College Essay Advice from The University of Chicago

Recently I met with a colleague who works in the admissions office of the University of Chicago and had a chance to ask her about essays. As you may know, the University of Chicago prides itself on asking unique, thought-provoking essay questions to college applicants each year. Last year, most of my students chose to answer the question “How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.”

In 2012, the vast majority of University of Chicago applicants chose to answer the question “So where is Waldo, really?” My colleague detailed the 3T’s that she and the other admissions officers pay attention to in college essays: technique, topic, and tone. Most essays are fine when it comes to technique or topic. However, students don’t always do well when it comes to tone. The tone of an essay can make or break an applicant’s case for admission. Yet, many students write essays as if they are unaware of their audience.

She discussed a sample essay based on Dante’s Inferno. The student was trying to be witty, but the readers were not impressed. One admissions officer commented: “Yikes! She put her grandma in hell!” Needless to say, the admissions committee did not invite the student to the University of Chicago.

A good essay shows how a student thinks and tells a story. The admissions officers want to know the student’s personal qualities and interests. They want to know if the student will be a good roommate, what the student will contribute to their college campus, and whether or not the student will be a good fit for their college.

Each university has a unique admissions process. At the University of Chicago, two admissions officers read a student’s application and present the student’s application to a 5-6 member committee before a final decision is made on whether or not to admit an applicant. If you’re applying to college in the near future, it’s a good idea to get feedback on your college essays. But remember—your English teacher or parents will not look at your essay the way an admissions officer would!