How To Get Into The University of Chicago From A Former Admissions Officer

17/07/202427 minute read
How To Get Into The University of Chicago From A Former Admissions Officer

The University of Chicago, more commonly known as UChicago by its students, is one of the top universities in the world. Though not an Ivy League university, UChicago is what we call “Ivy-adjacent;” the school ranks 12th in the nation, which is higher than some Ivies. It’s an intellectual powerhouse that focuses on rigorous inquiry and a unique undergraduate core curriculum. And the campus is located in Hyde Park, Illinois, a neighborhood of Chicago that is considered one of the best (and even coolest!) places to live.

Acceptance standards for UChicago are very competitive. We spoke with Steve Han, former admissions officer at, and graduate of, the University of Chicago, for exclusive insights on what the school is looking for.

When he was an admissions expert at UChicago, Han interviewed senior applicants and read/made decisions on 3,000+ applications. As a Crimson strategist, he works one on one with students on their college application journey. Students who have worked with our strategists and other education experts have gained admission to top colleges at a rate of more than 4.5 times that of other applicants — an amazing success rate.

An Interview with Steve Han, U Chicago FAO & Crimson Senior Strategist

How hard is it to get into the University of Chicago?

It is quite difficult to get into UChicago, and becoming more competitive every year. As with most select schools, the university receives far more qualified applicants than it is able to accept.

According to former UChicago admissions officer Han, your chances of getting into a select school like the University of Chicago greatly increase if:

  • Your high school studies show rigor and advancement. (More on that ahead.)
  • Your extracurriculars display character, dedication, and passion.
  • Your essay answers are thoughtful, help you stand out, and enable the UChicago admissions team to really get to know you.

How many students are accepted each year at U Chicago?

For the class of 2026, the University of Chicago received 37,522 applications and only accepted 2,041 students — that’s an acceptance rate of 5.4%, making it one of the most selective universities in the country.

The table below provides a breakdown of UChicago's acceptance rate over three years. This and other data has been gathered from UChicago’s 2021-22 Common Data Set.

University of Chicago Acceptance Rates
Class of 2024Class of 2025Class of 2026
Total First-Year Applicants34,37237,97437,522
Admitted Applicants2,5112,4502,041
Overall Admission Rate7.3%6.5%5.4%

New Admissions Option: UChicago's SSEN Program

UChicago has always been at the forefront of innovative admissions strategies. In 2024, they introduced a new admissions option called the Summer Student Early Notification (SSEN), adding to its already diverse array of early application plans.

What is the SSEN Option?

The UChicago Summer Student Early Notification (SSEN) option is a recent addition to the university's admissions process. Starting in fall 2024, students who complete any UChicago Pre-College Summer Session Program are eligible to apply through the SSEN option in their final year of high school. This option allows students to apply early and receive a binding decision from UChicago within three weeks of applying.

Eligibility Criteria:

  • Participation in any UChicago Pre-College Summer Session Program, either residential or online.
  • Being in or entering their final year of high school when applying through SSEN.

Impact of SSEN on UChicago’s Admissions Landscape

The SSEN option aims to recognize and reward students who have demonstrated a commitment to UChicago through participation in their summer programs. This binding early notification plan not only benefits students by providing an early decision but also helps UChicago by increasing its yield rate.

Check out our blog post for more detailed insights and strategic advice on the SSEN program.

What is the average GPA to get into the University of Chicago?

The average high school GPA of admitted students at UChicago is 4.33, which shows that many students came from schools with weighted GPAs.

Around 62% of students had a GPA of 4, about 25% had a GPA of 3.75-3.99, and about 9% had a GPA of 3.50-3.74 — indicating that students who were admitted typically earned mostly A grades with perhaps a few Bs in high school.

“If you have Bs in your transcript, it’s okay, but we prefer to see them earlier. We forgive lower grades for younger students, because we know the transition from middle school to high school can be difficult, but we’re looking for the upward trend as you get older.”

- Steve Han

What are the average SAT and ACT scores to get into the University of Chicago?

UChicago is test-optional and has a “no harm” test policy, meaning you’re not required to take the SAT or ACT in order to apply, but if you do test and score well it can help you.

“Keep in mind, if you are going test-optional, that the majority of students admitted to schools right now are still submitting test scores.”

- Steve Han

For the class of 2025, 49% of applicants submitted their SAT scores and 35% submitted an ACT score.

Students who were accepted at the University of Chicago had remarkably high scores on standardized tests, with the majority ranking among the top 1–5% of all test takers in the U.S.

