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University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 4: A Lesson in Invention and Homonymic Non-Sequiturs

In College Application Essay Example, Essay About A Quote, Essay and Literary Terms, Essay Beginning With a Quote, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 25, 2012 at 11:05 am

This post ranges far and wide as it covers prompt 4 for the University of Chicago for this year.  Warning:  this is one of my few remaining “freebie” posts for this year.  Other posts will be available completely only on my private website, which is open to subscribers and college advising or application essay editing clients.

Essay Option 4.   “…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern   Present: pres·ent   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, admitted student Class of 2016.

This prompt, like the other U of Chicago prompts, opens up a vast space for invention and creativity by asking you  to respond to  what I will call a homonymic non-sequitur.  But even with a quote prompt that repurposes its source material, like this one, it is still a good idea to look at the source of the quote.  In this case you are more interested in understanding the weltanschauung of this prompt and in seeking inspiration than you are in getting some obscure information to use in the essay. You are, after all, going to be writing a work of fiction here.

The source of the quote in this prompt, The Rose Rabbi, is a near-future or alternate history novel, depending on how you look at it.  So we will begin with a quick look at The Rose Rabbi, then discuss other topics that are worth exploring before writing to this prompt, including  a thematic discussion  in which I reference lyrics by The Talking Heads.  This will be followed by   a quick assessment of the homonym and its origins in the history of the English language   and, for the first time this year, I will conclude this post by dashing off an example essay responding to this prompt.

I generally don’t use example essays for specific prompts because this tends to funnel people toward a particular response, but since I will be inventing a history for that great gift to civilization called espresso, I don’t think there is a danger that I will be coopting somebody else’s idea or, on the other hand, steering too many people toward my topic.  Especially since I will be claiming that espresso was developed as an adjunct experiment during the Manhattan Project.

The Source of the Prompt:  The Rose Rabbi and Its Theme

The Rose Rabbi is about a gent named Wolf Walker who tries to understand how he has arrived where he is in his life.  This after being tasked with discerning whether one the clients of his advertising agency is the mafia.  The novel is set in a New York and in a world which are both like and very much unlike ours, with political chaos widespread and the “Chateau Wars” engulfing Europe.  Employed in the world of  the huckster, of those who try to shape the reality of others, Wolf grapples with the great philosophical questions as he reaches his 40th birthday and tries to make sense of his life and place in the world.   The Talking Heads aptly summed up the existential situation captured in this novel in the song Once in a Lifetime:

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

So that’s Wolf’s problem.

Your problem in writing about this prompt is a little more Shakespearean, though I think your essay should be informed by the spirit of Once in a Lifetime.  What I mean by my reference to Shakespeare  (and those of you who come to English after learning another language are more sharply aware of this than are most native speakers)  is the fungibility of English vocabularity, the source of our rich tradition in puns and of this essay prompt.

The Prompt:  Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results

Ms. Quin, the author of our prompt, presents a literary non sequitur, conflating one definition of the word present with another.  She is, of course, also working with a pair of homonyms to define her prompt, and I emphasize that, in choosing a definition and therefore a word that the original sentence did not intend, she is using a non sequitur that emphasizes this prompt’s attitude as well as establishing parameters for the topic.  To put it more concisely, she’s inviting you to play:  Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.

Her homonymic invitation is deeply related to the nature of English.  We English speakers are citizens of a mongrel linguistic world, for English is a pastiche of languages, Germanic at its root, an offspring of Norse cousins, reshaped by French, injected with Latin and Greek and borrowing from most major languages in the world.  Even something as seemingly All-American as a cowboy riding up to a bunkhouse and asking, “Who’s the head honcho around here,” shows the mixed nature of English.  Honcho comes into English  from Japanese, and appears in English for the first time in the years after World War II, as a slang term interchangeable with “boss” .  In Japanese it means “Master Sergeant,” and it became the term G.I.s used during the occupation of Japan when they wanted to find out who was in charge (noncommissioned officers are always in charge–ask any officer).  The very history of this language is nearly as strange and convoluted as any imaginary history you could write.

As a result, we have a language composed of many languages, with words  from completely different sources sharing the same space. Many of these words,   jostling elbows as they find a place in the language, come to sound and look like existing words.  Thus you have a rich supply of homonyms both native and imported.  In this prompt,  present, that point in time between past and future, and present, a gift.  Think about this phenomenon  as both a philosophical matter and as a source of material.  In this way, the language itself is a gift to all of us.  In fact, word etymologies are a great place to start considering where anything comes from, even if you are going to make up a history for the object or metaphor in question.

If  this topic intrigues you but you are having trouble getting traction, I would suggest that you  start by having a look at both the word gift and the word present.  Try a good dictionary, like The American Heritage Dictionary or a good dictionary app, like the free Merriam Webster app through the App Store.  Be sure to consider the etymologies of these words and to check out the synonyms and usage discussions.

Next, think of gifts broadly, listing objects that were gifts to you or discovered by you in one way or another,  and then move on to substances, ideas, places, traits, and accidents or coincidences that you could now see as gifts.  Eventually you will find a suitable “present” for which you can invent a history. Need I say that a gift may have been given intentionally or simply stumbled upon?  A trait received from a parent or an answer to a question?    A work of art (a poster facsimile counts here) or a bridge over troubled water?  (Note that the latter is a metaphor, per the prompt.)

Start  brainstorming.  Don’t forget:  you are inventing a history, so if you know the real history of the “present,” you need to make up some sort of alternate history that may include some facts but which should, to some degree, be your invention.  Feel free to use your own non sequiturs.

And now I will, in keeping with the spirit of the prompt, and name dropping the U of Chicago in a wink-wink kind of way,  fabricate a history for one of the great “presents” offered us by modern culture:  espresso.  Look below the essay for links and explanations that show how I mix fact with fiction in my “Secret History of Espresso:”

Espresso: Ah, the nectar of the gods, the elixir of invention, the quintessence of the coffee bean.  Espresso is perhaps the greatest gift bequeathed to us by the marriage of nature and technology,  and it is itself the father of more inventions than can be counted.  How many late-night cram sessions, how many tech start ups, how many moments of artistic insight can be attributed to its influence?  How many millions stand in line each morning, awaiting its benediction?  Yet its true history is almost unknown.  In fact, dare I say, I alone possess the true secret of the origin of espresso.  And now I am, for the first time, going to share this tale with the world.

