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University of Chicago

How many University of Chicago students does it take to change a light bulb?

None – a second spent changing a light bulb is a second lost writing your thesis.

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The glory of a University of Chicago education is that not only will you get a robust, fulfilling education that will mark you out for life, but you will get a unique chance to study in the great city of Chicago, where everything is possible and the Nobel Laureates outnumber the football players.

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Uni in the USA review

Among the academic cream of American universities – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and the University of Chicago – it is UChicago that can most convincingly claim to provide the most rigorous, intense learning experience. Don’t be put off by the famous T-shirts that proclaim that UChicago is “where fun goes to die”.

The glory of a UChicago education is that not only will you get a robust, fulfilling education that will mark you out for life, but you will get a unique chance to study in the great city of Chicago, where everything is possible - and where fun goes to thrive. With the university’s national recognition skyrocketing due to its connections with President Obama, and with Chicago itself prospering for much the same reason, there has never been a better time to inflict UChicago on yourself.


UChicago occupies a little oasis of charm and serenity in the southern reaches of the “Windy City”; it's about 20 minutes by bus or “El” (the metro system) from the city centre, and a short walk to massive Lake Michigan and the beautiful beaches and parkland on its shores. The surrounding Hyde Park neighbourhood is almost a continuation of the university, full of student and faculty housing and lots of collegiate shops and cafes.

Obama’s house from his days of teaching at the law school is a few blocks away, as is the room where Al Capone holed himself up (until recently it was a dorm for freshmen!)

The campus itself is centred on a large Oxbridge-esque quad, with old fashioned English-looking stone buildings covered with vines and ivy, and lush lawns and gardens filling the space between them. Beyond this area, the university expands into a series of much more modern edifices, though hardly any are unpleasant.

There is a huge, well-equipped gymnasium, and a sports stadium, famous for its home team’s incredibly awful record, but the old (now unused) football field is much more exciting, because it was in a bunker underneath that the scientists of the Manhattan Project first succeeded in splitting the atom, thereby launching the nuclear age.

Students generally speak very well of their campus, though not always of their surroundings. The area is easily walkable and has good connections to other parts of the city; most of the complaints really just stem from it not being as exciting as the rest of Chicago, rather than from any big faults of its own.


All freshmen and most sophomores live in the dorms, which are overall very nice indeed, especially some of the newer apartments.

The accommodation system is much loved because it is arranged by “Houses” (much the same as a British public school Houses), each of which has its own community, Residential Assistants (RAs), events and competitions against other houses.

University Man/Woman

Students at UChicago are famous for being unbearably studious, opinionated, nerdy, and perhaps a little conceited. Outsiders believe they have seen organisms at the bottom of a pond with better social skills.

Of course, in reality the student body is full of amiable, fascinating students notable for their interest in and dedication to everything they learn about, as well as a general intensity in everything they do. Most people enjoy engaging in conversation, including heated academic debates, and they all live what they call “the life of the mind”.

Certainly, the school attracts its fair share of the socially awkward, but just talk to people on campus to see that they’re mostly the same fun, animated bunch that inhabits campuses across the country.

Demographically, the student body is very diverse, and more than a little international. (Don’t be surprised to see people playing cricket in the quads.) This exposure to such a great range of cultures, ideas and interests is a real boon to campus life at UChicago.

Improbably, for such a work-focused university, there is a thriving Greek life at UChicago, though some consider it a more toned-down version than their infamous counterparts at the state schools. Non-Greek students don’t have high opinions of their fun-loving, not-quite-as-hard-working peers in the fraternities and sororities, while the Greeks themselves hold the adamant belief that they have been cursed by fate to live the frat life in such a square college. “They’re all masochists”, according to a member of one fraternity, who explained: “Greek life provides sanity for people who aren’t that pretentious.”