SAT Scores of University of Chicago Students
25th Percentile75th Percentile
ACT Scores of University of Chicago Students
25th Percentile75th Percentile

Even though UChicago is test-optional, Han suggests that you go ahead and take the tests and see how you score, then decide whether your scores will help you.

“It’s just another data point for us to make a decision about you,” he says. “Less data points are not going to hurt you, but more data points are going to help you if they’re in your favor. Look at what the rest of your application is saying. If there are areas of weakness, maybe test scores would help.”

So, take the standardized tests — and take them early rather than later. This way, if you’re unhappy with your scores, you’ll still have time to focus on areas of weakness, get tutoring help, practice, and take the tests again.

What courses do you need to take to get into the University of Chicago?

Students who’ve been admitted to The University of Chicago have typically taken a challenging and rigorous high school curriculum. The university values demanding coursework, as it shows intellectual curiosity, dedication to academic excellence, and ability to thrive in challenging learning environments.

UChicago doesn’t require specific courses — because it expects that during high school you are going to seek out the most challenging learning available to you in your field of interest.

“Are you taking the most difficult course load for you? Ideally, that’s the most difficult course load that your school offers. We’re looking for students who maximize and take advantage of classes, even if they’re not required to.”

- Steve Han

If your focus is math, you will want to take the most advanced math classes available to you at your school or even look outside your school. This may include courses in statistics, data science, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other advanced math classes.

Even non-STEM students can expect that admissions officers will be looking at your course difficulty level.

“In terms of curriculum rigor, relative to your school offering, are you taking the more challenging option? What does it look like when you’re self-studying? When you have a chance to do electives or you have a chance to go deeper into a topic, what does that look like?”

- Steve Han

When it comes to foreign languages, you’ll want to have achieved fourth-year level proficiency.

“If you happen to be fluent in another language, you can take the fourth year of that and still be okay even if it’s just one year of the language ultimately at your school, We want to see students max out in this”

- Steve Han

How this Economics Student got into UChicago

What is the University of Chicago looking for?

The University of Chicago is looking for academic rigor, intellectual curiosity, and an exuberance for learning that shows up in everything you do. By seeking out students who show an innate love of learning, the university is building a community of passionate individuals who are capable of critical thinking and eager to engage in rigorous academic pursuits.

Showing academic rigor is important, because first and foremost, you are applying to be a student, says Han. The rigor of your high school coursework can signify what your personal contribution to the campus environment would be and whether you would thrive there.

But the University of Chicago is also looking for something beyond pure grades and scores. Here are four more things that need to stand out on your application:

1. Intellectual Vitality

With 62.45% of the Class of 2026 at UChicago having a GPA of 4.0, it is evident that the university values high academic achievement as an indicator of an applicant's potential for success.

But the admissions team at UChicago is looking for something beyond this. They want to know if you have a true love of learning.

“Ultimately we are looking for students who demonstrate intellectual vitality, who do what they do well academically but go above and beyond. At UChicago we really do look for students who prioritize learning for learning’s sake.”

- Steve Han

Admissions officers will look at not only what courses you are taking in class and in school but also outside of school.

“If you’ve maxed the classes you can take in your school, they’ll look to see if you took additional classes elsewhere, perhaps at a community college, online school, or local university. There’s always Crimson Global Academy, Florida Virtual School, or Stanford Online High School.”

- Steve Han

And you’ll want to maximize AP courses. Although AP courses are not required to get into UChicago, taking them is a way to demonstrate the rigor of your studies.

“Opting to take AP courses and doing well on the exams shows that you’re intelligent, driven, disciplined, and prepared for university level coursework. Scoring well on your AP exams improves your admissions profile and increases your chances of being accepted at top universities.”

- Steve Han

For students whose high schools don’t offer AP courses, there are online programs that do. Crimson Global Academy (CGA) is accredited by the College Board to offer the Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum.

2. Passion and Curiosity

Because UChicago is building a student body that is academically accomplished and genuinely invested in learning and personal development, admissions officers are looking for students who demonstrate passion and curiosity in their pursuits.

“Passion is such an important thing in the admissions process in the US. We just want to know that you care about something and are looking forward to something.”

- Steve Han

Your passion and commitment can also be revealed through extracurriculars, whether it’s mastering a musical instrument, participating in competitions, working to better your community, or showing leadership.

“Anything that you do outside of the classroom will count as an extracurricular. So that would be clubs, sports, hobbies, jobs, if you have a capstone project, if you have a nonprofit you founded, if you work or volunteer at a hospital. Those are all things that would count.”