It all began in the dark days of World War II.  Scientists assigned to the Manhattan project needed a version of coffee in keeping with their theoretical work related to  the relativistic universe, and not wanting to master the engineering challenge presented by creating sub-atomic-sized  cups of coffee, they settled for the demitasse holding an essence of coffee distilled at high speed and drunk slowly.  They used a prototype nuclear reactor to heat the water and high pressure pumps to force the atomic water through a fine grind of coffee.  All well and good.  But then, after an experiment with time travel via wormholes went wrong, espresso was introduced into turn-of-the-century Italy.  

This occurred when a scientist named Luigi Bezzera, having just distilled a fresh cup of espresso from the experimental, reactor-driven espresso machine which was located in the lab under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, trotted directly into a wormhole time-travel experiment being conducted by Enrico Fermi.  Bezzera found himself suddenly transported to his grandfather’s village in Italy in the year 1899, still holding the freshly made espresso.  The villagers, attracted by the enticing  odor of the pungent extract of the coffee bean wanted to know, “How did you make that?”  Lacking a nuclear reactor but able to utilize the mechanical and metallurgical talents of the extended Bezzera  family to whom he was thus awkwardly introduced, Luigi perfected the first espresso machine in 1901.

It was as a result of this that espresso  is widely but incorrectly thought to have been invented  early in the 20th Century, in Italy, where it changed history by providing energy and inspiration to generations of espresso-drinking philosophers and rebels, and also established the paradox called the Doppio effect, a little-known corollary of both the Grandfather Paradox of time travel and the Twins Paradox of relativity.  This was illustrated when Luigi visited the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904, with a portable example of his new espresso machine and, demonstrating it to a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, provided the inspiration for Einstein’s insight into the relativity of time by producing a beverage distilled from coffee beans at near-light speed.  The rest is scientific history. 

This is, of course, also an example of the Mobius-strip pattern of history as it is Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity that led  to the moment under the bleachers when Luigi wandered, espresso in hand, into a gap in the space-time continuum, which then led to the transplantation of espresso technology to an earlier time and Italian place which led to . . . me having the gift of espresso-fueled inspiration for this little history, as I plot my own journey through the space-time continuum,  from high school to  the University of Chicago, where espresso was really invented.  

Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:

On wormholes, time travel and what Al Einstein has to do with it:

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago (I presume that Enrico did drink espresso, but would have picked this habit up in his native Italy where it actually was invented.  No pets were hurt in my little experiment in fictional history and many of my basic facts were true)

Fermi at U of Chicago

For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:

Einstein in Bern

Last but not least, I offer my apologies to the great Luigi Bezzera, who actually did invent the first espresso machine, though he was not transported half a century back through time to do so . . . I add that the modern pump expresso machine  can be traced to the Faema machines from the 1960’S. Here’s an espresso timeline

Espresso Past and Present

And if you happen to by touring San Francisco, you can check out a couple of early-20th Century tower espresso machines still in operation at Tosca Cafe, then go around the corner to Trieste for a modern espresso in a classic environment, or across the street to Cafe Puccini or visit Roma (Warning:  Tosca uses boozy additives to most of their “espresso” drinks.

Tosca

And finally, note that this blog post, including my example essay, is copyrighted material, available for use by individuals but not to be shared or used commercially without my express, written permission.  (Need I add how dumb it would be to copy my essay and present it as your own work?  Also note that this essay is 587 words long and so would need to lose about a paragraph of material to fit the 500 word limits imposed by the authorities. If this were your essay, and you asked me to edit it, I’d eighty-six the last paragraph.)

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 3: The Dark Lady

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag on Silence, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm

This post will discuss Ms. Sontag and her quote at great length, but I will also focus on the broader problems of responding to quote prompts, particularly the context issues that quotes raise.

The Lady and the Prompt

Here she is,  in Essay Option 3:   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.   Anonymous submission.

Part 1:  Watch Your Context

As usual, I want my readers to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues they must tackle to write a response to the prompt.  This despite an e-mail about my recent posts on Chicago.  In this e-mail, I was asked why I didn’t just let people make it up, slap something together on the fly, in keeping with the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

My response–Go ahead, if you want to, but here’s the problem:  this isn’t a scavenger hunt.  It’s an essay.  And among other things, you would probably like to have an original idea for this essay, right?  And you’d like to relate your essay to the quote.   But how do you know if it’s original?  And how do you know what to make of the quote?

One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is.  You may have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it.  Just like Alfred Russell Wallace, who had a great and crazy idea nobody else had, so he sent it to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here.

Because literally thousands of people will be responding to this prompt, you can expect that a seemingly original idea may have a twin or even an extended family out there.  Alfred Wallace was still a brilliant and original thinker, even if you didn’t recognize his name.  His application file would definitely be stamped “admit.”

So my advice is paradoxical:  Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.

There are some basic mistakes you will then avoid. As an example, you don’t want to invert or reverse a quote’s intent and meaning unless you know you are doing it and have a reason for the reversal.     It’s pretty easy to take a quote out of its context and get it badly wrong.  Even though our app readers will understand that you are reacting to the quote from your own particular place and time, they will also not be able to help cringing if you  get it totally wrong and seem blissfully unaware of it.

This is a pretty common problem, and not just in application essays.  For an example, just look at what Justice Antonin Scalia did to poor Robert Frost–In support of a ruling about separation of powers, Justice Scalia quoted Robert Frost thus:

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

Dude, you are so blowing your quote there.  This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spends all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say.

Why?  In the first example, Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in a poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman.     The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence.  Read it and see, here.    And it’s Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius who speaks the Shakespeare line.  He’s speaking it to Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword.  Right on, man!  Be true to your own selfish, murderous self!  Using this line as a positive aphorism is a good example of philistinism.    (Bonus activity:  Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)

The point is this:  You should assume that your app readers are  literate in the older sense of the word, in the sense of having read widely and deeply, and that they know something about the quotes you respond to.   So before writing in response to the Sontag prompt, I would suggest knowing something about her and about the specific source of this prompt.  Try looking at the links I annotate below; after the links, and hopefully after you have taken some time to read them, I will turn to some of the many ways you might interpret this quote without mangling it.

