for two and a half hours as I enjoy hackneyed humor. Those who religiously eschew mainstream films deny themselves the joy of one’s visceral reactions to the exploding buildings and slapstick comedy of big budget blockbusters.
Even more important is the social bond that emanates from shared cultural experiences. I recognized this seemingly tenuous link when I visited my family in Chiang Rai, Thailand last September. As huge fans of Thai dramas, my cousin and I decided to binge-watch a romantic comedy called Thara Himalaya, the story of a common villager who fell in love with a wealthy heir. After we finished the drama, I fell into the very trap that I caution against in this essay. Upon Googling Thara Himalaya, I was stunned to discover that a formulaic drama with (what I considered) terrible acting had become one of the highest rated dramas in Thai television history. When I asked my cousin about this seemingly paradoxical outcome, she had a simple explanation: “These types of dramas are so popular because there are a lot of rural and poor women who dream of that kind of ‘happily ever after’.” As I pondered the implications of her statement, the full weight became apparent. Thai women, especially rural ones, live a difficult life. And these sappy dramas release them from these stressors, if only temporarily. They serve the same purpose for me. Even though I may never find out exactly what the lives of these women are like, the fact that we both enjoy the same dramas allows us to bridge the gap between our disparate circumstances.
The same is true in the United States. In recent years, the gulf between college educated Americans and the rest of society has widened. While part of this divergence is driven by economics, there is a cultural gap as well, which drives misunderstandings and exacerbates conflict. How can one expect to understand the mindset of the proverbial “other half” if there are no shared experiences to draw upon? Therein lies the value of embracing the mainstream; when I share experiences with the average American, I am more likely to understand his or her mindset, dreams, and desires. The resultant social cohesiveness is extremely valuable – a characteristic lost when elites isolate themselves in the embrace of haute culture.
The broader implications of this epiphany did not truly become apparent until I returned to the US, when I ate dinner at my mother’s friend’s house. After dinner, I was forced to spend time with her kids, whom I had never met before, and came from completely different circumstances. Initially, we sat around in awkward silence. After a few minutes of painful small talk, almost by chance, we began to discuss the Seattle Sounders, and their prospects for the upcoming season. We had finally found some common ground. For the next four hours, we discussed sports of every variety, from the NBA to the Cricket World Cup. The initial awkwardness had completely vanquished, and we found that we enjoyed each other’s company. The connection between that evening and the value of the mainstream was elucidated later that night, when I reflected on similar experiences that I had had in the past. Whenever I’m at a party or social gathering where I meet new people, the way that I connect with others is by talking about popular sports, movies, or TV shows. Many of my peers decry the perceived sexism or Darwinism in sport. And indeed several of my closest friends scoff at the four major American athletic pastimes. Yet knowing about sports (a cornerstone of American culture) has often come in handy during new and unfamiliar situations – it is my tool for connecting with new people. In fact, one of my best friends in the whole world is from a completely different social, economic, and racial background. When we met five years ago at camp, we bonded over our love of basketball. For me, embracing the mainstream allows me to empathize with and engage with people from completely different social circumstances. Were we to apply this principle to broader society, rather than pursuing the intellectual for its own sake, some of the adverse effects socioeconomic divergence might be halted, and perhaps even reversed. So yes, there is much value to popular culture.
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
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This is a prompt that appears every year. This essay really poses the highest risk but also the highest potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to write an innovative essay that either tackles a difficult or controversial topic (for example, our founder Vinay Bhaskara’s essay tackled why mainstream Hollywood films are more valuable than seemingly more intellectual independent films), or presents the information with a unique format (such as a conversation with a dead historical figure).
Using a prompt from past years also allows you to write an essay that is thematically and tonally different from many other applicants (as they will mostly be writing about the first five prompts offered above).
Generally speaking, your best payoff to this essay comes if you want to try something unconventional, such as writing an essay that describes the four years of high school as Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, and Heaven, and is written in the style of the divine comedy.
There are a variety of possibilities here ranging from the idiotic (you probably don’t want to write your own variation on the alt-right’s platform referring to events in your high school life) to the (relatively) overdone — they’ve probably seen several essays that have been written in iambic pentameter as an ode to Chaucer.
And we’ll reiterate the note above: This type of essay has the highest variance in terms of outcome. If done well, an unconventional essay can captivate the right admissions counselor in a way that no conventional essay can. Conversely, if the essay is executed poorly or even if it isn’t, your essay may go over the admissions counselor’s head or bore them. So this is only a strategy that you should try if you are confident in your abilities and have at least a couple of sources of high-quality feedback.
This is also an optimal prompt for truly diving into an academic passion, particularly if it is of an advanced level or unique tenor. For example, if you know a lot about Soviet cars produced between 1957 and 1983, then writing a custom prompt that allows you to explore that passion may be easier than trying to bend that topic to match one of the prompts provided.
As with any academically oriented essay, you do want to make sure that any jargon you use is made clear, either via explicit explanation or context clues. You shouldn’t shy away from jargon — it’s one of the things that helps position you as an expert on the subject of your essay. But you don’t want to render the essay unintelligible to your reader.
One broader note on writing your own prompt — it doesn’t have to be as complex or convoluted as the other UChicago prompts, and you mainly just want to find a prompt that matches the essay that you want to write, even if it is straightforward.
We wish you the best of luck writing your UChicago essay!
If you’d like assistance on your essay, learn about our essay editing program.