- Steve Han

He is strongly in favor of pursuing what Crimson Education calls a capstone project, or passion project.

“A capstone project summarizes and utilizes your skills to the best of your ability—and ideally is used to help other people”

- Steve Han

For example, if your passion is coding, he suggests, think of how you can use coding for good, like teaching coding for free to students who don’t otherwise have access to it.

One of his students used her coding experience to teach cyber security lessons to older people at nursing homes, showing them how to lock their phone as well as how to tell when things are spam or scams. That’s using personal talent for the greater good.

3. Strong Analytical & Critical Thinking

As a university renowned for intellectual rigor, UChicago expects students to be able to think analytically. The school uses Socratic learning — a method developed by the Greek philosopher Socrates that promotes critical thinking. Typically, a teacher poses thought-provoking questions and students engage by asking their own questions, of themselves and one another, probing to get at underlying beliefs that may or may not be true.

Having one’s underlying thought process continually challenged isn’t for everyone. Sitting with uncertainty and not being handed “the facts'' can be discomforting for some. So can having to poke holes in the thinking of others. The university is looking for students who approach this kind of intellectual give and take with gusto.

On your application, the place to show critical thinking is in your essays.

“Essays are not just a showcasing of what you think but also how you think. How are you processing information and how are you synthesizing the information for us? The mark of a true UChicago scholar is not one who necessarily learned the most but one who has mastered how they learn, let that potential and mindset shine in your essays.”

- Steve Han

4. Cultural Fit

Another thing that UChicago admissions officers are considering is how you would fit into the campus culture. Will you resonate with UChicago's unique values and scholarly environment, where students can develop, learn, and positively challenge one another?

“Fit is what helps us determine socially and academically how you fit into our student body. UChicago’s student body is bound together by one thing and one thing only: loving to learn, regardless of the setting. Oftentimes, we UChicagoans say that the most learning we’ve done during our time at UChicago was done at the house table or the quad, not always inside of a lecture hall or a lab. Because we have one College (in that we aren’t separated into different, unique undergraduate colleges), are on the quarter system, and have a Common Core curriculum, students at UChicago are going to be learning not just constantly but holistically—your schedule each quarter will look so different from the quarter before and it’s all the more fun because of it!”

- Steve Han

Socratic learning is a dialogue among students, where the “answer” typically isn’t immediately identifiable. Does it energize you to work through complexity, to have your thinking challenged by others, and to challenge others’ thinking?

If you thrive in this kind of learning environment, it could indicate a good fit.

So how do you show that?

“Your essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, videos—UChicago offers a video option now—that would go into fit.”

- Steve Han

Recommendation letters — typically written by teachers, counselors, or mentors — can provide valuable insights into your character, work ethic, and potential for success in a challenging academic environment. They offer an outside perspective on your strengths, accomplishments, and personal growth that may not otherwise be evident from your application.

Your essays provide an opportunity to show fit, beginning with the first thing you write: your personal statement.

“For the personal statement of the common app, think of a very good story that you’ve experienced in your life that showcases growth. You want to show, not tell.”

- Steve Han

Describe a time when you felt like you understood something very well, but then something happened that made you challenge your own beliefs. Write about what you believed then and what you believe now, and describe the thought process that got you here.

Another essay that provides an opportunity for you to show fit is your answer to the “why UChicago?” prompt. Some applicants might breeze right through and give a rote answer, not understanding how this question pertains to fit.

“Make sure you think about your time at UChicago holistically when writing your ‘Why UChicago’ essay. Research with X professor, living in Y dorm, and taking Z class are great but that’s just part of your college experience.”

- Steve Han

As an exercise of imagination, fast forward in your mind to a time in the future after you’ve been accepted at UChicago. You’re now living on campus, making friends, and attending classes. In your wildest dreams what is your day-to-day like? Who are your friends? What are you studying? What great things are you learning?

Share your thoughts and dreams for what your life would be like as a UChicago student. And make it very specific. “We like to know that you’ve thought it through and aren’t just copy-pasting another school’s ‘Why’ essay,” says Han.

If you’ve done the self-work to really understand your own “why” when writing your personal statement, that soul searching is going to pay off. Because your “why” goes hand in hand with “why UChicago.” 

Why you and why UChicago? If you can tie the two together, you’ll be showing the admissions team the thing they most want to see.

Tips for Acing your UChicago Essays

UChicago is known for quirky essay prompts, so try to have fun with them. As essays are where you reveal the real you, approach your essay more as you would a creative writing assignment than an academic paper. 

