wordguild

Writing an Essay About a Quote

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Experience Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Supplement on December 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

This post discusses a previous year’s Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used for the  and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about ethical matters and personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  Please note: I have updated the information in this post in a new post  dealing  with all of Princeton’s prompts for this year, as well as updating some of the links and information for the old prompts.  Click the link above to access it.  I have also added more posts on writing about quotes for this year’s prompts by Princeton and others–Start here for that:

Writing an Essay about Quote from an Essay

I will address the Princeton Supplement prompts one at a time, repeating each prompt so that you do not have to look it up again. After you have written a draft, you can send it to me as a Word attachment, to wordguild@gmail.com. I will give you a free sample edit and a price quote–but serious inquiries only, please; I’ll give you enough for you to judge what I can do for you. (Note again that some of these prompts are different for this year, but my discussion on the others still applies).

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this admonishment:  In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Given that prompt 1, below, is essentially identical to Common App prompt 3, you shouldn’t do both of them.  With that said, it’s on to the individual prompts.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

I really don’t have anything to say about this prompt beyond what I have already said about the same prompt on the Common App.  My suggestion:  use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 2

Using the statement below as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

Let me begin by suggesting that the Princeton admissions officer might be a bit more impressed by an applicant who actually showed that she had read the speech.  Try this link and give it a few minutes; I recommend taking notes:  Princeton in the Nation’s Service.

I will pause for dramatic effect while you read the speech.

Welcome back.  This speech will feel archaic  to most of its modern readers in its vocabulary and in its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ideals, but I would say that this is the point.  Hopefully you read all the way to the bottom of the page and read the footnote about the fact that Wilson had suffered  a stroke and struggled physically to finish rewriting the speech on a typewriter.  There is a moral message of a sort right there, folks, about Wilson’s grit as well as  his  sense of duty.  Compare the person making the speech and the content of the speech to many of our politicians and much of what passes for political philosophy today. The contrast is clear.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I would point out that  the last few decades have been notable for material excess and personal aggrandizement, often at the expense of others–the upper echelon of Goldman Sachs, for example,  has been wildly successful in the terms of our culture, meaning they made incredible amounts of money, but it’s hard to argue that much of their work has been a boon to our society or to the world financial system in general.  A quick review of their role in the European debt  crisis–they enabled Greek currency manipulation–and their simply fraudulent actions in the derivatives market in the United States makes this clear.   I would suggest to you that Princeton is taking a strong stance against the attitude embodied by people who act in the interest of short term and personal profit over the long term good for all.

You don’t have to be Anglo-Saxon or Protestant to have a sense of duty, of course–go look up Dharma if you have any questions about that–but clearly Wilson himself in his speech and in his physical situation while writing and giving the speech was embodying a certain spirit of sacrifice.  This is  important because a prompt like this tells you  what your university is looking for in its prospective students:  a future Greedhead Lord of Wall Street needs not apply.

If I may quote from Wilson’s  essay, this section, by establishing what Wilson saw as the purpose of the university, also reinforces what the university still sees as its purpose:

“Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, —not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher sort of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted “a seminary of true religion and good literature” which should be after their own model and among their own people.

 It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen . . .”

It’s not an accident that this speech tweaks one of its rivals, Yale, and Princeton clearly sees itself as a liberal institution in the traditional sense of the word, producing people of wide-ranging  knowledge and overall excellence who will practice the Aristotelian virtues of service and thought.   So may I strongly suggest that your essay for this prompt show you as a thinking and active member of American society who is concerned with the state of the world and the welfare of his or her fellow citizens.  (To be fair to Yale, I think Harvard has more suspects behind some of our recent troubles.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as a hand-wringer or platitude fabricator as you demonstrate your sense of duty and your awareness of the Big Picture, and your essay should not fall into the trap of being too self-referential; its focus should be more on what you observed than on what you felt, on what should be done rather than on how to point fingers.