To begin with, the quote is from one of Sontag’s essays called  “Aesthetics of Silence” which was published in her collection “Styles of Radical Will,”  a work available on Google Books here:The Aesthetics of Silence  You should read the whole essay, but she cuts to the chase in Part 2 of the essay, beginning on page 5, where she details retreats into silence.

Next, you should have  a look at this link, at what I suspect is the efficient cause of this prompt–the Sontag essay is on this U of Chicago Media Studies page devoted to . . . silence:

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/silence.htm

This includes a rich discussion of exactly what the prompt asks for.

Then it might be wise to learn a bit more about the author,  Unfortunately, one of the best places to get a quick overview of her biography, work and  influence is in an obituary, as she died in 2004.  Try this obit on Sontag in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

If you want to keep reading about her and want to check out more of her work, the New York Review of Books has this page with links to her writings and writings about her:

http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/susan-sontag/

And finally, one of her best essays, called Looking at War, in which she analyzes “Photography’s view of devastation and death” was published in the  New Yorker in 2002.  This essay is particularly interesting as she talks about how the viewer of a photograph forms the meaning of a photograph. You, of course, are going to take a quote and make meaning out of it.  We’ve got what you might call an epistemological parallel going.

The text of the article is not behind the New Yorker’s paywall but, sadly, the incredible photographs published with the article are not included here–due to some copyright issues, I’m sure.  These are all shocking photos; in one example, a militiaman in a neatly pressed uniform,  with his sunglasses pushed back on his head, his  Kalashnikov dangling from one hand and his cigarette daintily raised in the other, is swinging a boot to kick  the head of a woman lying face down on the pavement.  The woman appears to be dead or dying.  Sontag had a commitment to seeing and writing about what she saw, whether it was horrifying or beautiful.  You can read the article here Looking at War.  (Late Addendum–I have just found the article posted as a pdf, with the photos, at the following link; the image quality is a bit compromised, but worth a look; copy and paste this address into a new window in your browser:  http://www.uturn.org/sontag_looking_at_war.pdf )

Part 2:  Some Approaches to the Quote

Approach 1

Whoa, heavy and serious, you may be thinking.  Well, yes, Ms. Sontag was very serious about her work, and the quote does present a serious argument for the value and meaning of silence.  Specifically, as you know having read The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag was looking at artists who renounced their work or retreated into silence, and to other ways that silence can be both a haven and a statement.  This makes sense for a writer who focused with some regularity on the grotesqueries and philistinism to be found in our consumer culture.  She’s after an aesthetic for the artist and thinker, and her tone was often critical, detached, and paradoxical–note how she asserts in this same essay that   “Art becomes the enemy of the artist.”

So you might be constructing an essay that follows the lead of Sontag.  If you are, you need to know something about paradox.  (If you’ve looked at my posts on the other U of Chicago prompts, it’s deja vu all over again.) You might want to write about a time you used silence constructively, or as a shelter, or as a renunciation or as an assertion of the self,  in an act of authentic resistance to shallow blabber.  You could build on what you’ve learned about Sontag and the source essay directly.

Approach 2

On the other hand, the two most important requirements of the prompt are that the experience be personal and that silence play a role in your response and in the outcome.  You could go in a completely different direction.  For example, silence is often assent. This can be a good  thing  or a bad thing.  This can be an intentional affirmation through silence or  it can be acquiescence.

You might follow the example in another famous quote, that of Martin Niemoller, speaking of the response to the Nazis in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Here we have acquiescence, silence as an act, out of fear.  All of us have been silent out of fear or apprehension at some point, so this could be fertile ground for an essay.  Perhaps you silence was unwise or made you complicit in something wrong–handle this with care–perhaps your fear was well-grounded and your silence wise.

On the other hand, somebody in a meeting in which Roberts Rules of Order are being followed is offering positive affirmation when by remaining silent when the chairperson asks if there are any nays, and the person does not speak.

Or maybe you have been in a setting in which silence was a rule, intended to create a meditative or contemplative environment, or to foster nonverbal communication.  Taoist and Buddhist cultures have places reserved for silence . . .

Or maybe you spend time out in nature, observing, where you have discovered the virtues of silence, what silence allows you to see or what silence brings to you (is this also true in some social settings?  That those who constantly talk cannot see, blinded as they are by themselves?)

And what about that John Cage composition 4’33”, composed of . . . silence . . . or the sound that fills the hall when the instrument is silent . . .

Have fun with the process and look for a post on prompt four for U of Chicago soon.  And remember what Hamlet said:  The rest is silence.

What a closer!

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two: You Wanna Schroedinger’s Cat? I Got A Schroedinger’s Cat.

In Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Paradox Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 17, 2012 at 11:33 am

If the title of this post on Chicago’s application essay, prompt two, seems obscure, let’s first take a look at the prompt itself:

Essay Option 2.

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 Chemistry and Mathematics.

While the prompt allows and even suggests that you write about fields outside of physics, it is still helpful to know a bit more about the background to this prompt.   This might help you better identify an analogue, and if not, at least you have a better idea of what Heisenberg was talking about. In this post, I’ll give you the scientific context to the prompt, with both Hiesenberg’s idea and Schroedinger’s response, with links that offer detailed explanations that are easy to comprehend (with a little effort).  I will also discuss the genre of this prompt and errors that this prompt may lead you into, with an example.    I’ll end with some humor.

Background and Context of the Prompt:  Physics

Let’s unpack this prompt a little more and give it some context, as we did with the first U of C prompt.  The concept outlined in this prompt is usually called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  You can find a good explanation of it on a number of websites.   This page on PBS gives a brief summary of the problem and Heisenberg’s proposition:  Heisenberg on PBS.  This next site also offers a quick and clear explanation, but offers much more detail about the mechanics of the idea; those of you with a mathematical aptitude will appreciate the annotated explanations of the math associated with the observations.  Go here to have a look:  hyperphysics.