“A lot of essays we get lack passion. They essentially list their resume out, or their activity list, which we recommend not doing. This is a chance to show another facet of your application, so allow something that's actually of interest to you—whether serious or silly or in between—to be showcased on paper. Passion really comes across in your essay, so write about things that actually are of interest to you.”

- Steve Han

There’s no external metric of success to show Passion. You have to get creative and make your essay personal, which will also make it memorable.

Han loves coming across the unexpected in an essay — something that wouldn’t be revealed in just a list of your activities. His favorite UChicago essay was written by a stem-focused student, whose application showed a lot of research, math, and sciences.

“The question that year was like, combine two historical figures or pop culture figures and write us a story about this new person's biography. And he combined Lil’ Kim, the rapper, with Kim Jong Un. It was so good. So funny. Ultimately, what we found through his essay was that he's really big into pop culture, like he was a Quiz-bowl star. And his position on the team was ‘pop culture.’ You can't really get that from an activity list.”

- Steve Han

Finally, when you’ve finished drafting your essay, Han offers a trick for making sure that you’ve represented the real you: imagine taking your name off the essay and dropping it on the floor at your school. Would your friends who pick it up and read it be able to tell who wrote it?

“It needs to be that specific. If you’re writing an essay that anyone can write, then it’s not specific enough to you and it’s not going to be memorable in your application. Nor would it be the best exemplification of who you are as a person and show that growth that we want to see.”

- Steve Han

How Max Got into UChicago to study Literature and Physics

How to Stand Out to UChicago Admissions Officers?

Now that you understand what it takes to get into the University of Chicago, let’s revisit four key ways to stand out among other applicants and greatly increase your chances of acceptance.

Demonstrate Your Love of Learning

UChicago admissions officers want to see a love of learning for learning’s sake. They will view your entire application holistically — from the courses you took to your summer instruction to extracurriculars. Be sure that your application demonstrates that you’re a person who goes above and beyond to seek additional learning about the things you care about and that you don’t confine yourself to what's easiest to access around you.

“One year, one of our student athlete applicants was really passionate about swimming—and swimming education, as drowning rates in children and even adults was quite high in her country. So she created a curriculum to work with schools in the national public school system to teach not just swimming lessons but health and wellness lessons.”

- Steve Han

Show Intellectual Vitality

Socratic learning involves lively discourse, debate, and critical thinking. Be sure that your application showcases that you're someone who can think analytically. Use your essays to show rather than tell about times in your classes when you actively participated to move a lesson forward.

“One year, we had a student tell us about the debate he had in his APUSH course in regards to Reagan and economic policy. His specific point of view as a person of color was interesting and illuminating—and showcased his ability to engage in intellectual conversation that's still POV-driven.”

- Steve Han

Reveal Your Quirkiness

UChicago has a reputation for quirkiness. Just understand that you don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to be unique. You are already unique in your passions, your curiosity, and the things you care about. Just reveal the real you.

“We’re not looking for forced quirkiness, we’re looking for intellectual engagement that, sure, could seem a bit random or odd to others but is ultimately true to who you are as a person. The point is, that thing that makes you a little weird is often the coolest thing about you and that’s what we want to celebrate at UChicago!”

- Steve Han

Make the Cultural-Fit Connection

Finally, show why you’re a good match with the school.

“Essays and applications that spend too much time on why the school is great or why the student is great but don’t make the connection of why they’d be even greater together don’t quite hit the mark for us. Don’t look to what’s on the first page of Google in terms of what UChicago offers. That will just tell you a lot of things UChicago has that are similar to other top schools. We want to know that you’ve not only done your research on why UChicago is a good school but also thought about why UChicago is specifically a good fit for you. What is it about who you are and who we are that make you and UChicago such a good fit?”

- Steve Han

Final Thoughts

Navigating the intricate and competitive admissions process of the University of Chicago can be daunting. However, with insights from experts like Steve Han and the tailored support offered by Crimson Education, you can significantly increase your chances of acceptance. By focusing on demonstrating intellectual vitality, a passion for learning, and a strong cultural fit with UChicago, you can craft an application that stands out.

Crimson Education’s proven strategies and personalized guidance have helped countless students achieve their dreams of attending top-tier institutions, including UChicago. Our team of former admissions officers and experienced strategists is dedicated to helping you maximize every aspect of your application, from academic performance to extracurricular involvement and essay writing.

Ready to take the next step towards your UChicago dream? Book a free consultation with Crimson Education today to receive a comprehensive application profile analysis. Discover how our tailored support can help you achieve your college admission goals and set you on the path to success.

Book your free consultation now and start your journey to UChicago with Crimson Education.

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