Where is Waldo? In 1987, Martin Handford published a book entitled “Where’s Waldo?” Ever since its publication, many have been driven to find the red-and-white striped character buried in incredibly detailed illustrations. Once one begins searching for Waldo it is almost impossible to stop. At first, we want to find him just for the sake of finding him or for the entertainment. But before long, we come to find that the search is important and vital. The longing to find him becomes one of an almost primitive nature. This desire has a deeper meaning, one that has captivated humans since the beginning of time. The search for Waldo becomes metaphorically the search for meaning in this enormous universe.
Waldo represents the wants and needs for which we are constantly searching; he represents our search for meaning in life. In a huge crowd of people, we are required to find Waldo, just like in our lives we are crowded by people, money, entertainment, and school or work. But what really matters in life is worth searching through the chaos for. Waldo is wherever our deepest desires lie. Waldo is always placed in scenes that have a chaotic nature, representing our own lives. To find what we really desire, we must ignore the chaos and focus upon what we are really passionate about and what we truly care about. Gandhi said, “In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth.”
The search for Waldo began when ancient philosophers and sages questioned whether life was more than survival, whether we were put here for a purpose by a supreme being or if we are merely a miracle of nature. These questions have mesmerized some of the brightest men and women throughout history. Finding meaning, like finding Waldo, is a mystery. And as Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Handford has captured that mystery in the search for Waldo. His illustrations help us recognize that finding meaning is fleeting. Once Waldo is found on the page, one moves onto the next picture to continue the hunt; the search for Waldo is never-ending, a metaphor for the search for the meaning of life. It is a mystery that will continue to befuddle the greatest minds until the end of time. So, where is Waldo? Waldo resides in the deepest desires of our hearts and minds; he is the question that will remain unanswered. Waldo is like the search for meaning. We catch a glimpse and then it’s gone. Like the meaning of life, there is only one Waldo, but we find him in many forms.
In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “When I occasionally quote the words of Jesus or the Buddha, from A Course in Miracles or from other teachings, I do so not in order to compare, but to draw your attention to the fact that in essence there is and always has been only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms.”
© Copyright 2018 Kukrik. All rights reserved.
(Note: this post has been updated for the 2017-2018 application cycle. To view the updated post, click HERE.)
The University of Chicago is notorious for its arcane and sometimes insane extended essay prompts. And this year’s crop does nothing to change that reputation. From Orange is the New Black to art as plagiarism, the essay prompts are sure to be just as confusing as those of admissions cycles past. Luckily, the Admissions Hero team is here with our annual breakdown of how to write a great UChicago essay.
How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.
This is a standard “Why School” prompt, and it is what we like to call a “check-the-box” essay. This essay generally will not get you into a school unless your essay is extremely unique and really well written, but a poorly written or mediocre “Why School X” essay may keep you out of a school that you would have otherwise been accepted to. The key to this type of essay is to avoid generic statements such as “the campus is beautiful,” or the “students have a tight knit community,” that apply to literally hundreds of schools around the country. UChicago wants to see that you want to attend UChicago specifically, not just any top university in the country. Accordingly in your essay, you want to refer to factors that are specific and unique to the University of Chicago. Creating an exhaustive list of such factors would require several thousand words of writing; however, the following are a few distinctive factors submitted by our consultants from UChicago. We would caution readers that there are plenty more factors than are presented on this list, and that research (at least an hour or so) would do well towards finding the specifics most suitable for each applicant’s profile. We would also warn readers that unless they plan on reading through fifteen years worth of Scav lists, name-dropping Scav will likely hurt you.
- The University of Chicago is a bastion of free market economics (at least relative to peer institutions) and is noted historically for housing Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, amongst other laureates of the “Chicago School” of economics
- The University of Chicago has a thriving political activism scene, but political debate at the university is unusually concentrated around the Institute of Politics, headed by political savant David Axelrod
- The “Where Fun Goes to Die” axiom has some truth to it, but it really should be translated as “If you enjoy learning and/or working hard, U Chicago is the place for you.” If you can have fun with academics, UChicago is an above average place
- The learning community at UChicago has an unusual fascination with Durkheim
- UChicago’s social justice community is heavily involved in the broader life of the South Side of Chicago, most notably displayed recently when they won a battle to create a trauma center at UChicago’s Medical Center
- Mansueto Library is one of the most surreal environments you will ever experience. It is a bright and airy building with really cool modern architecture, but is always eerily silent
- UChicago has an ice skating/roller skating rink right on Campus (on the Midway). And it’s basically as big as the one in Rockefeller Center.
