BREAKING DOWN THE UCHICAGO UNCOMMON ESSAY: Tips and Tricks

By: Leann Lee

Aerial view of the University of Chicago Harper Library

For all intents and purposes, I was a very basic student in high school. My extracurriculars were laughably average. I did not invent a cure for cancer nor did I attend any prestigious nation, or even state-wide, competitions. In a school of 1300 students, I was far from even cracking into the top 20. At best I was a slightly better than average student and flute player who did three too many years of marching band.

So how did I, an undoubtedly unimpressive person, manage to sneak my way past the hellishly low 5.9% acceptance rate? Essays, essays, and essays. To this date, my uncommon essay is still one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written. With UChicago dropping their SAT requirement last year and the disruptions posed by the coronavirus pandemic, writing a fantastic uncommon essay becomes even more necessary for you to stand out from the crowd. 

The Uncommon Essay has been a hallmark of the University of Chicago college application for at least 30 years. As a result, I believe that admissions likely puts heavy emphasis on the uncommon essay because it exemplifies the “quirky” persona that UChicago has built for itself over the years and represents the unique qualities that they are looking for in a student. Not only are they testing your creativity when reading your essays, but are also looking at how you think in response to these questions and how they fit into the UChicago environment. Thus, here are some key tips and tricks to keep in mind as you go about tackling these unique essay prompts. 

  1. Choose the question that speaks to you

Not all questions are created equal. Each year UChicago releases seven prompts, each one as wacky as the last. Some of them will inspire you and get those creative juices running easier than others, so take the time to go through each of them and see which questions really appeal to you. A fun exercise I like to do is choose a couple of your favorite questions, then just jot down your first gut response and see what you can come up with! Also don’t hesitate to take up prompt 7 and choose an old one or create your own if this year’s prompts don’t inspire you! 

  1. Think Outside the Box

Be creative, but be different and don’t be afraid to take risks. When I was in the planning stages of my uncommon essay, I spent hours pursuing old threads on College Confidential to get a feel of what past applicants had written about. However, as I continued to read, the more I began to find certain trends emerging. An extremely common answer to the 2012 prompt “Where’s Waldo, really?” was some variation of “Waldo is in ~all~ of us” or “He’s where we least expect it”. Similarly, for the 2006 prompt, “Destroy a question”, I saw dozens of essays deconstructing “Why?”.

From a student’s perspective these answers seem creative but also very safe at the same time. However, if you think of it from the perspective of an admissions officer, these sorts of essays quickly become trite and groan-inducing to read. So when someone writes about, say, drug-addicted burnt out child star named Waldo, it becomes a breath of fresh air. Thus, don’t be scared to take risks and, more importantly, tell a story that’s exciting to read! 

  1. Be yourself

It’s also important for your voice and personality to shine through this piece. For example, in my essay I changed the formatting so that my essay read as a series of diary entries rather than a traditional narrative. By just making the formatting unconventional, I was able to convey through my writing that I was a creative thinker and risk-taker. More of a STEM person? Not a problem! Play around with the formatting, language, and be sure to let your own personal voice shine through your writing. Think of maybe formatting your idea as a report, short science fiction story, or even make something and send it in! There’s no word limit or minimum for a reason because these prompts are meant for you to have total creative freedom (just don’t write a small book worth’s). Letting your voice shine through can be difficult, but at Tyche Academy we can help you through all stages of the essay writing process so you have something truly unique to yourself by the end!

  1. Show don’t tell

This is a tip that’s likely been drilled into you by your english teachers but it’s no less important. Creative writing is difficult, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Take these two sentences for example:

  1. Anna was sad because of life.
  2. Anna felt her stomach drop. Tears slowly began to well up in her eyes as the crushing reality of her situation began to dawn on her.

See how much more vivid the second sentence is? It conveys more complex feelings and is just overall much more entertaining to read. While “showing” often does require more words and longer sentences, the payoff is far more rewarding. When reading over your first draft, ask yourself: “Does this sound robotic? Can I feel emotion from these words because I can situate myself in the story or am I just being told what to feel?” Need help enhancing your writing and with “showing” more? Contact us at Tyche Academy and we can guarantee to enhance your writing through peer revision by all three of our co-founders!

5. Have fun with it!

The most important of the tips is to just have fun with it! These prompts are so unique and fun, that you can really let your imagination run wild. If you write about something you’re genuinely interested in, or have a passionate idea behind, then these prompts shouldn’t be a slog at all, but rather a break from your other college writings! Best of luck on your college journey and happy writing! 🙂

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