I know a lot of people that have a “What if?” school. A “What if?” school is a college that you almost chose but didn’t. It is a school loved but for whatever reason turned down. For me, that school was the University of Chicago. I went back to the University of Chicago last week, and I couldn’t help but imagine my life had I gone there. I picked out the dorm I would have lived in, the clubs I would have joined, some of the classes I would have take. I really love the place. I kind of wish I could go to college again.
From the moment I parked along the Midway (a giant park that runs through the two halves of the campus) and glanced up at the Gothic towers ahead, I started running. I couldn’t wait to get back to that gorgeous quad. It was a beautiful day, basically perfect, and students were outside everywhere. At lots of schools you might catch the occasional outdoor class but for some reason at the U of C students love doing class outside, and all throughout the quad circles of students having seminars were sitting in the grass. I ran into archways, took pictures of ivy climbing up the walls, listened to an organ playing in a tiny chapel, and of course bought some coffee!
I am not a big coffee drinker but when I’m at this school, I can’t resist. Basically every academic building has some coffee shop with character, charm, and delicious coffee. The Divinity School coffee shop’s motto is “Where God drinks coffee” which gives you a sense of the University of Chicago sense of humor but also reflects coffee and the coffee shop as a central part of the campus culture.
In any case, after visiting all of my favorite spots, I decided to take my fifth tour of the campus because even though I know my way around, it has been a few years, and I wanted to hear from a more recent student. My tour guide, Will, was excellent. He was a political science major and a physics minor. He did theater, was president of the juggling club, and was on the board of the student circus. Yes, I said student circus. Apparently this is one of the most popular activities on campus!
Will was very enthusiastic about his academic experiences at the University of Chicago, especially the structure of the curriculum. For me, this was a big reasons I was attracted to the University of Chicago as well. This is a school with a slightly nerdy academic vibe but in a completely endearing way. These kids genuinely love to learn. The Chicago “Core” is intense, but every student I’ve talked to has said this curriculum has been a really meaningful experience. Students take seminar-style courses in a handful of fields but the most talked about areas from what I’ve encountered have been the sequences in Humanities, Civilization, and Social Sciences. Not all students take exactly the same classes but choose the section that most interests them. Still there is a lot of crossover between the texts in these classes regardless of section which is why The University of Chicago website says that “All students have taken the same sorts of classes and read the same kinds of texts, struggling and triumphing over the same sorts of ideas.” For students, this is both an academic and bonding experience which puts students on common ground as they move forward with their educations.
The University of Chicago calendar is set up on the quarter system, with students studying on campus during a fall, winter, and spring term. Most students take a total of three courses per quarter which Will said he appreciated because it allowed him to really focus on his classes rather than have to spread oneself so thin taking more (which is often required at schools on a semester system). Of the total classes students take, about 1/3 will be for the Core, 1/3 are electives, and 1/3 are devoted to one’s major.
Additionally, lots of students participate in undergraduate research. There are a total of 5,369 undergraduates and 6,928 graduate students at the university. Will said this was a great thing because “almost every graduate student wants a research assistant which means there are tons of opportunities.” He makes a great point. Yes, with these kinds of ratios the culture at the university is not all about you as an undergraduate, but if you are enterprising there are many opportunities to get involved with the exciting work graduate students are working on.
There are so many fields where the University of Chicago is world renowned. This University founded 5 schools of thought and is ranked in the top 10 nationally in 17 different fields. It is the birthplace of the technology that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Its economics department shaped the economies of multiple countries. It invented the field of sociology. So many important things happened here. And more importantly, you really get the sense that people care about this intellectual legacy. It is hard to walk around this place and not have a deep-seated urge to pick up a book and find a place to study.
When I was making my college decisions, the concern several people had for me when I talked about possibly choosing the University of Chicago was that it was too serious of a school. People used to say that the unofficial motto of the University of Chicago was “Where fun comes to die.” This was mostly a joke, but there was some truth to it. U of C students were known to choose late nights at the 24-hour library over participating in extracurricular and social life. But in recent years this is starting to change. Yes the students are unusually academic, but they seemed to really care about other parts of their lives as well. Will, my tour guide, was a perfect example, gushing about student theater (apparently there are over 30 theatrical productions a year), the tight knit group he found in his residential “house”, and being on the winning team for the annual scavenger hunt, Scav, last year.
Before proceeding, let me just say that I don’t know of any other school with a campus wide activity as interesting, popular, and quirky as Scav. Students form massive teams of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Physics majors, econ people, biology, English, and anthropology people all come together to strengthen the power of their team. Each year a list with hundreds of items is released and collectively the teams must either gather or construct as many of the items as possible. They divide the list by skills. Will, who had a physics background, was asked to do things this year such as build a giant fountain where the water flowed out in such a way that it spelled out words. And, he was asked to build a piano where hitting each key contributed to the making of a mixed drink (i.e. hitting “A” means pour the cranberry juice, “G” the orange juice, etc.). While the techie students build, others get in a car and drive off to St. Louis or elsewhere to collect the geographic specific items. It is a great bonding experience and a huge source of pride on this campus.
