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The Harvard Supplement: Or, How to Write About Books Part 1

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Influential Experience Essay on October 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This post specifically addresses a Harvard application essay about a book, but this discussion is on writing about books in general.   The advice here is also good for the 2015-2016 Princeton prompt on books and for other colleges asking you to write about a book in some way. I continue this thread for several subsequent posts, and cover everything from writing about a quote to step-by-step suggestions for how to write about multiple books in a single essay.  If you intend to write about books that have influenced you, these and a set of new posts coming out later in 2015 will be very helpful to you.  

Books are a perennial favorite for college app prompts and even when the prompt does not directly ask you to address books, prompts directed at intellectual experiences or influences or ideas that shaped you can be addressed through an essay on books.

For the 2011 application season Harvard took an approach similar to that of Stanford.  They suggested that, while they have more than enough information to evaluate you already based on other parts of the application, you might just want to consider adding a wee bit more to your application file by submitting some groundbreaking art or your Great American Novel or, what the heck, writing just one more essay.  Here are the topics suggested for their supplemental essay that year:

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

Like you, I noticed that the book thing comes up twice in a fairly short list, so let’s start there.  It appears that Harvard is hopeful that its applicants have vibrant intellectual lives and read avidly.  It’s also  likely that you only have time to do assigned reading, what with all those A.P. classes you need to take in order to be considered for an Ivy League school, but even if your reading has only been for classes, you must have read a couple of  intellectually stimulating and interesting books in the past twelve months, and you certainly should be able to bring some books to mind that have affected you–if you can’t think of any, what Harvard  may be saying to you is that you aren’t the kind of gal or guy they are looking for. They want masters of the universe who are well read if not downright bookish.

If that bums you out, no time like the present to start reading–a journey of a thousand books starts with the first.

But let’s assume that you  have read some books which have had an impact on you.  The first thing to notice is that either of the suggested book essays will require you to write about multiple books–and, therefore, Harvard is challenging you to do something which you probably have not done before or which you have not done often, for few contemporary English classes in American high schools asks students to evaluate or compare works of literature which they have read.  Most of the time high school students write about their personal response to a book or they do an analysis of some particular kind of theme–the river as a representation of nature,  in opposition to the corruption of civilization which is represented by the towns and people on the river banks in Huckleberry Finn, for example.  This kind of cycloptic essay is not what you want.   Yes, I did just coin that word to capture the narrow focus of these essays.  Single eyed, if you will, as opposed to the broad view you need for this Harvard essay.

In a way, this supplemental essay  will make an unstated argument of a narrow sort, which I may sum up thus:  What an interesting mind I have and what a well-read person I am!  You should admit me to Harvard!  Yet in order to succeed in this unstated argument, you must convey the capaciousness of your thought and the variety of your interests by writing an essay which makes some sort of sophisticated primary argument about a selection of books.

So let’s look for some aid.  To start with, you need to read some examples.  You need to find a publication which frequently features articles on not one, not two, but three or more novels or nonfiction works–yes, they said only books, not just novels.   You need . . . the New York Review of Books.  Like many publications, the NYRB is increasingly protecting their content–meaning that they put up a firewall and you have to pay to get at it–but in the issue online as I write this post, the NYRB has articles on energy and Alexander the Great which both reference, discuss and analyze multiple  works on their respective topics.  It’s a fine lesson in How To Do It.

If you follow my link to the NYRB and it seems a bit too high-falutin and stuffy for you, may I suggest that you check out their recent article on Stieg Larsson?  With the caveat that his would be a daring choice of books to write about, but one could do worse, as this article shows.  Just don’t plagiarize this or any other article, first on ethical grounds and second as there is an above-average chance that your Harvard Admissions officer also reads the NYRB.  It’s de rigueur for all us folks with intellectual pretensions or accomplishments, and for good reason.

Another place to look for examples is the New York Times Book Review (whole different crowd, confusingly similar titles).  Go to the nytimes site using my link and you can find some of this week’s articles there–scroll down.  You might want to see if you can access a review of a bushel of mysteries–this would provide a valuable contrast to the kind of extended comparison and analysis you find in the NYRB–these thumbnail reviews are fun and useful, but are probably not what you want your Harvard Supplement book essay to be.  They wittily summarize and evaluate a pack of recent mystery or crime novels, but are not very worried about linking the discussion into a coherent argument.  These are user’s guides for mystery and crime fans. Have a look at this recent example.

While you do get a strong sense of the author’s voice in the roundup of recent mysteries I link above, the purpose of this article is different than the purpose of your Supplement essay. You want to use a selection of books to make some sort of argument, as the NYRB articles do.  This could mean that you use fiction–a set of novels, for example–or nonfiction to develop an argument or to explain the effect the books have had on you. I leave it up to you to do some homework now to prepare for this topic, to which I will return soon.

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