Another good place to look is on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here.  In addition to concluding that you cannot know an electron’s position and momentum, Heisenberg also proposed that the path of an object comes into existence when we observe it.  Think about that, for awhile, and you may come up with a number of analogous ideas to write about.  For more on this and on quantum physics, along with some biographical dirt, go here: Quantum Mechanics 1925-1927.

As for Schroedinger’s Cat.,  Schroedinger, in response to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, proposed a thought experiment to illustrate the problem uncertainty raised.  Let’s just say that Schroedinger was not thrilled with uncertainty, and then . . .This post continues with a link to Mr. Schroedinger’s cat, then examines the genre of this prompt, after which it explores some problems you should consider before addressing this prompt.  If you like this post so far, you can access it as well as other protected or sample information on this blog by choosing one of the two options I explain below.  Future posts also fully available only to subscribers or clients will include analyses of prompts from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elite universities. 

How to get full access:  If you wish to subscribe, e-mail me at the address below; you will set up an account with WordPress, and I will give you access to my private blog until April of 2013, after you pay a subscription fee of 15 dollars.  Alternatively, you can send me an essay for a free edit and review sample; if you decide to retain me for editing services, you will automatically get access to all of my protected material.

E-mail inquiries and essays you want me to sample edit to:  wordguild@gmail.com.

The University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2012-2013

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde Enemy, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

The University of Chicago has posted its questions for this year.  They are earlier in getting out their prompts than many of their competitors, which is only fair–they will, as usual, have some of the most challenging questions out there, as well as some of the most entertaining, so you will want to give this essay some extra thought.  I will look at the prompts one at a time,  beginning in a moment.  Before I do, may I suggest that you get into the spirit of the prompts by investigating the U of C scavenger hunt.  It’s always a good idea to have some idea of your audience’s perspective, something I have discussed before in a number of posts.

You can start here, with the site for the scavenger hunt:  Lore.   The hunt represents the University of Chicago’s world view, taken to an extreme, so it is worth knowing about.  You will get a broader look at the atmosphere and outlook of the university in a recent article  published in the New Yorker: U of C Scavenger Hunt.  Like my website, the  New Yorker has a paywall on some content; if you or your parents have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the full article; if not,  you can pay for access to it.    This article does give you some history and insight into Chicago’s essay prompts and school tradition as well as the scavenger hunt itself–I’d say it is worth the fee to learn more about the school.

Continuing to the prompts, I will deal with them one at a time, with suggestions, ideas and background on prompt 1 in this post, and the others to follow in subsequent posts.

2012-13 essay questions:

Essay Option 1.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.

Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. 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, admitted student Class of 2016.

Let me say first that you could write a satirical or otherwise humorous response to this prompt.  I want to start by making that point clear because the background to this prompt, which I will discuss below, is not so funny.

This prompt also has some overlap with those for other essays, such as Prompt 4 of the Common App, which asks you to discuss the influence of a character from fiction or a historical figure.  If you strongly identify with a character in a book or in history, hey, their enemy might be your enemy. Imagine yourself entering an elevator to find some literary or historical baddie on board.   So if you are all geeked out over a particular set of characters from books or if you are a history buff, feel free to insert yourself creatively into their story.  Do try to make it relevant to “real life” or show what this opposition means in your life and says about you.

Before you do, however, you might want to take apart the prompt a bit more.   First I offer a little detour into the taxonomy of this quote–it’s probably better to call it an apothegm than an aphorism–go here for the distinction.

Though this prompt seems aimed at generating responses both creative and humorous,  the relationship this prompt has to Wilde’s demise is anything but humorous.  It’s worth looking at Wilde himself while you are trolling the depths of your mind for an idea for your essay.  Wilde’s enemies were multitude, as it turns out, from the power structures of his time, political, legal and social to . . . his own lover.  He is a good example of of a person who did not take his own advice.

As England’s leading wit and one of its great writers, Wilde lived flamboyantly in London and elsewhere, and made a very bad enemy in the form of the father of one of his lovers.  When Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas came to light, Douglas’ father, the Marqess of Queensbury, was enraged.  Though the Marqess instituted the Queensbury rules of boxing, making it a “civilized” sport, his own conduct was anything but civilized  (he was considered something of  a brute in his own time, which is saying a lot, given his noble status).  Queensbury threatened Wilde with physical violence both through proxies and in person, and when this and other means, including cutting off Lord Douglas from funds and any other support failed, he attempted to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s  play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though  Wilde had used the police to keep the raging lord out of the opening of Earnest,  he did not foresee the potential for revenge that he handed Queensbury when he told his solicitor (that’s lawyer, to you Yanks)  that Queensbury’s charges were lies.  Queensbury himself was, as a result, arrested on libel charges.  But Wilde’s verbal pyrotechnics in the trials that followed were not going to allow him to evade the obvious fact that he had himself lied in denying the nature of his relationships with other men. Today the  odious Marquess would have been the one found guilty and punished, but this was the late 19th Century; Wilde did not account for the legal system he faced when he tried to use it against his enemy.  A gay man turning to British law at this time for respite from  an enemy like Queensbury should have understood that the law, too, was his enemy.  But the cruelest betrayal for Wilde would be that of Lord Douglas himself.

Rather than defeating the brutal Marquess, Wilde himself was eventually arrested, and in the end, convicted and imprisoned for “Gross Indecency” under sodomy laws.  His trial is also generally seen as marking a turn to much harsher attitudes toward homosexuals in Britain, attitudes that would reach a peak of nastiness during World War I.

If you wish to explore the Wilde angle of this prompt and the potentials it raises further, Barbara Tuchman puts Wilde in the context of prewar Britain in her great work of popular history The Proud Tower.  For more immediate information on Wilde’s trials, try this link: Famous World Trials. If you are a Wilde fan and want to really get into this, try Ellman’s biography:  Oscar Wilde.  Wilde himself created a great artistic response to the injustice done him by writing the poem Ballad of Reading Gaol; use the link for some background and  to access the poem itself through the Guardian website.

Wilde’s life represents a serious side to this prompt, but whether you lean toward humor or toward being earnest, you might want to begin by simply making lists of things you oppose.  Don’t prioritize, don’t establish a heirarchy, just do it–from pet peeves like the missing sock to existential threats like nuclear destruction, you have a large and every growing category of problems, threats and villains to choose from. If you’ve written or thought about writing the Problem/Concern essay for the Common App, you may be able to turn there for inspiration–you aren’t writing the same essay, of course, but you may be recycling the same idea.