It is true that when the dean of studies attempted to downgrade the difficulty of the core curriculum he was dissuaded by vociferous student protests. There does seem to be a certain twisted pride in the “where fun goes to die” image, failing sports teams and other such eccentricities.

But that doesn’t mean that UChicago kids don’t like to have fun sometimes. There may be a large chunk of the student body that you never see because they are permanently locked in libraries and study sessions, but many UChicago students make sure they don’t seclude themselves and try to take full advantage of on-campus events and the wonders of Chicago - albeit, with their characteristic intensity.

Hitting The Books

If your top priority at university is learning as much as you possibly can, you’ve come to the right place. Students at UChicago go through one of the toughest, most challenging educations/ordeals (take your pick) known to mankind. But the rewards are spectacular.

UChicago has a broad, ambitious and obligatory general education known as the core curriculum, lasting the freshman and sophomore years. After this, upperclassmen get the luxury of choosing from a wide range of majors, giving them “loads of flexibility”. The teaching style “focuses on the ideas” (as opposed to simple information for information’s sake), and the university is careful to ensure that no one gets bogged down in wasteful obsession with grades and competition. “It’s mostly big picture stuff”, as one student put it, “it pushes you to become a better student”.

If you have to pick the best fields on offer, though, you should definitely check out the world-famous pioneering departments of economics and social sciences, both of which have whole schools of thought named after them.

The professors teaching you are normally close to mind-blowing (only Harvard and Stanford have more Nobel Laureates on their staffs); the only complaints are that some core curriculum classes are taught by grad students who don’t give much time to the pesky undergrads. Mostly, though, the faculty is superb, and they take their low-level classes as seriously as if they were your major.

Although the name “University of Chicago” may sound like a big state school, the undergraduate enrolment is closer in size to a small liberal arts college. With small, discussion-based classes guaranteeing tons of contact with superstar teachers, it might take a while to get used to everyone being leaders in their field.

“Your professor is probably famous”, said one sophomore, before telling a story about meeting Prof. Obama in an elevator. Not only this, but teachers are almost always helpful and care a lot about their students’ success, with lots of open-office hours available so you can squeeze out every last drop of knowledge.

The other great thing about UChicago is that being top-heavy towards graduates over undergraduates (the latter outnumbering the former almost 2 to 1) means that there are fantastic research opportunities available.

Many PhD level classes are open to undergraduates, which extends the whole plane of your education to an exhilarating out-of-the-classroom level which few other undergrads in the world are lucky enough to experience.

Still, if you’re applying here for the academics – probably the best reason to come – you have to keep in mind that it’s really, really tough, sometimes crushingly so. “They try and overwhelm you with lots of homework”, explained one student in reference to professorial tactics. Finals week, which seems to be permanently around the corner, can be “hellish”.

The other subject of much complaint is grade deflation, which students claim is endemic and designed to make you work harder than the layabouts at Harvard and Yale who get their grades handed to them on a silver plate.

Social Life

Students live their social lives as intensely as they do everything else, although there are of course those who never emerge from the library. The theory is that though social life, academics and sleeping all exist at UChicago, most students only have enough time for two of them. In the words of one student “you learn how to keep yourself sane”.

There’s a lot on offer, certainly something for every taste. “Some organisation is always doing stuff,” stated a particularly eloquent sophomore – and all the dorm houses constantly organise events and even field trips.

The university administration is extremely supportive of student initiatives and gives groups the freedom to let their creative juices run wild. They also organise events themselves, and bring in big-name speakers to further broaden and expand the experience.

The student film society, Doc Films, is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country, attracting huge stars and pre-premiere showings of blockbuster films. It also makes some ace documentaries. Intramural sports are another big deal, and are a lot more popular than the failing varsity teams.

Instead of game days, big campus events include the fall formal, Mardi Gras celebrations, “summer breeze”, a festival of the arts and best of all, the bizarre Scavenger Hunt which is the biggest in the country and lasts 4-5 days every May.