- Theoretical knowledge is prized over practical knowledge, though as with all generalizations about UChicago, this effect has softened somewhat in recent years
- If you like to / are good at writing, the Core will be a happy / successful place for you.
- Grade deflation is fierce, but the ethos of truly earning an “A” or “B” is rewarding if you can survive the stress and deal with occasional failure
These are just a snippet, and between the internet, conversations with actual UChicago students, and even published materials, you can learn far more.
Question 2 (Optional):
Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.
This is another “Check the box” question, but here the key is to avoid just writing down a basic list of books, musician, paintings, and the like. There are two different approaches for this prompt. First, you can stick with lists but rather than limiting yourself to their options, you should instead consider some facet of your personality, or the organizing theme of your application, and generate lists of items in those spheres. For example, you could choose to list your my favorite programming languages, programs, computer science courses on MOOCs, people to follow on GitHub and other computer science-related items. This can be juxtaposed against a few “silly” (not academic or professional) lists, as that can help balance out your personality. For example, you could list your favorite brands of tea or creators on Etsy. Don’t shy away from something like that.
EXTENDED ESSAY (REQUIRED; CHOOSE ONE)
Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?
For more politically minded students, there is of course the option of writing a serious essay discussing political changes such as the rise of legalized marijuana and the nationwide spread of gay marriage. If you do go in this direction, you could write an extremely in-depth academic essay (with tons of research and citations) that explores these themes, but doing so risks boring the admissions counselor. So a better strategy is to connect the shift in trends to yourself (whether because you are involved in political activism, or because you are a microcosm of the changing face of middle class America) and to use your own experiences and personal characteristics as a microcosm of broader social trends. Another option is to use this as an opportunity to explore a minor change within a passion or hobby of yours that has little immediate significance but means a ton to your community. For example, you might be a member of a popular sports or computer science forum where recent decisions by the moderators were either hated or loved by the forum membership at large, and you could discuss why those changes mattered to you while connecting those reasons to other elements of your personality or life or to broader trends in the larger society. Basically, this prompt serves as an opportunity to show off your analytical skills, which also need to be blended with your personal experiences.
“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” –Maxine Hong Kingston. What paradoxes do you live with?
With this essay, there is of course the temptation to take this in an extremely intellectual direction and pontificate on the nature of paradoxes themselves. But for every essay that will manage this in a compelling and understandable manner, there will be 10 essays that range the spectrum from soporific (sleep-inducing) to unintelligible (impossible to understand). A more interesting to choice is to look at paradoxes in your own life based on your observations of the world around you, or to consider micro-level paradoxes in the broader society. An example of the former could be to examine your personal life and wonder at why you likely treat your friends worse (yelling at them, fighting with them, et. al) than everyone else, including sometimes your enemies (whom you are often at least civil with). And an example of the latter would be to look at examples of cognitive dissonance that are statistically prevalent and assess them and what your experience with them has been.
Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
This question offers a great option for creativity, and if you are a creative writer, you can write a compelling tale of historical fiction imagining Napoleon as a World War II French general, or Hillary Clinton as an empress of China. The keys here are to show off your creative writing abilities in a short (2,000-2,500 words max) story that is well-researched. While the story can be made up (indeed a small slice of day-to-day life might be more interesting to read and easier to execute given space constraints than a critical juncture in history), you should research both the figure in their environment (i.e. Hillary Clinton today and how she acts and what is at her disposal) as well as the historical environment you are placing them into, and make sure that you accurately blend that research into your otherwise fictional essay. For those of you who are more academically oriented, you can use this prompt as a way to show off your love of history and take a more analytical and detail oriented approach while considering the historical figure’s experiences and characteristics in a different context. A third, more personal option (if it applies to you) is to take a member of your family (someone from your grandfather’s generation works best) use the essay as a vehicle to describe their actual experiences in the US (or your home country) and tell the story of your relationship with them and how it affected you.
“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” –Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?
