Who should read this post: anyone who needs to write about a social, environmental or just big problem. This post was originally written when the Common App asked that applicants write an essay about a problem they would like to solve–a question that is no longer on the Common App, but the advice here is still relevant, and so are some of the topics. Read on for more, and for a link to the “beauty queen” trap that this essay contains.
The last couple of posts have dealt with strategy for Common App Prompt Two and have analyzed several topics in depth. I recommend that you have a look at them. I think of Prompt Two as the Big Problem prompt–though if you are involved in a local issue and well-versed in it, a “small” problem can be a brilliant choice. I will address the local problem as a topic in my next post.
In this post, I will more briefly consider a number of additional topics which I have seen used recently to address Prompt Two.
Some global considerations for this prompt: first, remember that you are developing a form of argument which certainly includes an analysis of cause and effect and which should have a solution to the problem discussed. If you prefer narratives or don’t have an existing interest in and basic knowledge of a topic of local, national or international importance, move on to the other prompts. See my previous posts about other risks of this prompt, such as the “beauty queen” trap.
Remember that the prompt is one thing, the topic you choose another. The number of topics possible for an argument addressing Prompt Two is as large as the number of problems in the world. This is as good a thing for an essayist as it is a bad thing for the world at large. Therefore, try to be sensitive–you are writing about something that may be a very real source of suffering for others.
Below is a list of essay topics addressing this prompt which I have seen in the last year, along with questions and considerations for these topics; keep in mind that Prompt Two more than any other Common App prompt demands knowledge, the marshaling of empirical facts and, most likely, some time spent researching:
1. The problem of food shortages and famine
Hunger, like poverty, has always been with humanity. Keep that in mind. Any solution you come up with can improve things but don’t try to end world hunger forever in a 500 word essay. There are always complicating factors to consider. In recent years the U.S, one of countries which is an important grain exporter, has devoted more and more corn to fuel production. The policies and economics of this are complicating food production around the world.
In addition, many food experts say that we are leaving an era of surplus for one of shortages. Political and economic disruptions and, more importantly, weather–or changes in climate–in the last few years have caused regional crop failures. Russia, another country which exports grain, last year suffered a record-setting heat wave and fires which caused it to curtail exports.This year the grain belt of the United States is suffering under its own record-setting heat wave, and as I write this, corn is set to pollinate in several states but the heat lingering this weekend will severely hinder this process and possibly decimate this year’s corn crop. Some agricultural areas of the U.S. are facing a drought as bad and long as that of the Dust Bowl Era.
In short, we face a period in which agriculture will have to adjust rapidly. Don’t naively assert that simply making distribution more “fair” or tweaking a few genes will make everything better. Starvation-driven migration and political instability is likely to become more common in the near future and hunger itself could complicate the problem of feeding the hungry as it disrupts social structures and distribution networks. Sorry to be a bummer, folks, but it’s just so–so you don’t want to oversimplify.
2. Renewable Energy
It isn’t easy being green. All human energy production has negative consequences–weighing alternatives is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Wind turbines, for example, consume no fuel as they produce electricity, but they do kill thousands of birds a year in the large installation at the Altamont Pass area of California, which, as it turns out, was built on a major migration for raptors. Oops. That’s the point: think critically and research possible problems–unintended consequences are those we don’t foresee or take seriously enough.
Know about your topics and subtopics. Solar power takes different forms–primarily, it can be dispersed (on rooftops, for example) or centralized (like the large solar installation near Barstow, CA). Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, though both will require that our power grid be restructured. In addition, some sort of production must occur independent of sun and wind for times when they don’t produce energy.
Don’t forget that all technology requires resources–batteries, for example, are a way to store electricity for windless times and nighttime, but lithium batteries require . . . lithium, among other relatively rare or difficult to produce elements. Check up on its availability. How big is the supply of materials needed for alternative energy technology? Think big but look at the details. I recommend the book Out of Gas for its brilliant discussion of our current energy conundrum, including the physics of various alternatives and of our environment. It is concise and brilliant.
3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems
Tsunami in Japan. That’s what comes to mind, right? Up until a couple of years ago, nuclear was making a comeback as a Big Solution to Big Problems, but the toxic nature of nuclear fuel and the necessity to store waste for periods of time longer than human civilization has so far existed make nukes look a lot less attractive these days, especially given the surprises that the universe has recently reminded us it can throw at us. Take Diablo Canyon, on the California coast, for example. It will be relicensed soon, having run through most of its originally planned life span, despite the fact that it lies within a few minutes drive–or sail–of multiple potentially dangerous earthquake faults, none of which you have ever heard of but any of which could damage this plant and the infrastucture around it. What, Mr. B, are you a no-nuker? Yes and no. What I am saying is that this is a difficult topic, at least for this year, unless you happen to be interested in nuclear physics or in engineering in the nuke field. This means that this could be an interesting challenge for you. Maybe you even have some ideas for big changes or an idea that might crack the problem of cold nuclear fission. Great! Go for it. Do not be dismissive of those who disagree or fear this technology, though–they have a lot of evidence to justify their fears, at the moment.