You can then easily split your list of That Which You Oppose into either serious or lightweight and humorous topics.  In either case, consider how to make the essay about you as well as about the topic–how do you fit in to the picture; what is your relationship to the topic?  I have written before about the nature of the college app essay, which is often about an “external topic,” but which is always, nevertheless, about you, the writer.  Keep this in mind.

If you have selected a problem that is serious, these can be represented by individuals whom you feel are responsible, but only if you can easily show it’s a clear-cut case of malfeasance–you have hundreds of words available in this essay, not thousands. In general  I  suggest that, if you are going to write about an issue, you focus on the issue rather than a person–ad hominem attacks are generally better in politics than in application essays.

As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, both serious and humorous.  We have all kinds of serious examples from various banks in well-deserved trouble to despicable political leaders who kill or incarcarate their own people.  Be sure you know what you are talking about, however, and avoid cliched discussions with trite solutions for dealing with your “enemy.”

As for humor, the range of topics is also wide open, and I think that you could include inanimate objects and phenomenon beyond human control.  You could also include notable individuals, if you choose with care and handle it with wit, such as a certain New York City developer with bad hair . . .or you could use the late and great Pogo as an inspiration–“We have met the enemy and he is us”–to  examine  some personal or social foible.  For my part, on Monday morning, my sock drawer is my enemy . . .

Spend some time brainstorming and riffing off of the basic idea this prompt presents to come up with any  antagonist you wish.  You know you have an enemy somewhere . . .

I’ll return to more of the University of Chicago’s prompts in the next day or two.  Come on back soon but be aware that some of this will be behind my paywall.

Topic Generator #1 For The Problem Essay and The Essay On What You Care About

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Issue of Concern Essay, Problem Essay, Significant Experience Essay, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

Many universities use application essay prompts that ask you to write about either a problem of some kind or something you care about.  I encourage my  clients to try to come up with at least one counterintuitive essay, so let’s do something completely unexpected and go with  a retro subject that could fit both of these prompts:  libraries.  There is nothing more cool than bringing back something retro, right?  And what could  be more retro than a place full of printed material?

More specifically,  here’s my first idea for a problem essay or an essay on an issue everyone should care about:  The Decline and Fall of Libraries.

I use an e-reader, have a blog, follow news online, etc, etc, etc, but still: I believe, nay, I know that traditional  libraries are important.  If you think this makes me sound totally 20th Century, then read on–below you will find an annotated list of links to brilliant essays,  articles and a book, all of which defend and explain the purpose of libraries and all of which are full of ideas that you could use to develop your own essay.  Read them for ideas and information relevant to essay prompts ranging from the Personal Influence and Intellectual Experience  to prompts about Problems of Local or National Importance.  If a librarian has influenced you, this subject could also work for Common App prompt three.

Here are links to essays and opinions on libraries (and of course on books, as well):

Grazing in the Stacks of Academe–Here music critic Ben Ratlif offers a great example of how to write persuasively and evocatively; he also provides enough ideas for half-a-dozen new essays.  Example: How ugly can be good (even beautiful). Click the link to check it out.

North West London Blues  In this piece, published both in the print version of The New York Review of Books and as a blog post, Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, writes about the unremarkable but vital library in her community.  Her introduction is a bit roundabout, and some of her references are obscure for those who do not follow British politics, but the problems are similar to those we have on this side of the pond, and she makes the importance of her library and libraries in general very clear.

The superb book critic and social commentator Laura Miller has a good piece on the value of libraries in Salon: Why Libraries Still Matter. Read it and be persuaded.

Did you know that the destruction of print didn’t actually start with the internet or even with the computer?  Did you know that old print material is often destroyed by a machine called “the guillotine?”  Nicholson Baker can tell you all about it and  why places that store print materials on shelves are irreplaceable. Baker is no luddite fuddy-duddy; he was an early proponent of both e-readers and Wikipedia.  He also likes video games and has written about them.  Yet he strenuously defends the value of books as objects and he has written an entire book himself on the destruction of libraries:  Double Fold. You can glean a great deal of information about Double Fold  just by reading this excellent review in Salon:  Stephanie Zacharek on Double Fold.  You could also buy the book from this superb bookstore:  Double Fold at Powell’s Books.

Next up is Lions in Winter.  Big changes are in store for New York City’s public library system, and in this fine piece from the superb n+1, Charles Petersen gives an extremely detailed and fair-minded assessment of the changes proposed for NYC’s libraries, and in the process gives you excellent background and perspective on libraries in general and on how the world of information and books is changing.  Petersen understands the need for change but also knows the value of what may be lost, and describes it eloquently.  If you have trouble getting your teeth into this because of the lengthy introduction,  you might actually start with Part II of this article here–Lions in Winter Part Two– and then return to Part I.

The changes planned for the NYC library system have, of course, provoked a lot of response from journalists at the New York Times and in their opinion and letters sections.  You can get a variety of opinions on the value of libraries there, including but not limited to:

Sacking a Palace of Culture by Edmund Morris–he sounds a bit too much like a cranky old guy when he complains about the aroma of coffee, but he also offers an eloquent and even moving defense of the traditional research library, based on his own experience.  You don’t bump into a new idea or book in the same way online or via the Apple store or Amazon as you do in the library, something Morris and a number of other writers I link point out.

These kinds of changes have been going on for some time; meet a book robot here, and assess the different views of it:  A Robot Will Be Happy to Find that Book for You

On a more fantastical note, you might find this article, again by Laura Miller in Salon, which deals with the idea of a library for imaginary books: The Greatest Books that Never Were.

And as a final, tangential recommendation, check out this article, about an attempt to get a copy of every physical book and preserve it:  An Ark Full of Books.

That should be enough to get you started on an essay about how libraries (or a librarian) have influenced you, or why they are important, or how their diminishment and destruction is a local, national and international problem.  Keep checking back as I will be adding  posts which provide new topic and source materials, and I will be addressing this year’s prompts as they are released–most universities will release their essay prompts between now and August 1st.  As an example, I expect to see something from Stanford in the next week or so.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Essays: The First Prompts For 2012-2013 Are Out

In Colgate Personal Statement, Colgate Supplemental Essay, Essay About A Quote, Penn Application Essay, Penn Personal Statement, Penn Supplemental Essay on July 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Who this post is for:  Anybody who needs to write an essay about a quote; anybody applying to Colgate or Penn.

