Monday, September 18, 2017

An Example of UChicago's Uncommon Admissions Essay

The following is a successful example of the University of Chicago's famous supplemental essay (the "uncommon application," as it used to be called) that gained me admission to the University of Chicago in 2010, for the College Class of 2015. Years have since passed, but the essay still expresses the intellectual experience I hoped for, and found, at UChicago. I went on to graduate in 2015 with high honors in Fundamentals: Issues & Texts, Jewish Studies, and a minor in Philosophy. I then earned my MA in Philosophy at KU Leuven, in Belgium, before beginning my Ph.D. in intellectual history at Princeton. I hope you find the essay encouraging and helpful.

Essay Option 6: In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. 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.

My Prompt: Draw upon the work of a favorite author to illustrate how something you’ve read has been realized in an influential life experience. (I opted for this over the admittedly enticing "find x.")

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

— Proverb, Book of Bokonon, Cat’s Cradle (p. 81)
(Anthropology thesis of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. University of Chicago AM’71)

I am a Bokononist, fantastical and delusional, or at least I once was. Bokononism is a fictional religion forging the framework of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, one of my favorites. Centered on the axiom that all faith is an illusion, Bokononism upholds the use of foma, or apparently harmless untruths, to ease the minds of its followers. It concedes the impossibility of fulfillment in life without some sort of faith–some sort of delusion. Ultimately, Bokononism is an intellectual, reflective ideology which graces humans’ animal limitations with our spiritual attempts to mask them.

I have lived most of my life thus far under the Bokononistic foma that I know something. As far back as I can remember, everyone has always said how swimmingly I am doing, how much I know. I even got through my summer college experience at Northwestern deluding myself with the notion that I had achieved some meaningful level of understanding about the world. The problem with this, as Vonnegut cynically suggests, is that our purpose is merely to fulfill our own expectations. Understanding is a self-fulfilling prophecy that conforms to our own vantages, a magical fish tank that stretches and shrinks to fit the figurative volume of our minds to match our own imaginations from the petty to the philosophical. It expands so that we remain necessarily small relative to the tank, lest we ever outgrow it and truly be content big fish.

For better or worse, the facade of understanding that previously contented me came crashing down at Harvard Summer School, theatrically crashing a hole in the side of the figurative fish tank that was my complacent mind. Harvard was my vin-dit, or sudden push in the direction of finding myself, and I saroon-ed or gave into that push. While both my summer programs at Northwestern and Harvard were conceptually similar, with high school students enrolled in regular classes at the university, Northwestern felt little-league in retrospect. Week upon week of the program, I found myself mindlessly following a group of other students who did not value intellectual exploration. Though I loved my classes and made lifelong friends, I walked away from the experience smiling from a whirlwind of social activity, not remembering whether I had learned much about myself or truly achieved “college level independence” as promised.

The Book of Bokonon illustrates the human tendency to claim to have seen what is on the other side of the hazy tank wall by pretending to understand the nuances of life, just as I did at Northwestern. Taking the metaphor more literally, if humans believing that they understand the world is just another animal instinct, then enlightenment is little more than a pit-stop between insoluble questions, a necessary but ultimately meaningless way of taking a sanity break. Such people are all around us; they are my wrang-wrangs. A wrang-wrang is a person who serves as a wake up call to others by showing what happens when a line of thinking is carried to its logical conclusion, in this case those who are intellectually content to understand at face value. I can’t blame them, for we can’t see through to the other side of our tank until we have thoroughly questioned where we already are, and even then we can only see through to a fraction of the gems on the other side. In hindsight, I was surrounded by them at Northwestern–people who didn’t see the value in sheer learning, who simply weren’t curious about life.

Unlike Northwestern CPP, Harvard Summer School was structured around independence and intellectual maturity. Unlike most, I was ready to take it on by myself, and to learn what it meant to make ones own choices, both academically and socially. Though I was at first fish out of water in such an intense and demanding environment, I circumstantially evolved in my understanding and became adept at terrestrial movement, developing a way of breathing in the ether outside my formerly sheltered waters. I went from being challenged by my environment to challenging it. I met a handful of people who have truly changed my life during that summer as I was thrown into a maelstrom of intellectualism. There, I played in an outstanding orchestra, explored New England, and spent countless hours pursuing dozens of different subject areas in the depths of Widener Memorial Library stacks until closing–and I had fun doing it.

The tigers in the poem have it easy. Perhaps there is always larger game to catch, but their satiation point remains the same, limiting how far they will go out for prey, for how long they will hunt. Likewise, humans compete over incomes, spouses, and signs of validation but we never achieve anything as fulfilling as the tiger’s meal due to the laws of both material and intellectual increasing expectations that come with success. We never land or catch our pray and sleep because we were made, as Vonnegut suggests, to question our surroundings–our meals and our flights–until we are through. This intellectual jousting becomes a figurative battle that will never end. Yet, we should not disappoint, for we were meant to embark on winding quests circling and circling our tanks until the right questions are asked and the tank expands to reveal even more probing uncertainties. Harvard led me on those winding quests, quite often literally through the ten floors of Widener library, and socially through the flurry of events I attended without knowing anyone, always ending up with a new favorite book or friend.

I now consider myself an academic in that no amount of learning ever brings me back to that blindly contented stage, though I love the pursuit more than ever before. Every speck of information I hear on NPR or on some tangent in class meets another frayed wire and sparks to some former time, life experience, person, classroom, ad infinitum– never quite “landing” as the bird could. A right answer in class is met with magnetism for the ten answers I don’t know. Ways of constructing thoughts differently, emphasis on the seemingly semantic have woven me into an intellectual knot that would appear to be devouring itself. Nevertheless, I have found myself through experiential study as Bokononists find themselves through boko-maru, the intimate act of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of two persons’ feet.

The seemingly nonsensical Cat’s Cradle is at its core an anthropological masterpiece. It addresses primordial questions of human purpose, the innermost limits of human perception, and the decisive value of our attempts to make meaning in the world. It asks those integral questions about why we seek answers, experiment, and ultimately learn, all in the context of our biological existence as animals. Simply put, my quest is to understand more about human kind: our origins and cultures via anthropology, our recording of that existence via history, and our cultural representations of those ideas via literature. Yet, intellectual satiation is possible only under the foma of understanding. Where or when we stop questioning, only time will tell. Thus far, I’ve got a long way to go: the human story is a long one, and it’s still being written.