4. Sovereign Debt, aka National Debt or Just Debt in General (Hello, Detroit)
A hot topic among the politically minded. In later posts, I will discuss the uses of analogies at more length, but I will point out some problems with tendency some have of comparing our national budget to a family budget. The analogy makes the assumption that all families do balance their budgets every year. Without even looking at whether the United States Government can be compared to a family, we can see that this analogy has problematic assumptions. Many families in this country have had economic troubles lately, and many have used credit cards or borrowed money to get through the rough times as opposed to, say, automatically foreclosing on their house because a breadwinner lost a job.
Looking at the other side of the analogy, what would a country with cap do if, or example, it were experiencing income problems like the family above and at the same time it were attacked by another country? Should the country surrender instead of borrowing some money? Unless you are very serious-minded, have studied this at length with someone who has expertise (an excellent Gov or History teacher as well as a good Econ class would be advisable), and are committed to deep and nuanced thinking, stay away.
Find John Lanchester’s IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay–reviewed in this link–if you want to read up on this. Then again, maybe that would turn this into an intellectual experience essay. . .
This is a favorite of the louder voices on both sides of the opinion pages and in both camps of the land of talking heads, which should already be a warning to you. Who is your college reader going to be, anyway? Do you know what the political outlook of this person is? Unless you are well-versed and can present a very balanced discussion which looks at not both but the many sides of this issue, Stay Away.
6. Terrorism and Extremism
Terrorist acts are a result of extremism and, as the news this week from Norway shows, both of these phenomenon are universals–that is, they appear across cultures and historical periods. Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th Century committed terrorist acts and assassinations in the United States, across Europe and in Russia. The September 11th attacks had precursors in the decades leading up to this century, including an attack by nominally Christian American, in Oklahoma City. The use of violence and the threat of violence to spread fear is as ancient as agriculture and the causes of this in the modern world are many. Read up and think long if you want to tackle this topic. The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman, discusses the Anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (among many other things); The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright gives an excellent overview of so-called Islamic terrorism. The content of these two books provide and interesting contrast between anarchy, an essentially areligious, even anti-religious movement which spawned terrorist acts and the ostensibly religious terrorism of Al Quaeda and groups like it. Balance and a historical perspective are requirements for an attempt at an essay on this.
8. Social Justice Topics
Some of the topics above could fit under the umbrella of social justice, as could topics which I have discussed at length in earlier posts. Social Justice is a recently coined phrase–justice is clear, but the idea in social justice is to create a more just society. This requires action by organizations and governments. Social Justice curriculums are becoming common in high schools and have been established for years in many universities.
You can write an essay on a “social justice” topic without using the term social justice. In fact, I recommend doing this for a number of reasons, one of which is tha common topics many social justice classes share and the common answers these classes tend to propose to these problems. You want to show original thought and writing; you do not want to regurgitate a packaged answer to a problem you studied in class.
I have also found that these essays too often read like homilies and don’t show enough critical thought. They often take the form of “if only x would be recognized, discussed, changed, then y would be resolved/solved and justice would reign.”
While it is more likely than not that a college essay reader would be sympathetic to a social justice argument, you need to do good research and show an understanding of complexityand the difficulty of change in a social justice essay. Too often essays on social justice problems offer simplistic solutions to complex issues, most often as a result of assuming that individuals and groups can easily change their thinking through education (becoming more enlightened, confronting history, etc) or through some sort of legislation. Change is difficult and slow, particularly in cultural shifts and remedying poverty and inequality. See the history of African Americans for more . . .
9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation
Many kinds, many reasons, and we are all part of the problem. Think of this as like an original sin of which we are all guilty and you will avoid the Soapbox of Self-Righteousness. I think of an essay I read long ago by Alice Walker in which she described communing with trees. The essay represented humanity, and specifically industry and technology destructive of nature. In the essay, Alice recounted an attempt to commune with the trees, to show them that she was not part of all that. She loved trees, she felt with them, she became one with them.
I had a strong negative reaction to this essay which was written by a person who has been responsible for the murder of more trees than any anti-environmentalist politician. She is a writer, after all, with most of her career in an age when books were printed. Not only that, I suspect she was a passenger in or drove a car to visit this grove of trees she describes in the essay. I tossed the book across the room and didn’t read more for a long time.
While Alice is one of our major 20th Century writers and a great battler for the environment–and for redwood trees specifically–her essay struck me as naive and self-righteous. It’s nice to be aware of the dignity and value of trees as a class and of individual trees you know, but we all use paper made from trees. We all use transportation which was built using and which propels itself with fossil fuels, even if we plug in our cars. So beware of your own sense of righteous indignation if you choose this topic, and be aware that solutions to environmental problems are usually complex. Climage Change seems to have finally fueled (pun intended) a movement and, as of this summer, you could even show some commitment to this by going to a rally or event. Check out 350.org if you have an interest . . .
10. This is not a new topic, just a final thought: you should care about the topic you choose. Don’t suddenly decide you have an interest in justice, hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, extremism, or any other of that devil’s alphabet of problems troubling our times. If you read and keep up with such things and like analysis, this is a good prompt for you. If not, move on to the others. Good luck and Godspeed!