The Brief and Wondrous Life of the Uncommon Application

There was a time when every college had its own application.

This was back in the days of paper and pen, of typewriter and white out (“White out?” you may ask. It was a thick, white substance painted over typing (typing?) mistakes so new words could be retyped on the dried, flaky goo.)

To begin, you had to write to the college to request a copy of the application. Then, you filled it out and you mailed it in, white out and all. That was the way things were done in ancient times, before the Common Application.

So, the Common Application came as something of a relief to the college applicants of the world: much time was saved, and, with the advent of applying online, the world became a much friendlier place. Other than having to write the occasional supplement — the only personalized intrusion allowed by the Common App police — one could write a single application to college (instead of an application to a specific place) and send it over and over.

Students liked it, and colleges loved it because it made the collection of applications and associated data easy. More than that, the colleges loved it because it meant greater numbers of applications.

The Easy, Uninspiring Road

At the University of Chicago, we weren’t sure that this easy way was the way to go. Nothing at Chicago was that easy, and in fact, we kind of prided ourselves on being different, and hard. (This was an old version of the University of Chicago, you understand.)

But, beyond any perverse desire to make life difficult, we came to find that our application, even before the Common App days, was too much like all the other applications. We asked insipid questions, as did everyone else, and we found that we didn’t learn enough about the applicants from their (too frequently) insipid answers. If you ask uninspired questions, you get uninspired answers, and if you ask the same uninspired questions everyone else asks, you frequently get a generic response — a college essay, not a thoughtful bit of writing and thinking specifically addressed to a particular institution.

How would the applicant know what this particular place is like, anyway? Not by responding to a college application, but by responding to a Chicago application. We felt it was our duty to make who we were evident to anyone who read and responded to our application.

Inspired by a Martian Crash Landing

Our first foray into the uncommon regions came with a different kind of essay topic, to take the place of the “tell us about yourself, about someone important to you, about some moment of change or inspiration, about some difficult issue or trauma in your life” topic. We asked, instead, something cribbed from Daniel Dennett’s book, The Mind’s I.

It was a question about an astronaut crash landing on Mars, with no hope of rescue or survival. She does, however, have the ability to transmit a blueprint of her body and brain back to Earth and be recomposed from available molecules there. Would that mean she committed suicide? Would the copy really be her? What if, beating all the odds, she were to survive on Mars — would there be two of the original, or one real one and one a mere imitation?

We asked — thinking the question would appeal to the kind of students who applied to the University of Chicago. We soon found that, despite the radical difference in the nature of the question, despite the additional thinking the essay required, despite the unavoidable uneasiness of trusting readers who were unknown strangers and would sit and judge their answers to this strange question, many students loved the prompt. They answered in thoughtful and completely unpredictable ways. They were philosophical, religious, scientific, assured, even troubled. They wrote essays, treatises, stories, confessions, and we found that we loved, instead of half-dreaded, reading what they wrote.

These essays may have been tougher for students to write, but they seemed more fun to create. And they were certainly more fun to read. Did these applicants hire people to write their responses for them? It was less likely, we thought, that they could hire someone to write on this subject, unlike the one generic, common essay. The prose usually read like the work of someone excited about her own writing.

The interesting new topic worked, as far as we were concerned. Some students may not have taken the trouble to apply as a consequence of being asked to do something new and strange, and we mostly regretted that fact. We worried from the first moment that, by asking for something different, students who had less experience with college, who had less counseling, who came from schools that could not guide them through the application process would be the ones put off the most.

An analysis of the applicants actually didn’t show that, for example, students from low-income backgrounds were less likely to apply because we used these kinds of prompts, though we never stopped worrying about this issue. In any case, those who did apply threw themselves into it, and, we hoped, learned something about the college they were applying to —“Oh, this is the place that cares about thinking!” (Chicago wasn’t the only such place, but we sometimes pretended it was.)

What You Learn From Thoughtful Prompts and Instructions

As a staff, we assigned ourselves the task of writing questions every winter, circulating our ideas, meeting for long hours to shoot each other’s prompts down, or tentatively approve them. I think part of the fun of working at UChicago in those years was this search for new essay topics.

