Charles Wang, I received my Bachelor's from UChicago in 2011
NOTE: I am a graduate of the class of 2011. The University of Chicago has changed a great deal in subsequent years, owing in large measure to the use of the Common App, which has attracted a generally higher-quality student body. UChicago's admission rate went from nearly 30% when I enrolled to the single digits in the span of about five years. This answer is purely a reflection of my own experiences (and often shared by my compatriots from the class of 2011 and before). Some points however are still valid, if in somewhat muted form.
Speaking as someone whose UChicago experience has occasionally left him somewhat ambivalent, I will offer the following explanations for why some students may find themselves maladjusted.
- Culture - UChicago is not a party school and emphatically not a sports school. The students are generally not artsy, jocky, preppy, or any other conventional student archetype. Unlike the Ivies, there are also few to none legacy admissions and few people from old money or similar trappings. The student body tends rather to the very nerdy -even the frat bros. Someone at Alpha Delt once waxed poetic to me about his love for philosophy, the Greek classics and the Platonic ideal.
Self-deprecating jokes abound at the school about how the undergrad students are more intelligent than the grads but less socially capable, that the squirrels on campus are cuter than the girls and more aggressive than the guys, and so forth. The intense intellectual environment comes at the cost of a higher-than-average concentration of students with deficient social skills. This has several effects:
-Communication with some students can be frustrating and mutually incomprehensible. When I prospied at the University I could not get a single word out of my terminally awkward host. He literally hemmed and hawed and tried as much as possible to avoid contact of any kind with me. True story.
-Students generally enter on the basis of intellectual promise. The University generally does not select for emotional maturity or stability. You will likely see a few horrific spates of extremely ill-advised, hurtful or outright crazy behavior among friends or relationships - more than you would expect from people who seem otherwise eminently logical and intelligent.
-If you're naturally withdrawn, people will seldom go out of their way to take you out of your "shell." There are relatively fewer opportunities to socialize in general, and my suspicion is that it takes effort in addition to what would be normal at other schools to meet people. This can often worsen existing maladjustment of various kinds.
-The super-intellectual culture of the University often militates against practical or professional concerns (UChicago doesn't even have an engineering department). Unless you are part of the subset of economics majors who desperately want to enter consulting or finance, people are generally not likely to pull you aside and impress upon you such things as the importance of dressing and comporting oneself well at an interview, building up a resume of internships, following up with interviewers, networking, etc. Professors and advisers alike have minimal experience in industry and often offer little useful advice in that regard.
Until recently, the school's mission had almost nothing to do with preparing students for the real world. The administration recognized this almost belatedly. A few years ago, a consultant was hired by the career office to ensure that the students were capable of such basic tasks as shaking hands and maintaining eye contact with interviewers. Not good.
There is virtually a sense of pride among many students about how poorly rounded and socially inept they are. I consider this genuinely unhealthy, and I'm sure most people reading this answer would as well.
-The school itself is geographically and culturally insular. Unlike Columbia or NYU, students really are not exposed to the city as a whole and must go out of their way to enjoy what the city has to offer.
-Naturally, four years in your prime of interacting with total nerds will leave you with little useful feedback or experience dealing with "normal" people. Although the adoption of the Common App has made the student body more diverse and capable, the core of the student body is still... uncommon.
Things that might compound cultural maladjustment include:
Seasonal affective problems - the winters are absolutely brutal. On the worst days, your face will hurt the moment you step outside. Should you have the misfortune of having to cross it, the Midway acts as a large wind tunnel. I personally enjoy winter, but I know many people do not enjoy long periods of uniform bleakness.
Paucity of health services - both mental and physical. I can't speak from experience, but I have heard virtually nothing positive from students who've had anything ranging from allergies and mild illness to mood disorders or other serious difficulties about the student health services at the school. The University medical center functions quite fine as a hospital, but that's about it. If, for instance, you are prone to depression to begin with and find your symptoms worsening at the University, your problems are not likely to get much better with the help of the University's resources.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would still have gone to the University of Chicago but would have taken additional effort to socialize, experience the city, and develop personal and practical skills. It is possible to have fun at the school, depending on your definition of "fun." If it consists of thoughtful debates and challenging intellectual exercise, the pursuit and creative completion of bizarre challenges (i.e. Scavenger Hunt), and access to the world-class academics who will be your professors - the "life of the mind" - then you will indeed have a very rewarding experience. At this school, all other pursuits -political activism and social justice, professional development, social and emotional growth, ordinary hedonism- can easily become ancillary to and cast to the wayside by the "life of the mind." You have been warned.