A Big Jar Of Mustard
This piece was written in 2015 as an admissions essay for the University of Chicago 2016 fall semester. The essay as well as my application allotted me waitlist status.
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.
— Based on a suggestion by Katherine Gold of Cherry Hill High School East, Cherry Hill, NJ (2004–2005)
I saw this question and asked, “What the heck does a jar mustard have to do with applying to college?” The randomness was a good break from the traditional grind of writing, so I decided to give it a go. That choice would leave me wondering why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. After about a week I thought I would give up and use another prompt, but then I realized that I was going to write an essay about mustard. I was not going to give up just because I thought it was possibly the hardest topic to write about. You see, I was thinking about the mustard wrong the whole time.
The idea struck
Very big jar of mustard
There are no limits to what you can do with a big jar of mustard, so there should be no limit in what I can write about. If I had a jar of mustard this large, I would try it on everything including pizza, ice cream, salad, and whatever else you can name. Some of these would be definite failures, but that is no loss, for I still have a lot of mustard left. What if there was a use of mustard that turned out grandiose, but no one had thought to try it? No idea should ever go untested; Ideas are not meant to die.
This has nothing to do with mustard. I do not think I will be putting mustard on ice cream or in my coffee anytime soon. I will, however, given the opportunity, try new combinations of technologies and techniques. I think there is a side of science that looks like a man putting mustard on his pizza. Sometimes in science we do not know where to start, so we mix whatever we can get our hands on and record the results. Sometimes we make a discovery, whether it be a result we had hoped for or one we did not expect. It is important to have many opportunities because failure is inevitable. With limited opportunity comes the limited chance of success. Failures should be called small successes because they eliminate wrong answers. Once enough wrong answers are eliminated, the correct answer is more apparent.
Another important detail about a large jar is that it is meant to be shared. In a more literal sense, large opportunities do not work well when only one person takes advantage of them. If the average person bought a jar of mustard this large, it would spoil before they were able to take full advantage of it. If given the opportunity to start something large, do not ever enter alone. You can not climb Mount Everest by yourself as easily as you can with a little assistance. Also, sometimes we reach our goals without needing all we were given. It becomes our responsibility to give back. Others were not as fortunate as us, and we would not have been either if it were not for someone else sharing their surplus. Never be afraid to collaborate; never be afraid to share your mustard.
Where is a giant jar of mustard available? As far as I can tell, only in America. That is not a coincidence. Everything is big in America, including “the dream.” It is no wonder that people travel from all over the world to America for its opportunities. A consequence of everything being large is that the risk and failure also inflate to high levels. Imagine that you just bought a bad batch of mustard, now you have a huge jar of it. You have to give up a lot of mustard, or in the real world, a lot of money. You may be upset, but so is every other person who bought that mustard. High risk gives the opportunity for high reward, low risk yields lower reward. You will not fight the next disease by only playing it safe, but you may also lose to it if you fear taking risks. Finding a balance is key.
The topic of this essay was a jar of mustard itself. I had absolutely no clue what I was going to write about this insane theme. I started to throw some ideas on my canvas. I had no idea what I was expecting, but I found interesting results. If I felt that this was a poor measure of my ability, I would write it again, avoiding all the mistakes I had made previously. I did write this alone, but I was sure to bounce ideas off my friends also dealing with writer’s block. I think it was a very risky decision to choose the hardest prompt in my mind. The results are either spectacular or disastrous. The point is, I was given an opportunity and I gave it my everything.
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: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu 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.
"…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present." –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
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
–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.
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