Note:  some of the links in this post are samples of full length posts available to my clients and subscribers.  Subscriptions require that you create a WordPress account and pay me a small fee, or that you retain me for editing or college app services.  See the “About” section for more information.

An increasing number of universities are timing their own release of supplemental prompts to coincide with the Common App rollout. The Common App posts a “draft” form by early summer, but the website for the Common App is taken down in mid to late July and then goes live on August 1st; this year, the site goes offline on Friday, July 13, at 11:59 PM.  I have the common app prompts available on this post:  The Common Application for 2012.

Colgate and Penn are among the few universities that have already posted their 2012-2013 supplemental prompts, so let’s take a look at their offerings.  I will follow some analysis of each prompt with a discussion of approaches to each prompt.

Colgate’s prompt asks for what I would call a fictional travel essay.  Here it is:

At Colgate we value global awareness and the diverse perspectives of our students. Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  If you had the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world during your time at Colgate, where would you go and why?

This prompt is  an alternate to the  classic “My Trip” essay, in which generations of high school students have bored readers by summarizing a trip to a foreign place and describing the odd habits they encountered there.  It is possible to write an interesting essay about a trip, as hundreds of books on travel show, but more often than not students generate not particularly interesting descriptions or end up appearing arrogant in their descriptions of foreign places and people.

Colgate’s prompt is an attempt to avoid the typical “My Trip” essay by having you invent a destination.  This means that they are trying to evoke your imaginative abilities as much as your cosmopolitanism,    so you should avoid simply describing some place that you have already been.  An exception to this might be if you  have a commitment (in a Peace Corps kind of way)  to a foreign country, and you intend to  continue it.  I have  had clients who have gone on missions or service trips to do everything from constructing housing and water facilities to assisting with medical services; if  you’ve done something along these lines and you are committed to doing it again, then you might want to write about this place–but keep in mind  that Colgate asks you to imagine a future trip, so make clear an abiding commitment which you intend to deepen during your time at Colgate.  Also make clear what it will allow you to bring back to the Colgate community and what new things you might learn or do.  It might help if this relates in some way to your major.

In addressing this Colgate prompt, you  need to consider what your audience is looking for–if you are a first-time visitor to this blog, you should look at some of my earlier posts, like this one:  Evading the Cliche.  Colgate telegraphs the values they seek throughout the prompt:  we value global awareness and . . .  diverse perspectives . . . Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  

In addressing the ideals established here by Colgate, try to avoid simplistic, Social Justice class responses.  I don’t have a beef with the Social Justice curriculum as an idea, but increasingly I am seeing a kind of social justice cliche, or set of cliches, in response to prompts about international problems and in response to prompts which, like this one, are motivated by the university’s desire to create more aware and cosmopolitan people.  I call this the reverse of the cultural superiority fallacy, which I will discuss in a moment.  Before I do, please see my earlier post here, where I address some of the cliched responses elicited by problem essays, cliches which this prompt may also elicit.

Keep in mind also that this Colgate essay prompt is aimed at a communitarian as well as cosmopolitan ideal–whatever you learn will bring something back to the Colgate community and so, I guess, help Colgate deepen the cosmopolitanism of America at large.  You are the point of the essay not as an isolated individual but as part of a learning community.

A major risk of writing a travel essay, even a fictional one,  is the cultural outlook we all carry.  It’s almost impossible to avoid viewing and describing other places and cultures from the point of view of your own, and many well-intentioned travelers past and present come across as patronizing or arrogant in describing the places they visit and the people they see there.  I would say that this risk is not mitigated by the fact that Colgate asks you to invent a trip.  If you haven’t been to the place at all, it is nearly certain that all of your information is  second-hand  and without adequate context.  So be wary of passing judgements, especially about people and places you have not experienced or not experienced in depth . . . and even if you have, try to be aware of your own assumptions and how they shape what you say.  Try starting here for a serious examination of this problem:  ethnocentrism.  Keep in mind the fact that Romanticizing a place or a people is nearly as ignorant as being dismissive and can be just as patronizing.

You could make stereotypes and cultural myopia the explicit  topic of your essay by writing about a place that many have preconceptions about.  Pick an easy target, like the French . . . it wasn’t so long ago that some Americans took to eating something called Freedom Fries instead of french fries . . . and more than a few Americans are intimidated by the mere idea of trying to order from the archetypal Arrogant French Waiter.  The archetypal Arrogant French Waiter does exist, of course, but he’s just as easily found in New York or San Francisco as he is in Paris, and he may not even speak French.

It will help this essay  if you have a fascination with some aspect of another country or culture–maybe you are into Anime in a deep way, or maybe  you are really into  some form of dance,  like Flamenco.  Why not  go to the source–or do some research and make a plan to go there?   This would definitely help you avoid sounding like a condescending twit-as long as you aren’t faking your interest.    For more general comments on the risk I describe above, along with some other things to avoid, see my post from last year:    College Essay No-No’s.

If you are in an international school that follows an International Baccalaureate curriculum, I suggest that you consider some of what you have learned in your Theory of Knowledge class and essay.  The cosmopolitan philosophy of IB fits this prompt; how might a trip develop what you already know about different ways of knowing?  The IB philosophy matches up well with the ethos expressed by Colgate in this prompt.

If you are daring and creative, you might write a true work of fiction, even write about a place that does not exist but which is in some way an analogue if not an allegory for some aspects of the modern world.    In this case, you could take a cue from Jorge Luis Borges, who is often called one of the world’s great short story writers, though it might be more accurate to call him a writer of fictional essays and memoirs. Borges creates places that never existed but might have,   labyrinthine libraries that sprawl endlessly across some parallel universe, fragmentary detective stories set in vaguely familiar  lands that have never existed, encyclopedias of things that might be . . . Borges spun out fantastical and science fictional tales and treatises that always say something about the here and now.  Check him out in that Borgesian realm, the internet:  a good Borges website.

