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Character Counts Essay Prompts For To Kill

Some classic questions from previous years…

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB'16

Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

What's so odd about odd numbers?
–Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB'09

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness." In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
– Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018

Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
– Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
–Inspired by Tess Moran, AB'16

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
–Inspired by Florence Chan, AB'15

The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, Class of 2017, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)

"A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
–Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB'16.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
–Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS'07

Susan Sontag, AB'51, wrote that "[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech." Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
–Anonymous submission

"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let's stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB'16

So where is Waldo, really?
–Inspired by Robin Ye, AB'16

Find x.
–Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
–Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
–Proposed by Kelly Kennedy, AB'10

Chicago author Nelson Algren said, "A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street." Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical. 
–Anonymous submission

UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
–Inspired by Anna Andel

"Don't play what's there, play what's not there."—Miles Davis (1926–91)
–Inspired by Jack Reeves

University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions." We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
–Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric

"Mind that does not stick."
–Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
–Inspired by Adam Sobolweski

Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We've bought it, but it didn't stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
–Inspired by Katherine Gold

People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you're startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
–Inspired by Kimberly Traube

On This Page

Prompts based on literary works

Click each title to see a list of prompts.

1984 by George Orwell

  • Is Winston brave or foolish to defy the Party?
  • What role does fear play throughout the novel? How does it affect the characters’ actions?
  • What role do women play in the novel?
  • What is the connection between language and truth throughout 1984?
  • Does Winston’s past excuse his betrayal of Julia at the end of the novel?
  • Describe the significance of loyalty in 1984.
  • Does Winston ever hold power over the Party?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 

  • What role does landscape play in the novel? How does the landscape affect characters’ actions?
  • What role do female characters play in the novel?
  • Describe the importance of parents in the novel. What effect, if any, do they have on their children’s personalities?
  • What does water represent in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
  • According to the novel, what does it mean to be “free”?
  • How do Tom and Jim fit in with their society? Where do they not fit in?
  • Choose two characters from the novel and compare their views on what it means to be “civilized.”

Animal Farm by George Orwell 

  • What is the significance of Orwell’s choice to make his main characters animals?
  • What are the major faults of Animalism?
  • Explain the significance of the windmill. What might it represent?
  • As the novel progresses, the animals adopt human-like habits. What does this suggest about humans? What does this suggest about power?
  • Who is the most successful leader in Animal Farm?
  • How does the meaning of “equality” change for the animals throughout the novel?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

  • What role do women play throughout the novel?
  • Where does Holden’s immaturity reveal itself? How does he try to hide it?
  • How does Holden view adults?
  • What do Holden’s lies reveal about his character? Why does he stray from the truth in certain moments?
  • How does Holden’s narration affect the reader’s understanding of the novel? What is the significance of the author’s choice to frame Holden’s story as a flashback?
  • Describe New York City as a character in the novel. Is the city friendly or hostile towards Holden?
  • Explain the significance of Holden’s relationships with Phoebe throughout the novel.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  • According to the novel, are moral standards flexible or inflexible? Defend your answer.
  • Examine when Raskolnikov chooses to tell the truth and when he lies. What do these choices suggest about his character?
  • According to Crime and Punishment, when is rule-breaking justified? Which rules are worth following? 
  • How does Raskolnikov change over the course of the novel? How does he stay the same?

Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury

  • According to the novel, what is the difference between innocence and ignorance?
  • Which character has the greatest influence on Montag? Why?
  • According to Fahrenheit 451, what do humans need most in life? What can they live without?
  • Who is the hero of Fahrenheit 451?
  • Describe the importance of irony in Fahrenheit 451.
  • Who is the more rational character: Faber or Captain Beatty?
  • What is the most dangerous effect that the society in Fahrenheit 451 has on its citizens?
  • Does Montag have the skills to help build a new civilization? Use evidence from the text to support your claim.

The Great Gatsbyby F. Scott Fitzgerald 

  • What effects do wealth and power have on the characters in The Great Gatsby?
  • Is Nick a reliable narrator? Why or why not?
  • Which characters hold the most power in The Great Gatsby: male or female?
  • Jay Gatsby changes his own life story in order to portray himself in a certain way. Are characters in The Great Gatsby ever, in fact, in charge of their own stories?
  • What do the homes of the characters in The Great Gatsby tell us about their personalities?
  • Is Gatsby foolish or wise to pursue Daisy?
  • According to The Great Gatsby, what does it mean to tell the “truth”?

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

  • How does Shakespeare characterize the nation of Denmark? How does this characterization compare to that of England?
  • What role do soliloquies play in Hamlet? Pick one and analyze its function in the play.
  • Multiple times throughout the play, characters kill someone other than who they intended. How do these accidental killings further the plot? 
  • According to the play, is revenge inherently negative or inherently positive? 
  • Analyze the tone of the play. How does it change from act to act? What key moments are responsible for these shifts?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  • What is the most notable distinction between Kurtz and Marlow? What makes this distinction significant?
  • In Heart of Darkness, the characters progress through their travels at the same time as they experience psychological changes. Choose one character and describe: How does the character’s physical journey relate to his psychological evolution?
  • Select a major theme in the novel. How does the setting of the novel support this theme?
  • What statement does the novel make about imperialism? 
  • How do characters’ speaking patterns (including content and amount of time spent speaking) reflect their positions in the world?
  • What is the relationship between darkness and light in the novel?

