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.