And finally, keep in mind this: nobody is going to check  that you  follow through on any commitments you might make in this essay, though it would help your essay if you felt committed while you were writing it.

Next up are Penn’s prompts for this year:

Penn

Short Answer:
A Penn education provides a liberal arts and sciences foundation across multiple disciplines with a practical emphasis in one of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Wharton School.

Given the undergraduate school to which you are applying, please discuss how you will engage academically at Penn.

(Please answer in 300 words or less.)

Essay:
Ben Franklin once said, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”

Which are you?

(Please answer in 300-500 words.)

I am not going to do an analysis of the short answer prompt as it is specific to the different schools and majors offered by Penn.  You’ll want to spend some time thinking about the major you intend to choose, and if you don’t have one, start researching before responding to this prompt.  The Penn website is a good place to start.

Let’s have a look at the Ben Franklin prompt.  The first thing I will point out is the obvious–this is an essay about a quote, and as with most of this class of essays, there is  little in the way of background for the quote, particularly since, in this case, the quote is an aphorism-by definition, an aphorism should distill wisdom, not provide an explanation of how it was reached.    I discussed writing an essay about a quote in several posts last year, so you might want to take a detour to explore some of that before moving on to my specific discussion of Ben–try this link on last year’s Princeton prompt, among others:  Writing an Essay About a Quote.

Penn could have used a more obscure source for their aphorism; the fact that they chose one identified with Ben Franklin is suggestive. To me what it suggests is politics.  Whatever you do with this quote, knowing something about Franklin himself is helpful, and about his times– Ben Franklin was  a scientist, a printer, a successful small businessman, a lady’s man, a drinker and gourmand,  a Founding Father of the United States as well as our most important early diplomat  . . .  and therefore a politician, a word which seems to have become dirty of late.  Perhaps this has something to do with Penn’s use of this aphorism, as it can be read as a fundamentally political observation.  Franklin himself was also  a master of the art of compromise,  repeatedly assessing and persuading assemblies  and individuals at home and abroad.

Franklin’s aphorism offers a way to classify and divide any group, but it is also very open to interpretation, and how you interpret it will say a lot to your application reader.  I mean by this that you have to assign values to the categories Franklin establishes–it’s hard to create a classification system for human beings that does not also create a hierarchy, and in creating hierarchies, you are at risk of seeming self-righteous or narrow-minded or naive.

One example of how to use Franklin’s triptych might be to argue that, in any given group, you have people who are inflexible, even fanatical,  people you might call The Immovable; then there are people who are compromisers, whom you might call the movable, and finally there are those few people who move,   the leaders.  If you examine the U. S. Congress using these types, you might find that politicians who claim principle may not look so good in contrast to those who are willing to compromise.  If you set it up this way, you obviously would want to be one of the leaders, those who move, though  you would praise the movable for being practical.

On the other hand, if you went in this topical direction, you would want to keep in mind the danger of oversimplifying the nature of politics and conflict–when real and important issues are at stake, compromising may actually be surrender of important principles.  I think that one way to read the current political impasse in the United States is to see it as a real conflict over real ideals, both practical and theoretical.  When faced with fanatics or ideologues, even compromisers may become immovable in response.  Perhaps those who otherwise might be movable become immovable when facing radicals or fanatics, and so save the Republic . . . after a long and ugly political fight.

As you can see, answering the question “Which type are you” depends completely on how you define the terms, what qualities you assign to them.  Maybe Franklin’s three types are  just a description of people who are more or less peripetetic, or more or less inclined to changing channels on the television.  I’m sure you could have some good, satirical fun with this one, but use caution, as always, when relying on humor in an app essay.

You need to think about this one, and you might ponder deeply what your audience, the Admissions Officers, are after in asking you this question in this most political of years.

I also suggest that a little research and reading may lead you to a good idea for this essay, or may help you develop a good idea into a powerful essay. One way to do this would be to read one of the good biographies of Ben Franklain.

Another way is to find other philosophes like Ben–Franklin’s aphorism is of a kind with the tactical and political aphorisms of many great thinkers–Macchiavelli, for example, or Sun Tzu,  the great Chinese strategist who said that in any conflict you must first know and understand yourself and then know and understand your opponent–which might also be a way to look at the meaning of what Franklin says.  See this site on Sun Tzu’s Art of War or find a good print translation, looking for one with an introduction that puts Sun Tzu and his work in meaningful context, such as this one by Thomas Cleary.  For some advice from Machiavelli, try this site:  excerpt of Machiavelli’s Art of War.

In keeping with this analogous approach, you could  write an essay focused on  “dueling aphorisms.”   This could be either a serious way to explore what Franklin meant by looking at other words of wisdom, or  as a humorous exercise in contrasting.  Get your hands on a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in the reference section of  a library, or look here for the 1919 edition online.  At the least you can amuse yourself by finding quotations that contradict with Ben’s, or that can be combined with it to go somewhere interesting.

My closing advice is this: Necessity is the mother of all invention and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Just don’t plagiarize.

Starting A Book Or Intellectual Experience Essay: An Example Of How To Look Deeper

In Brown University Application Essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay on July 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I have previously put up posts with detailed information on  intellectual and book essays–see the links and table of contents in the first column/post of this website.  These posts will also appear under categories and tags  for Harvard, Princeton and other University names, as well as under the essay about books,   the essay about an intellectual experience and under a couple of the Common Application prompt topics.

In this post, I will be looking specifically at one area of genre literature and even more specifically at one series of books as an example of how to go about addressing the book or intellectual experience essay.  The first lesson is this:  don’t just read the novel(s).  You will need to find give the novel(s) a wider context and meaning.   The way to do this is to gain a wider perspective and put it to use to express something about yourself as well as about the books that are the stated subject of your essay–as I will show in this post.

Writing About Books

The genres of literature which I will discuss here include Dystopian, Near Future and Science Fiction.  See this link for more information on those.  You might also want to see my entry last year in which I established a system for categorizing novels and gave specific suggestions for writing about the novel categories. (This link is a protected sample, available in full to subscribers and clients)

Let’s start with this assumption:  an essay about well-written genre fiction  can be every bit as good an essay about so-called serious or literary fiction.  For many of you, an essay about a supposedly pop novel will actually be better because you won’t feel trapped by the need to be as serious and weighty as you would in writing about, say, Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch.  It can be very difficult to write about greatness, especially when it takes the form of classic novels.