This question can of course be taken literally, and depending on the type of actual art you create (whether its playing the violin, painting with watercolors, or writing fan fiction), you can write a exploratory essay discussing the nature of your art and why it serves as plagiarism or revolution. Given the large number of applicants to top universities like UChicago who have some sort of artistic pursuit on their resume, taking a tangential form of art like fan fiction, and then explaining why it isn’t plagiarism (despite occasional literal lawsuits claiming that it is) is an effective option. Once you transcend the literal meaning of the word art, you can extend into describing the artistry of a particular skill or passion. The key to this essay is to use lots of descriptive language and present a fresh take on the artistry you are describing while writing thoughtfully about why it’s plagiarism, revolution, or both. To provide an example, if you are a fan of the NBA you can write an essay describing a basketball arena during a playoff game as a living portrait of humanity, discussing the colors, sights, sounds, etc.
Rerhceseras say it’s siltl plisbsoe to raed txet wtih olny the frist and lsat ltteres in palce. This is beaucse the hamun mnid can fnid oderr in dorsdier. Give us your best example of finding order in disorder. (For your reader’s sake, please use full sentences with conventional spelling).
This essay offers a great opportunity to explore moments of turmoil in your personal life (assuming that you haven’t already discussed such themes in your common app essay) and reflect on how you coped with them. Another approach is to take normal or simple moments of disorder (pandemonium after the big game, the early moments of the evacuation drill in your school, etc.) and use them as a vehicle to explore your personality by thinking about how you acted in the situation, how you managed to find “order” or come to terms with the situation, and other themes on that. This archetype also works with more impactful moments of pandemonium (such as 9/11 or the Newtown shooting) and apply the same treatment, though unless you have a direct personal connection to those moments, such essays won’t feel as personal or effective without added social commentary or deeper psychoanalysis. A final option is to take something that you enjoy or are passionate about, for example EDM music or running marathons. Both of these have disorder (marathon in its early phases, EDM in just the sound or [next level] in the distortion of the air created by the vibrations of the sounds that go into EDM) and you can literally look for the order that you personally find in them (i.e. you feel most alive while running marathons or you are relaxed by the sounds of EDM).
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
As always, our advice is similar to previous years as this is an identical 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).
Note: the first two questions and the sixth extended essay prompt were repeated on the applications for the class of 2018 and 2019. As such, we have updated the information for those questions for 2020.
In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.
You can find these previous essay prompts below. While there are too many prompts for us to break down all of them, some of the prompts come from the essays for the class of 2018 and 2019. We have reproduced our breakdowns for those essays below.
What’s so odd about odd numbers?
This prompt offers a strong platform for discussing challenges in terms of ostracization or exclusion from society or even school. Topics such as bullying, struggles with sexual orientation, or racial identity could all be tackled by using the word “odd” as a basis to explore them, though choosing a light topic (such as the time you couldn’t go on a field trip because of a broken leg – unless written in a clearly satirical manner) would likely not be as impactful.
Another option is to use this prompt as a base to explore a passion for data analysis, math, numbers, or even patterns. For example, a particularly interesting approach to this essay could be to ruminate on your love for math in paragraphs with the sentence lengths of the Fibonacci sequence. Basically, you would write paragraphs in the following manner, each discussing a portion of why you love math, describing your experiences with math, or exploring how math guides your future plans. The first paragraph would be a blank space (0), two one sentence paragraphs (1,1), one two sentence paragraph (2), a three sentence paragraph (3), a five sentence paragraph (5), an eight sentence paragraph (8), and so forth. The text would just be presented as if it were normal, but at the end you could point out the pattern as well. Regardless of how you do it, use this essay as an option to explore a genuine curiosity in whatever “pattern” or “odd thing” you choose.
In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness.” In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
This prompt offers a strong opportunity to explore a deep interest or passionate hobby, and in certain cases, even lends itself to a bit of an academic and reflective tone. The key is to pull out a word, phrase, or even sound that is unique to that field and use it as a metaphor for your life, or to build a web of analogies to your life.
