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October 24, 2004

Admissions essays puzzle prospective Chicagoans

Before next year's incoming class ponders Socrates, delta-epsilon proofs, and how to perfect the art of flipping a cup, it must first respond to an entirely different question: Have you ever wondered who would buy a five-pound jar of mustard?

This is one of five essay options on the 2005 Uncommon Application.

With the November 1 Early Application deadline looming over high school seniors' heads, the infamous college admissions process is in full swing, and serious decisions must be made.

In considering the University of Chicago, applicants must decide if they are prepared for an academically intense yet inspiring environment. They have to question whether they want to spend their first two years in college taking Core classes. And—of course—they have to consider whether or not they are ready to be branded as a hardcore nerd for eternity by all their friends back home.

But, more important than any of these considerations, prospective students must actually decide to take the time to answer an essay question so specific that the essay they write probably will not be usable for other colleges' applications.

"I was always aware of the University of Chicago's excellent academics, and the fact that Chicago is a jazz hotbed was a big draw for me, too," said Adam Spar, a high school senior in Edison, New Jersey and an early applicant to the College. "However, what made the school definite on my ‘list' was the application. A school that seeks out students creative and original enough to write about giant mustard jars is a school that values an applicant as more than a summation of numbers."

Along with a question asking students to write an essay "somehow inspired by super-huge mustard," the 2005 Uncommon Application includes three other questions, as well as the annual option of writing and answering one's own "uncommon" question. The first essay asks about the peculiarities of the applicant's language or gestures that make him or her unique. The next prompt quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and asks for the applicant's thoughts on justice. The last question is a rather perplexing one inspired by The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter, asking who would be the real you if you were cloned. The question reads, "[On Mars], a Teleclone receiver stocked with the requisite atoms will produce, from the beamed instructions, you—complete with all your memories, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. If you activate the Teleclone Mark IV, which astronaut are you—the one dismantled on Mars or the one produced from a blueprint on Earth?" This little gem of a question is a tribute to the application's 20th anniversary, as it was an essay option on the first Uncommon Application in 1984.

Early applicant Ariel Simon from Emmaus, Pennsylvania commented on the downside of Chicago's unique application. "When I saw the questions, I was really surprised," she said. "They were so different from the standard personal statement that most schools ask you to write."

Simon also found the distinctiveness of the Uncommon Application appealing. "I really liked the questions, though," she commented. "They inspire so much creative thought, which was a nice change from other applications."

Other students, such as Mark Shpizner from New York City, do not see the essay questions as too challenging. "They don't look that tough to answer. I'm sure I can manage by putting much thought and personality into my responses," he said. "The questions didn't deter me from wanting to apply at all." Come November 1, it will be clear how many students share Shpizner's sentiments.