I enjoy reading the serious literary fiction of both Dostoevsky and Mary Anne Evans, but I equally enjoy reading a work of genre lit like Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Jonathan Letham’s Gun, With Occasional Music, and  if you understand how to frame novels like these last two, you can write an essay that is effective and interesting.  These aren’t  highbrow works of realism–the  Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in a parallel-universe Alaska and features a detective investigating the death of a possible Messiah, while Gun is set  in a near future Bay Area with a detective following a trail of criminality through a world populated by genetically manipulated creatures, including an evolved kangaroo-thug named Joey–but these novels have a lot to say about what we are now and where we are going.

Let me explain by way of example and provide further arguments for genre lit as a subject of a good application essay.  It’s all about the context and the archetypes, people.

Fantasy literature in its various guises has become the best-selling narrative form in the world.  In fact, the last two decades have seen half a  dozen trilogies or series that have been extremely popular.  I have little expertise on strigoi or other of the blood-seeking living dead, so I will skip the vampire stuff to focus on near-future dystopian lit.   One of the best written and most popular examples is  Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games is interesting in many ways–it features a nightmarish, near-future setting, it is a cautionary tale, and it is an archetypal forbidden romance.  You can find elements of The Hunger Games in literature ranging from Norse epics up through Shakespeare’s plays and Orwell’s 1984,  and on through American culture, in novels like The Great Gatsby and in movies like Rebel Without A Cause.

Due its popularity, there are rich resources and conversations available for The Hunger Games,  many of them by  journalists and academics who provide detailed and well-written analyses of different aspects of HG and of the genres into which Collins’ series fits. I will give you a set of annotated links as we move on in this post, where you can find everything from character analysis to social commentary–these links often discuss more than just HG .  Some of them are excellent examples of what an intellectual experience essay can be, albeit at much greater length than your typical college app essay.

First up is an excellent piece analyzing recent “young adult”  dystopian lit, by Laura Miller, Salon’s book editor, who has been a heavy hitter in the book world for years.  She compares  The Hunger Games to similar works past and present, and she makes the kinds of connections you will want to make in an intellectual experience or book essay.  Miller provides  fine-grained analysis based on specific quotes from HG and other novels, and she uses this to support a broader set of arguments about both HG and some of the other recently popular dystopian “Young Adult” lit; here is an example from Miller’s article:

. . .  dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.

Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.

 Of course, this is only one way to look at The Hunger Games, but it’s persuasive, and it doesn’t exclude other readings–you can read HG as an analogue for the competitive viciousness to be found in(at least some) American high schools, or you could read it as a warning to today’s increasingly oligarchical America  about the dangers of powerful elites.  Or it could be about the dangers and seductions of consumer culture–Katniss seems to get a real kick out of some of the perks of the Games, while claiming to hate all of it . . . or HG could be read as a more traditional, science fiction cautionary tale about the dangers of the technologies we already possess.  After all, something ugly happens to America on the way to Panem.

Even if you have not read any of the The Hunger Games, I would strongly recommend that you read the rest of this analysis by Miller, in the New Yorker’s  Critic At Large feature  here.

I’m going to be writing more specifically about the Archetypal Criticism of literature soon, but as another example of how to analyze characters and meaning, I offer a link to an article a  New York Times article which is also focused on Hunger Games, but which gives you another set of ideas about what an archetypal analysis can offer as you grapple with an essay on a book or series of books.  So go here for an archetypal discussion of dystopian film,centered on Suzanne Collins’ characters  (this post is specifically about film, but you can “read” a film in much the same way you can read a novel, and similar themes can be developed in each form–which is one reason why so many films are adapted from novels.  Need I mention that a good film is an intellectual experience?).

Lest I give you the impression that the NY Times isn’t giving the written word adequate attention, also have a look at this link, in which John Green also points out how a number of  futuristic tales are really about the here and now.

Part of the requirement for the genre of literature called Realism is that it be an imitation of real life, that it hold up a mirror to the world; in contrast, a widely held view of fantasy holds that it is simply a form of make-believe, and so it is often thought not to reflect much about the “real” world, much less to be “serious.”  However, if you’ve read much fantasy or even if you’ve only read the material I’ve linked so far, you should be reaching the conclusion that, while science fiction and fantasy by definition are not “realistic,” they do indeed hold up a critical mirror to the here and now.

Let me offer another example, a New York Times opinion piece looking at the current rage for dystopian lit as a phenomenon that is linked to much of the “Tiger Mother” style self-help lit  out there, the idea being that economic competition and the ferocious struggle for the admission to the right schools  lies behind everything from the Hunger Games to Bringing Up Bébé.  (This could also be a good subject for the Common Application’s  essay on an issue of national importance, if you think about it–have a look at the NY Times article Hunger Games Parenting to see what I mean.  It’s a pretty persuasive take on where we are as a nation and what this kind of  lit is really about though, as with the links above, there is more than one way to interpret any of this stuff–which is why it makes such a great essay topic.)

And finally, I’d like to recommend this blog post by Stanley Fish, one or our great literary and cultural critics, in which he links The Hunger Games to the ancient literary form known as The Pastoral and its beautiful but melancholy momento mori.

What I am hoping you realize at this point is that it is legitimate to develop your understanding of whatever you are reading by looking at what other people have to say, especially if those other people have some expertise and genuine insight.  You can, indeed, access rich and diverse discussions of literature online, as well as cute kitten pictures, and looking to sources like those I cited above can be helpful to you as you set about creating a book or intellectual experience essay.  The idea is to read critically in order to  shape your own views, sometimes with the help of and sometimes by resisting what other readers and critics say.  Just be sure to use my examples and anything else you find as inspiration only, though a short quote won’t hurt if you give it context and it makes sense in your essay.

In addition to blogging about archetypal readings of books in upcoming posts, I will also be discussing further the role of form, of genre, in shaping meaning.  Stay tuned and come back soon (a word of warning, however:  some of my upcoming posts will only be fully available to subscribers and clients.)

Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.