One of the best things about living at UChicago is that there is no bubble – students live in the thick of Chicago and they take full advantage. The city centre and other cool districts scattered throughout the metropolis are within easy reach.

Bear in mind, however, that the university is only a short distance from some of the most run down areas of Chicago’s infamous South Side (though this does mean you can experience some great gang-history!).

Students report that safety is not an issue – you simply avoid the bad parts and trust in UChicago’s private police force, which is the largest of any university in the States and the fourth largest private security body in the world.

Outside Those Ivory Walls

Chicago is the perfect antidote to those hard-workin’ blues. The city has honed its capacity and flair for having fun over the entire course of its relatively brief history, having come to fame as the epicentre of all things evil and tempting during the roaring twenties, when Prohibition pushed alcohol consumption into the speakeasies and led to gang warfare.

It still has a reputation for corruption, especially among its politicians: not so long ago, former state governor Rod Blagojevich (Blag-oy-o-vich) was discovered to have attempted to “sell” a seat in the Senate.

Chicago is the basis for the legendary Gotham City of Batman fame, and residents enjoyed watching Heath Ledger and Christian Bale in the streets making the recent Batman films, complete with stunts and explosions.

In reality, Chicago is not quite as dark and foreboding as its fictional counterpart – but it has some similarities. The first skyscraper was built here, and hulking, grimy, monolithic buildings still dominate the skyline. One of them, the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), is the tallest building in the country, although several buildings in Asia have now surpassed it as tallest in world. Here, you can visit Willis’ new glass balcony, where you can quite literally look past your feet to the dizzying streets below.

Any kind of fun that you can possibly desire is available in lavish quantities in Chicago, from music festivals (Lollapalooza and Pitchfork are world-famous) to prestigious museums and everything in between.

Culinary delights also abound, and you have to try the deep-dish pizza that Chicago natives worship as the One True variety. The city’s only real downside is the winter, when things turn hideously cold and snowy, and it’s hard to avoid feeling grumpy.

Getting In

AT A GLANCE - Application & Test Options:
- Early Action, Early Decision, Early Decision II, Regular Decision
- ACT/SAT required

UChicago is, unsurprisingly, extremely competitive – only 8% applicants were admitted for autumn 2016. Admissions staff have to decide between thousands of academic brainboxes, so you’re going to need an ultra standout application. Non-academic considerations are also important, so it helps if you have a well-rounded CV and can make yourself look like the motivated and successful leader that they want to fill the places.

UChicago offers Early Action, which means you can apply in November and find out early (before the winter holidays) but you don’t have to go. Importantly, you can apply to other Early Action schools at the same time. And now you also have two timetables for applying Early Decision (which is binding).

Money Matters

Moneywise, UChicago is similar to most of the big-name schools in that it is ridiculously expensive and offers a lot of aid to help talented students cover the cost. International students are also eligible for this aid, which is mostly need-based, and if you are successful with your application then the university will normally cover all of what it feels you are unable to pay. Financial aid applications do put you in an even more competitive pool, though, so think about it carefully.

Famous Graduates

David Axelrod – senior advisor to Obama, and chief strategist on the campaign

Philip Glass – world famous minimalist composer

Luis Alvarez, Emily Green Balch, Gary Becker, Saul Bellow, Herbert Brown, James M. Buchanan, Owen Chamberlain, James Cronin, Clinton Davisson, Jerome Friedman, Milton Friedman, Ernest Lawrence, Tsung-Dao Lee, Robert Lucas, Jr., Harry Markowitz, Robert Millikan, Robert Mulliken, Irwin Rose, F. Sherwood Rowland, Jack Steinberger, Paul Samuelson, Myron Scholes, Herbert Simon, Roger Sperry, George Stigler, Edward Lawrie Tatum, Daniel Tsui, James Dewey Watson, Frank Wilczek, Chen Ning Yang – all Nobel Laureates

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