The University of Chicago’s dean of admissions and financial aid recently sent out a sample essay to thousands of high school seniors (Class XII in India) in the hope “that it lightens your mood, reduces any end-of-the-year stress and inspires your creative juices in completing your applications”.
While this sample essay seems to have caused some controversy, I think it is a good backdrop for talking about how an original, creative college essay can help your admission prospects. The student who wrote the essay, identified only as Rohan, applied under the early action programme and was accepted by the University of Chicago.
The sample essay, comparing the college to an elusive lover, was a tongue-in-cheek, quirky, humorous piece. It was written in answer to the question ‘How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community and future?’
So why did this essay work for Rohan? Firstly, the essay stood out and caught the attention of the admissions committee. Further, the applicant did not just write a creative essay – he wrote one that demonstrated that he clearly understood the university’s character and image. The University of Chicago has long prided itself on the unusual essays it requires from applicants and is seen to have a ‘quirky’ image.
Importantly, he made sure he answered the question – some applicants fail to do this, because they tend to focus mainly on the ‘being creative’ part of their creative essay. The essay was actually quite specific about ‘Why Chicago?’ The University of Chicago is seen as unique in terms of its focus on intellectualism and individuality and he reflected that in his essay: “To be honest, I must confess I had already dreamt of a rosy future together, one filled with late nights and long discussions over the Gothic era and the ethical stage of Kierkegaard...”
The essay also reveals a lot about the applicant – for example, it revealed that he is a risk-taker, has a passion to learn from great minds and that he would enjoy researching original texts. It also demonstrated a strong desire to attend the University of Chicago and referred to how much time he had spent getting to know the university: “You never called after that one time, I visited you thrice, but you never come around anymore.
Tell me, was I just one in a line of many?”
In his essay, Rohan objected to the “why”, showing that he was intellectually curious and did not shy away from questioning the status quo. “I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around, I accounted for all that; I understand someone of your caliber and taste. And now you inquire as to my wishes? They’re simple, accept me for who I am! Why can’t you just love and not ask why? Not ask about my assets or my past?”
So, if you do write a creative essay, make sure it answers the question, reflects who you are and demonstrates that you understand what makes the university unique. Given that, it is unlikely that using the same creative essay for different universities will work – do not be tempted to ‘reuse’ your creative essay. Also, creativity comes in many shapes and forms, so pick something that you are comfortable with and that will appeal to the universities you are applying to.
Several people on online forums have stated that they felt that this essay leveraged a common creative theme and could not understand why it helped the applicant get admitted.
Others disagreed, because they understood what the University of Chicago stood for and hence realised why the essay had worked in Rohan’s favour. So, if you do get someone to review your creative essay, make sure that they really understand the specific characteristics of the university you are applying to.
The writer is the CEO of FutureWorks Consulting (www.futureworks.co.in), an admissions consulting firm