Looking for the admissions office, walking through a grand archway, not knowing exactly what was to come, we were stunned by the jaw-dropping elegance of what other colleges might call a quad but at University of Chicago is better described as an English garden. A cut-stone walkway, antique lamp posts with flowers clustered just-so at the base, plantings meticulously curated and placed in tidy circles and squares. This couldn’t possibly be the place where fun goes to die, although it doesn’t exactly scream “let’s play ultimate frisbee!” The 215-acre space is in fact officially designated a Botanic Garden. It certainly makes a statement. This place is different.
Off to the right, there it was, Rosenwald Hall, office of admissions, all spires, gothic gray stone, a red-tile roof, and, naturally, ivy. Once inside, we felt instantly humbled by the faint echo and vaguely damp, dusty aroma that only the most venerable of academic institutions can muster. But first things first, are there any pens? The receptionist seemed startled by our question, but quickly recovered by turning up not just one but five high-quality maroon pens with uchicago in a lowercase gothic font. We were off to a good start.
Our new pens and worn notebooks in hand, our small group was ushered into a compact conference room, replete with one of those European-style, intersecting arched vaulted ceilings. We were invited to take a seat around a dark oak table, with an admissions counselor at its head. It felt more like we were about to participate in a seminar than an info session, which most probably was intentional. What followed was indeed more of a discussion than a presentation. It was certainly one of the crispest, clearest admissions expositions we’ve ever experienced.
Our host wasted no time setting the frame, which is all about 3s. UChicago, like other schools in town, has a trimester system, in which the school year is divided into quarters, with students taking classes during three of the four segments. Courses of study are also divided by thirds, with one-third each dedicated to a major, the core, and electives. The idea is to make sure each student spreads it around, and especially that the opportunity to have some fun with electives is not lost in the avalanche of core and major requirements. The core demands are also flexible, with plenty of options and the freedom to complete them anytime.
To keep their choices on track, all students are assigned an academic advisor the summer before their first year and required to meet at least once per quarter thereafter. This is mandatory: those who fail to schedule such a meeting are barred from registering for the next quarter. Each student is also assigned a career advancement advisor prior to arrival, and while internships are not required, about 90% of students complete at least one, all of them paid.
What’s more, some 900 organizations, everything from major corporations to startups, recruit at UChicago each year. This strong pre-professional emphasis is a little surprising, as UC is historically perceived as overwhelmingly academic. Of course, the two goals are by no means mutually exclusive.
Our discussion turned to campus life, in particular the residential system, which features “houses” within dorms, each composed of between 30-100 students, cutting across all years, who live and play together, taking trips around Chicago, to restaurants, zoos, games, museums — all funded by UChicago. Each house decides by vote how the money will be spent, and the largess is perhaps the centerpiece of the school’s determination to dispel the legend that life there is as serious as a heart attack.
Theories abound as to how UC earned its hard-boiled reputation; it is no doubt a place where students work hard and just might pursue small talk as a blood sport. That could be true of any number of elite universities, though. According to our host, the unfortunate trope dates back to the 1960s, when UChicago disbanded its clubs and built a library where its stadium used to be. That would do it. He said that “fun goes to die” T shirts remain popular, but only as a joke.
That fun is alive and well was dramatically reinforced by Ellie, our tour guide, who introduced herself by rapping about her life at UChicago and what she loves about it. As we walked the campus, she wisecracked about the questionable aesthetics of the new Max Palevsky dorm (the best thing about it was being inside because then you don’t have to see the outside), touted the arts pass that gets you into countless museums and venues, and the free public transportation that is an open invitation to explore all that Chicago has to offer.
As we walked through the Science Quad, Ellie pointed out a foreboding, windowless brick building with vented siloes running from bottom to top and said the Zombie Readiness Task Force, a student club, had named it the safest building on campus in the event of an apocalypse. She regaled us with stories of a madcap scavenger hunt, a mini art-museum, and a really weird cafe where plastic gloves hang from the ceiling as Gregorian chants waft through the sound system. If any doubt remained as to whether one could have fun here, Ellie erased it. The only real X-factor may be your idea of fun.
Meanwhile, back at our info seminar, we turned to the so-called Chicago “extended” essay, which applicants sometimes approach with dread, although the prompts clearly are built for whimsy. The question can be deceptively simple, such as: compare apples and oranges. The point is to get a sense of how you think, and so the key is to interpret the question in the context of something that’s meaningful to you. For example, one might write about apples versus oranges in terms of science, philosophy, linguistics or economics.
A new essay topic is released each year in mid/late June, but applicants have the option to choose from any question ever posed from years past. Just pick a prompt that speaks to you and for which your response comes easily. It’s basically an opportunity to showcase whatever you are most passionate about.
Be true to yourself, and, yes, have fun with it.