We tried to find four every year, different questions that would necessitate different kinds of writing and thinking. One staff member became the master of writing a prompt that asked that students write as an analyst, an “anthropologist” of their own world (not their own selves, but their world). What kind of eating habits were found in applicants’ homes? What kind of boundaries, signs, and symbols defined their neighborhoods or towns? How do familiar places seem to change upon returning to them after an absence?

The applicants didn’t have to take on the difficult, or impossible, task of writing directly about themselves, but talked about things they were experts in, and thereby revealed much about them as individuals.

As befits the university where modern improvisational comedy was developed, one of us was particularly good at asking that diverse, sometimes silly, elements be put together in a coherent narrative with a point — Elvis, string cheese, and string theory, for example. Hence, the more creative minds had a question they felt was their own.

The success of a different kind of question led us to think that the application itself could also be different. So, the instructions for filling out the application became more pointed. These directions gave the admissions staff members a better chance to define the institution they represented, what we looked for in an applicant, and how we would read and discuss submitted materials. Since teacher letters were so important to us, we wanted to make our request to teachers something that really felt like it was coming from a teacher and directed toward a teacher. Reading, of course, is an important aspect of life at this college, so we asked about the applicants’ reading. But also about their movie-watching, favorite scientific experiments, and mathematical proofs. Everything was designed to represent who we were — the layout of the application on the page (soon to be on the screen), the quality of the paper (in the days of paper) — and the ways we hoped to elicit crucially important information from students.

The Unsettling End of the Uncommon App

Someone, somewhere along the line, came up with the idea of calling the application “The Uncommon Application.” The Common Application was kind enough not to argue with the slightly mocking, slightly self-congratulatory title. People talked about the Uncommon — I was asked to be on radio and TV because people found our “Elvis” question so amusing. It seemed they missed entirely the subversive point that most students got (and enjoyed) — that the question invited them to play with the idea of conspiracy theories.

Teachers wanted us to send them advanced copies of the topics so they could use them as writing assignments. Some colleges made cautious attempts to imitate. (But who really wanted to risk depressing application numbers, when application numbers became the stock market index not just of college popularity but of a college’s supposed value?)

Applications did go up substantially during the Uncommon era, but perhaps more modestly than would have been the case had we given in to commonness. As more of our peers began to use the Common Application, it became more difficult to justify going it more or less alone (many compliments to the brave few who have held out with their own applications).

Those of us who worked in the admissions office at Chicago were happy with what we were getting — relatively fewer applications, but better, more informed, more targeted applications — but that isn’t enough these days. Presidents and boards of trustees want more, better targeted or not, and eventually word came that we must abandon the Uncommon. Students actually protested the decision on the quads. Applications went up 20 percent our last year using the Uncommon, but the Uncommon was in the end judged to not be in the best interests of our public image.

We argued that the questions had become distinctive, and, in their way, popular, so the questions remained more or less as they were. But, we no longer got to talk to applicants and their teachers and counselors by using our own language; we had to accept answers to questions we didn’t want students to answer.

Take, for instance, asking about an applicant’s major. We know that most students frequently change majors, and are even encouraged to do so by our core curriculum, so why ask them to label themselves so early, and so meaninglessly? The answer, of course, is found in the kind of marketing opportunities afforded by securing any piece of information, significant or not, that can be exploited in endless electronic contacts.

We were no longer permitted to ask about students’ reading, because the Common limited the number of things we could ask on our supplement. Despite the fact that we continued to pose our own essay topics, we had to wade through the mostly generic responses to uninspired topics at no particular benefit to us or to the applicants.

That is the history, as I remember it, of the Uncommon Application. Those of us who developed it, and worked with it, were proud — too proud? — of it, and thought it stood for a kind of admissions work that treated students with respect. Those of us who were there lamented its passing — but now, only 8 percent of applicants to the University of Chicago are admitted, which is a kind of triumph, I guess.

Check out more insightful articles by University of Chicago former Dean of Admissions Ted O'Neill and other Noodle Experts about applying to college.