For example, a classically trained Indian singer might take the traditional Carnatic notes of “Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-…” might argue against translation into the standard Western musical notes “A, B, C, D, E, F, G” (these are not the direct comparisons I am aware, but I am not a musician by training) because the Carnatic ones carry the weight of India’s history of achievement and a certain freedom from Western control. This lends itself to rich and powerful academic writing, but the real trick will be to tie the essay back to yourself, perhaps by discussing how Carnatic music allows your Indian roots to resonate in a way that playing a song with Indian influences on the viola simply would not. You could also argue the converse and claim that blending Western and Carnatic music (by giving more Westerners the ability to play Carnatic music) would help in the process of cultural assimilation, and on a personal level, allow you to convey the meaning that your Indian heritage holds. Likely, you have your own interesting cultural idiosyncrasy; this is the essay to explore it.
Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
While it may be tempting to choose something with the preface “Three,” as hinted at in the prompt, a more palatable option might be to separate your personality/life into three distinct parts. Each part would represent a different facet of you, and tying them together would allow you to create a distinctive, yet harmonized personality. While the three items can be unique, one or several paragraphs should be devoted to explaining and exploring the interconnectivity. If your application has a common theme, picking three items within that theme would add to the novelty of the essay.
For example, my group of three would be Boeing Field in Seattle, London City Airport, and Hyderabad Airport. Boeing Field in Seattle (obviously) would represent aviation. London City Airport is the closest airport to Canary Wharf and the London School of Economics and thus would represent my academic interest, while Hyderabad Airport (Hyderabad is home to the Telugu movie industry) would represent my love for Indian films. The broader synthesis is that I was passionate about aviation, which took up the bulk of my time. In the same manner that investment bankers operate, I am rigorous and data-driven and tend to apply economic principles to make day-to-day decisions. And when I unwind (whether through film or sport), I head in the complete opposite direction towards as little thinking as possible, which is supported by the delicious inanity of Telugu film. Constructing an essay around these parameters would be the goal.
Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)
Once again this essay offers an opportunity to explore one’s personality, and a conventional approach would place someone who is high strung and works well with stress (such as yours truly) at the top of the list with a high pH of 1 or 2 (remember that pH is an inverse scale), while placing someone unflappable at a pH of 12 or 13. This is certainly an option that you could pursue, and obviously this prompt has strong appeal to those who are passionate about science. For you guys, utilizing the chemistry peg of pH, perhaps to write a series of acid-base reactions that illustrate your personality (each one covering a facet), might be a useful strategy.
However, the secret opportunity here is for those who are passionate about art. Most paints (save watercolors) have a specific pH value. Pick your favorite color of paint, try to find out its pH value (and you can use the internet), and use that as the peg for your essay. Your favorite color is frequently a reflection of some facet of your personality, and considering that could provide you with an interesting opportunity.
A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of “here,” but we already know you’re “here” to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any “here” besides that one).
This question seems rather existential, and that is a potential opportunity for those who enjoy philosophical discussions. In particular, this essay lends itself extremely well to various academic treatments. Those who are scientifically oriented could discuss the nature of matter (and the unresolved question of dark matter) or the physics of communication (speech – which enables human society to “be here”), while social sciences-oriented students could reference classical thinkers to build a case to answer the questions. While normally focusing exclusively on academic, or even dry content is a significant risk, the University of Chicago has a healthy respect for theoretical learning. And for students passionate about learning, or even research, this is conveying an essential part of personality.
Another direction for this essay is to explore a significant life event that has brought you to where you are. Examples include moving to different locations, changing familial situations that have interrupted your life, or even natural catastrophes you have faced. Whatever you choose, you can use this essay to tie in your life story – provided it is significantly unique or interesting. For example, a Chinese American who is not the oldest sibling in the family could write about how China’s One-Child Policy prompted his or her parents to move to the United States, bringing about a slew of different opportunities. The writer could then take this essay into a slightly academic direction, discussing China’s policy and its socioeconomic effects. Alternatively, one could take this essay into a cultural direction and discuss the cultural differences that exist between China and the US. Of course, this is just one example; it’s up to you to find a situation that conveys your story best.
In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012). You are you and your..?
This a much meatier topic that allows you a great window to pursue self-reflection. You can use this as a venue to describe a passion, event, or incident that either made or makes you who you are. For example, my opening line to this essay would be: I am myself and my model airplanes. I would use that as a launching point to describe my career as an aviation writer; how I grew from an amateur blogger into a professional journalist and the lessons I learned about hard work and life along the way. I would also talk about the social skills the work helped me develop, and the lasting and meaningful friends and mentors I met along the way.
The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.
Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu
What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
This one lends itself to view society through a critical lens – to write thoughtful social criticism and analysis. But an even better option is for you to peel back the layers; if you’re an academically successful student with strong extracurricular activities on your resume; use this as an opportunity to discuss some of your fears or challenges. If the flip side is true and your extra-curriculars and/or transcript are relatively weak – talk about your intellectual curiosity, and passion for learning. Personally, I would have used this essay to discuss my own challenges – how once upon a time I struggled to make friends and connect with people, and the activities and people who taught me social skills and helped me get over that.
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
This essay really allows you to show off your intellectual orientation and passions. For example, an aspiring artist would contrast the two in terms of their color, shading, or shape, while a more politically oriented student could attack the question by using apples and oranges as a vehicle to analyze the growing political bifurcation plaguing our nation. As a data and economics-oriented person, I would use the essay to explore global trends in apple and orange production and their respective contribution to national and global agricultural production and GDP.
These are the other extended essay prompts you can choose from.
“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.
Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
“…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
- Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
So where is Waldo, really?
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, he writes a parable entitled “Borges y yo,” which translates as “Borges and I.” In it, Borges writes about “the other one,” his counterpart, who shares his preference for “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson,” but is not the same as he. “The other one” is the famous author; “the other one” is the one “things happen to.” He concludes this parable with the line, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” Write a page. Who has written it?
Modern improvisational comedy had its start with the Compass Players, a group of University of Chicago students who later formed the Second City comedy troupe. Here is a chance to play along. Improvise a story, essay, or script that meets all of the following requirements:
It must include the line “And yes I said yes I will Yes” (Ulysses, by James Joyce). Its characters may not have superpowers.
Your work has to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of a high school student applying to the University—this is fiction, not autobiography.
Your work must include at least four of the following elements: a paper airplane, a transformation, a shoe, the invisible hand, two doors, pointillism, a fanciful explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, a ventriloquist or ventriloquism, the periodic table of the elements, the concept of jeong, number two pencils.
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)
The Cartesian coordinate system is a popular method of representing real numbers and is the bane of eighth graders everywhere. Since its introduction by Descartes in 1637, this means of visually characterizing mathematical values has swept the globe, earning a significant role in branches of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus. Describe yourself as a point or series of points on this axial arrangement. If you are a function, what are you? In which quadrants do you lie? Are x and y enough for you, or do you warrant some love from the z-axis? Be sure to include your domain, range, derivative, and asymptotes, should any apply. Your possibilities are positively and negatively unbounded.
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
—”Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
Perhaps you recognize this poem. If you do, then your mind has probably moved on to the question the next line poses: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” Saying who we are is never simple (read the entire poem if you need evidence of that). Write a truthful page about yourself for us, an audience you do not know—a very tall order. Hughes begins: “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem./I went to school there, then Durham, then here/to this college on the hill above Harlem./I am the only colored student in my class.” That is, each of us is of a certain age and of a particular family background. We have lived somewhere and been schooled. We are each what we feel and see and hear. Begin there and see what happens.
University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus’s escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the basic awfulness of string cheese, to the Old Norse tradition that one’s life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children’s game of cat’s cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you’re startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
In a book entitled The Mind’s I, by Douglas Hofstadter, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett posed the following problem: Suppose you are an astronaut stranded on Mars whose spaceship has broken down beyond repair. In your disabled craft there is a Teleclone Mark IV teleporter that can swiftly and painlessly dismantle your body, producing a molecule-by-molecule blueprint to be beamed to Earth. There, 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? Suppose further that an improved Teleclone Mark V is developed that can obtain its blueprint without destroying the original. Are you then two astronauts at once? If not, which one are you? To celebrate twenty years of uncommon essay questions, we brought back this favorite from 1984.
If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net.)
Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Propose your own original theory to explain one of the 16 mysteries below. Your theory does not need to be testable or even probable; however, it should provide some laws, principles, and/or causes to explain the facts, phenomena, or existence of one of these mysteries. You can make your theory artistic, scientific, conspiracy-driven, quantum, fanciful, or otherwise ingenious—but be sure it is your own and gives us an impression of how you think about the world.] The mysteries:
Sleep and Dreams
The Beginning of Everything
The End of Everything
The Roanoke Colony
Mona Lisa’s Smile
The College Rankings in U.S. News and World Report
How do you feel about Wednesday?