Historically, sports have not been a big part of the University of Chicago culture (one University of Chicago president in the early 1900s famously declared all sports for “hooligans” and abolished them from the campus). Today, the university is a Division III school with plenty of student athletes and great athletic facilities. However, Will noted that there was really no “singular social force” on the campus. Some students like sports. Some students were involved with fraternities (13% of students participate although all have open parties). Others were into the arts scene both at the university and in the greater city (students apparently get lots of free tickets to arts events including free admission to all of the city’s art museums). Ultimately, he said, there are tons of choices to do whatever you want to do.
The housing system is another area that seems to be improving greatly at the University of Chicago. Historically, a large percentage of students lived off campus, but the university has invested heavily into improving residential life, and it is clearly working. Today, two-thirds of students live on-campus, and the students I’ve spoken with have only said good things. There are tons of different dorm options suiting a wide variety of tastes. They range in very modern (the newest dorms are just a couple of years old) to gorgeous historic buildings in the neo-Gothic style. Some of the dorms are right near the center of campus and others are up to a mile away right on the lake. Most students get placed in one of their top three buildings so if you want to be close to campus you’ll probably get that, and if you want to be far, you can choose that too. I thought that most students would want to be close but apparently a lot of students love being a bit further out. They say that being near the lake is awesome as well as being close to the Metra train stop that takes them right into downtown. Besides, the further out dorms tend to have a very tight sense of community because the students say they spend more time there.
But community is a priority within all of the dorms. Students are assigned a “house,” a group of 40-100 students within the same floor or building when they are assigned a dorm. Each house is comprised of a cluster of rooms and some common areas specifically for that house. Houses are designated a table in one of two campus dining halls that is labeled so that members of the house can eat together (though there are unlabeled tables as well and you certainly don’t have to each with your house). Additionally, each house is assigned funds to use on activities for the house. Different houses have chosen to use these funds differently. Some take annual trips together, others invest in cable TV for the house and video games and house study breaks in their common rooms, others see theater together in the city. The house provides a sense of close-knit community within a large university.
Living in Chicago
Another huge perk of this university is getting to live in the city of Chicago. Chicago is one of the most underappreciated cities in the country. I lived there for six years so I’m biased, but it is a phenomenal place. My friends on the coasts can unfairly dismiss it as being in the “Midwest” which in their mind translates into “flat and boring.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Okay, it is a bit flat. But it certainly not boring and happens to be one of the most beautiful cities in this country. To get from downtown to the University of Chicago, you drive right along Lake Michigan. If you have never been to the Great Lakes, realize that these lakes are bigger than entire states. They look like the ocean. Chicago is built right along the shoreline and as you drive to the university on one side of the road you see massive sandy beaches, parks, tennis courts, bikers, and tons of people enjoying the waterfront. On the other side of the road, you see the striking Chicago skyline filled with some of the tallest and most interesting skyscrapers in the country.
Within the city you’ll find an amazing theater and arts scene, tons of festivals, and absolutely amazing food from just about every country you can imagine (as much as I love Boston, it doesn’t come close to Chicago on the food front). Drive south of the urban center along the lake and you’ll make it to the neighborhood of Hyde Park, which is home to the University of Chicago. It is a slightly quieter neighborhood from the bustle of downtown filled with large parks and large historic homes. But it is not devoid of urban life. Yes, that means you do need to be a bit careful. There is some crime, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus, but during daylight I’ve always felt safe walking around. At night, the University goes to great lengths to make sure students feel safe (including have a security staff at each of the dorms).
But an urban location also has its perks. The campus is right on bus lines that go all over the city and within walking distance of the Metra train which will take you downtown. Additionally, there are some great restaurants, coffee shops, and bars within a few blocks of campus. And importantly, there are several mesmerizing local bookshops (filled with lots of nooks and crannies) that cater to the intellectual community.
For better or worse (and this is a matter of debate among the community), the University of Chicago has become significantly more selective in recent years in terms of admissions. Though it has always been known to be top notch academically, it used to be known as a school that was largely self-selective since the students that chose to go there were choosing to go to a place that was all about hard core academics. Today, it is in actuality very selective and because of its improved residential and extracurricular scene also attracts a more well-rounded group of students that are also looking into the Ivy League and its peer schools. The admissions rate for the Class of 2017 was just 8.8% and comprised of students from all over the country and the world.
Historically, the University of Chicago did not use the Common Application. Their application was actually called the Uncommon Application and was known for its quirky essay questions. Today, they do accept the Common Application but have preserved some of their truly bizarre questions in their supplement. Several examples from this year’s supplement include:
“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.
What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
Chicago offers generous need-based aid to over 60% of students. In addition, they are one of the few top tier schools to offer academic merit scholarships to cover full tuition. These scholarships are extremely competitive especially with the increasing competition in the general application pool each year but to the lucky few provide an amazing opportunity. Every student that applies is automatically considered for the award.
When I think of the University of Chicago, I think of the following:
-Gothic towers & gargoyles
-Hidden study spots
-Students studying in circles in the grass (in fall and late spring)
-A somewhat self-deprecating sense of humor
-Chicago winter – perfect for staying inside and studying
-The stereotypical collegiate study lounge with dark-paneled wood, fireplaces, and plush furniture to sit in for hours
-$1 milkshake day every Wednesday
-Ice skating on the Midway
-Spending hours in bookstores
-Having a great conversation or overhearing somebody else’s (usually in a coffee shop)
If these things all sound good, seriously consider this place.