You should also not offer simplistic solutions to the problems which you  discuss– a number of essays I have seen recently deal with the Occupy movement, but you wouldn’t want to adopt Occupy’s slogans as policy positions.   If the Occupy Movement is an inspiration for you, you will need to describe it within a larger context of justice and define a practical focus more clearly than the movement itself has.   Eat the Rich and Tax the 1% do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change, though the energy behind this movement does.  Try to make any values you promote more concrete than a slogan for a poster or bumper sticker.

I would add to this that if you are writing about this movement, you would want to show that you have been concerned with social and economic justice prior to Occupy–you wouldn’t want to write this essay if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week, but perhaps the inchoate nature of Occupy has inspired you to focus your own goals, to rethink  your values . . . If you do want to write about this movement it would help to note that  a profound sense of duty  has caused many of these people to camp out in our cities. . .  even if some of them seem eccentric or seem to be professional demonstrators.  Of course, if you had actually spent some time at an Occupy site that might help you in an essay on this topic.

Have a look at this link in the New York Review of Books for a good discussion of Occupy if you are interested: In Zucotti Park

A few other things to remember about this speech involve  Woodrow Wilson himself.  He was an internationalist who believed strongly not just that the United States participate in international affairs, but that we be, well, a bit Arthurian, a leader yet seated at a Round Table–he did want a League of Nations, after all . . . so if you are an isolationist or  tend to speak like the more hysterical members of the Tea Party movement, Princeton seems to suggest in presenting Wilson’s speech that you might want to go elsewhere for school.  Yale, I guess.  Or tone it down.

In concluding our discussion of this prompt, I mention my view that the Tea Party and the Occupy people share a fundamental American concern for fairness and equality, and that I look forward to some sort of shared agenda arising from these populist movements, especially if things get worse.  If you do prefer tea to coffee, so to speak, you might explore that kind of common value, which would prevent you from coming  across like, well, Sean Hannity.  Woodrow Wilson would not have been a fan of the Tea Party; in using his speech, Princeton is taking a stance that is both principled and political.  Keep that in mind.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 3

Using the following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

It appears that, while they ask for some verbiage to demonstrate your commitment to Action to Change the World, they also want some evidence that you are actually doing something about it.  This, by the way, is  a social justice prompt, so you want to avoid the kinds of problems I have discussed in social justice topics before; have look here at my entry on the Problems essay for the Common App, which treads similar ground: Common App Prompt Two.

Since your essay here is supposed to be about a personal experience which defined your values, you might think you were inoculated against the Miss America essay I discuss in the link above, but  it’s a truth commonly acknowledged that it’s hard to write about yourself without looking self-absorbed.  I give more advice on this here as I discuss how essays on a variety of recent world and social justice issues come off as too self-referential: More Thoughts.  By the way, I note for the record how modest Princeton is as it quotes its own profs, both the quick and the dead.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

4. Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting  point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation at the beginning of your essay.  

First let me digress yet again, to Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form and who also initiated many of his essays with a quote which conveyed an idea that he would develop throughout the essay.  He  quoted from classical authors frequently, both to frame his own arguments and to bolster them.  Therefore, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays, though I hasten to add that he was sometimes better in theory than in practice–his disappearance to the countryside during an episode of the plague has been questioned by more than a few–but his essays are great and we should, I think, use caution in judging others.

Now to the central problem of this prompt:  starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point.  And don’t force the book and your experience together.   You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way.  See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life.  Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.

If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are.  If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap.  An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay.  My view is, it depends on what you do with it.  Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.

Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs.  Be sure not to  make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.

The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay.  It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes.  This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.

I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.

In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you with Occupy sympathies–it’s a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt.  Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing.  It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.

Here are two  more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500 word essay but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes.  Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.

“Goodbye To All That”

“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going.

That’s all for now, folks.   I’ll be addressing this again for the 2012-2013 app period.

  1. Timeless. Thank you for the great tips! 🙂

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