The House on Mango Streetby Sandra Cisneros 

  • How does the structure of The House on Mango Street affect the reader’s experience?
  • What is a central theme in The House on Mango Street? How do different characters relate to this theme?
  • Describe the transition from childhood to adulthood in The House on Mango Street. According to the book, what does it mean to be an adult?
  • What character affects Esperanza most?
  • How does the landscape of the neighborhood shape the girls’ personalities?
  • In The House on Mango Street, is it better to be young or old? Why?
  • “Esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish. Why is this a fitting name for the novel’s narrator?

Lord of the Fliesby William Golding 

  • Who is the most effective leader in Lord of the Flies?
  • What is the most important symbol in Lord of the Flies and why?
  • Describe gender’s role in the novel. According to Golding, what it means to be a “boy” or “man”?
  • What is the significance of “the beastie”? What might it represent?
  • Choose one character who expresses hope throughout the novel. Does hope help or harm this character?
  • Describe the island in Lord of the Flies. How does the landscape represent the emotional lives of the boys?
  • Who or what is the true hero of Lord of the Flies?

The Metamorphosisby Franz Kafka

  • According to the story, what does it mean to be human? What distinguishes a human from a “monster” or an animal?
  • What statement does the story make about work and responsibility? Does work ultimately have a positive or negative impact on Gregor?
  • Describe the significance of Grete’s transformation throughout the story. What control does she have over Gregor? How does Gregor stay independent from her? 
  • Throughout the story, Kafka repeatedly refers to furniture. What, in your opinion, might furniture symbolize?
  • How does Gregor benefit from being turned into an insect?
  • Explain the impact of the story’s ending. How does this affect your understanding of the rest of the story? 

Of Mice and Menby John Steinbeck 

  • Did George do the right thing by shooting Lennie?
  • Is Lennie and George’s friendship equal? If not, which man benefits more?
  • According to Of Mice and Men, what does it mean to be strong?
  • Is George’s promise of buying a farm harmful or helpful to Lenny?
  • How does George and Lennie’s friendship change over the course of the novel?
  • What might the dogs at the ranch represent?
  • How do characters’ physical appearances shape the reader’s understanding of personalities in the novel?

The Old Man and the Seaby Ernest Hemingway

  • What statement does the novel make about age and aging? To what extent does age matter? 
  • Describe the effect that the novel’s length has on the reader. Why might Hemingway have chosen to keep this novel so short?
  • Describe the parallels between Santiago and the marlin. How are the man and fish similar? 
  • How do you interpret Santiago’s dreams about lions on on the beach? 

The Outsidersby S.E. Hinton

  • Who is the bravest character in the novel?
  • How are the greasers and Socs similar?
  • Are the other greasers a positive or negative influence on Ponyboy?
  • What makes Ponyboy a good narrator?
  • Choose one symbol in the novel. What is the significance of this symbol? How does it affect different characters in the novel?
  • How do female characters influence Ponyboy?
  • Explain the significance of Johnny’s letter to Ponyboy. What does the letter reveal about the greasers as a whole?

Pride and Prejudiceby Jane Austen 

  • Choose one letter from the novel and describe its significance. How does the letter connect to themes elsewhere in the novel? What does the writer reveal about the reader and his or her audience?
  • Describe the most significant setting in the novel. Why is this place especially important to the novel’s plot?
  • Which couple has the most stable relationship?
  • Over the course of the novel, who changes more: Darcy or Elizabeth?
  • Describe the gender dynamics in Pride and Prejudice. Where do women hold power over the men? Where do men maintain power?
  • How does Mr. Collins affect the Bennets? What does his presence reveal about the family?
  • According to Pride and Prejudice, what makes a good parent?
  • By the end of the novel, which character has matured most and why?

The Scarlet Letterby Nathaniel Hawthorne 

  • Which secret in The Scarlet Letter has the greatest effect on the novel’s plot and why?
  • How does Pearl’s name connect with themes in the novel?
  • Explain the significance of labels in The Scarlet Letter. How are they useful to the characters? What are their limitations?
  • What does Chillingworth gain from hiding his identity?
  • How does Hester change throughout the course of the novel?
  • Was Dimmesdale right to end his life?

The Things They Carriedby Tim O'Brien 

  • The Things They Carried is a novel, yet the author and narrator share the same name. Describe the significance of this and how it might affect the reader. 
  • What do you consider to be the most significant object or emotion that is carried by a character in the novel?
  • Which character has the greatest impact on Tim’s development throughout the novel? What makes him or her so influential?
  • Should war be considered a character in the novel? Defend your answer.
  • According to the novel, what does it mean to be a soldier? What is required to be a good soldier?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 

  • Which character has the greatest influence on Scout?
  • What is the most important symbol in To Kill a Mockingbird and why?
  • Does Boo Radley have a greater effect on Scout before or after she meets him?
  • What is the most important lesson that Atticus teaches Scout and Jem?
  • Who is most responsible for Tom Robinson’s conviction?
  • According to To Kill a Mockingbird, what does it mean to have a “good education”?
  • How does Scout’s narration style change over the course of the novel? What does this tell us about her character?

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Prompts not based on literary works

  • Should dress codes be mandatory in schools?
  • Why is spending time in nature so important for humans? Why is spending time in nature not important for humans?
  • In competitive high school sports, why is winning important? Why is winning unimportant?
  • Why is it important to be a good writer? Is it important at all?
  • Picture books for young children are often criticized for not being diverse enough. How big of a problem is this? Is this a problem at all?
  • Are group grades in school fair?
  • What would be the benefits and drawbacks of eliminating traditional A, B, C, D, F grades in schools? What if these grades were replaced with narrative feedback?
  • How should city and state governments deal with limited access to healthy foods?
  • In many other countries, students are responsible for cleaning their classrooms at the end of the day. Should children in the US also be responsible for keeping their schools clean?

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