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Ivy League Round Up: The Brown, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth And Amherst Supplemental Essays For 2013-2014.

In Amherst Supplemental Essay, Columbia Supplemental Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Essay on Literature, Essay on Science, Penn Supplemental Essay, Why Brown on December 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

This will be my final update for the 2013-2014 application season.  With the early rush over, I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have one or more application essays that you wish to have reviewed and closely edited, splice the following address into an e-mail and contact me with the subject “editing request:”  wordguild@gmail.com.

Include your name, geographical location, and a basic description of what you need.  I’ll be asking you to provide me some additional information to help me edit, but all information and work is kept strictly confidential.  My prices for a three-round editing package, with the last edit ready to submit, are $100-$150, depending on the essay length and prompt.

As for the Ivies, here we go:

The Ivies are using the Common App and a variety of questions in their supplemental sections; what they share, beyond the Common App essays, is one or more supplemental responses that are best restated by the question “Why do you want to go to school here?”  This is a question which you can and should research.

What you should not do is write an autobiographical incident or short essay on some experiment or program you were in–it’s fine and in fact necessary to talk about yourself and your specific  academic interests, but you should also be talking about and showing knowledge of the university itself.  Don’t just recycle part of a Common App essay.

Things To Research For The “Why Us” Prompt

Brown

So let’s start with Brown as an example; their prompt is pretty simple:  Why Brown?  You probably already knew that, but my advice–again, repeated throughout this post, with some different links and information about each school– is to do some research, specifically in the areas in which you are considering majoring.  The essay should be about your experiences and interests, but not just about you.  It’s about the school as well, and not just about how the school will be useful to you.  How will you be useful in the world?  To other people or creatures or the environment?  What will your contribution be?

Please think about that.  The admissions officer will be looking for it–it doesn’t need to be completely explicit and specific, but they won’t be impressed by an essay with a whole lot of “I’s” and “me’s” in it, or by an essay that is all about how they can do things for you.  See the Dartmouth admissions officer, below, and his comments on the self-absorbed.

Look outside yourself.  Study the university.  Find out about programs, then about professors as well as classes.  Know something about the research or work being done at Brown in your field of interest.  Follow links and information on the work of specific professors and schools or institutes or centers.

Be able to name drop with knowledge, but not just as a list of names the app reader already knows; this should be shown as something that fits with you and your plans, as something you can use, with a little explanation, in a meaningful way.  Be able to explain how Brown can help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve–which hopefully has something to do with helping other people out in some way, whether through innovation or services.  Then write efficiently and without hyperbole.

I recommend reading this article on the changes to Brown’s supplementals for this year :  Changes to the Brown Supplement.  And don’t forget to have a look at their mission statements, motto, and that kind of thing.

Brown is one of the Ivies that views public service as more than lip service.    Don’t forget:  Sincerity is a must, but avoid being preachy or a hand-wringer, and don’t come off as self-absorbed. See my links below to how to evade the cliché, et al.

Know What Your Major Entails/Understand the Hierarchies

To repeat:  research all things related to your major or to areas you think you may want to major in–you hopefully have already done some research and know the basics, but a quick recap here:  Majors are taught within a  “division,” “school” “program” and/or “department” and, in recent decades also within “centers” and “institutes.” Some of the latter have different structures than a traditional school or department, but for the most part the name game with centers and institutes  is a way to set up  funding, often around one or more rock star figures (they are not always professors by trade, but possess advanced degrees and outside experience that applies to the field in question) or around some hot, usually interdisciplinary new “field.”  There is a constant turf war for attention and funding which has driven this in recent years and this also reflects developing areas of study and technology–new stuff can create new disciplines.

Back To Brown

One example at Brown is the department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, formed in 2010.  How linguistics has joined Cognition and Psychology is a bit convoluted but will illustrate a point I want to make about the contemporary, interdisciplinary approach to education.

Modern linguistics really starts in the early 20th Century, with structuralism, and was  a field within philosophy and sociology and later within various language departments.  As the early Linguistics departments were founded at universities in the 20th Century, structuralism was superseded by new fields within linguistics, like generative grammar, and today everything from probability and game theory to computer science  and brain science plays a role within linguistics  (voice recognition software, anybody?).

The result of these developments (as well as politics and funding competition) is this new department at Brown.  It’s worth comparing majors and departmental structures at different schools–have a look at the Penn Linguistics Department, for example, which has a much less flashy website and which is embedded in a different structure– but you should also be looking at individual teachers, learning something about research and specialized programs you might be interested in, as well as about particular professors and their work.

There are many other interesting developments over the last ten-fifteen years in “cross curricular” programs–check out the Brown sociology page, where you can see their links to things you would expect, like the Social Science Research Lab, but also their links to the program in Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship.

The message is that there is no time like the present to start defining a course of study for yourself, and these newer institutions do offer many opportunities to craft your own program and not to be stuck in a narrow field of study–this may also help you get a job.  On the other hand, I always argue that you should study what you love, and research the major that is in the area that most interests you, then look for ways to make it “practical,” if you do not want to stay in academia. An English major who can search databases with his own algorithms, for example, would be very employable; you could get there with a major in English and a minor in a computer discipline, or a minor in psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, with computer classes added to learn how to construct databases and mine data.   I’ll come back to that later.  For more at Brown, start here:

Brown Majors, Departments and Programs

For more ideas on things to research and write about on the “Why Us” prompt, read on.

Penn

Penn wants basically the same thing as Brown; here is the prompt:

“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals.”  400-650 words

As with the Penn or any “Why Go To Our School” prompt, you want to drill down to find specific information–and maybe to find out what you want to do, as well.  Here is Penn’s Majors page:  List of College Majors. In one example, if you are interested in both business and international relations, you’d want to check out the Huntsman program (listed on the Penn Majors page) and start following links on the Huntsman home page:  HuntsmanThe point is to become informed and follow information that interests you.

Columbia
Columbia has three prompts that roughly translate to “Why Us,” or why you fit them.  Here they are:
  • Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.
  • If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.
  • If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.
As with all of these questions, this prompt is a good place to mention a campus visit.  The people, both students and faculty,  and physical setting of the school are, hopefully, something that has influenced your decision, and this is the time to express your enthusiasm.  Specifics help, but don’t get carried away in your descriptions of the ivied walls and eager scholars.
Back in the day, research was the purview of grad students, but these days undergrads are often involved in the cutting edge stuff– as I pointed out above, “even” an English major might be doing research, and the cutting edge there might be looking at evolving responses to a work of literature over time, Huckleberry Finn, for example, using those databases of, say newspapers and periodicals  I mentioned and writing algorithms to define searches that reveal how attitudes toward  Twain’s magnum opus have changed, or looking at the incidence of a word and how its meaning has changed, and thus engaging in a kind of English-department driven sociology.  This is quite a bit like market research, by the way, and the same basic skills can be used on other databases, looking at health in various human populations, for example.
So what I am saying is, you could use this required app essay to start thinking in an innovative way about your own future, and you might even find a way to convince your parents that the apparently impractical subject that you love could actually be practical, after all.  With a little tinkering.
Have a look at the research opportunities in the school of psychology at Columbia, here, and start clicking for some examples of the interdisciplinary possibilities offered in one field:
Or go to the general research page, which has links to various fields and institutions within the university and find the sites that you need:
Dartmouth
As you probably know, Dartmouth uses the Common App and a College/Major specific essay.  So everything I said above about Brown, et al, still applies, but I’ll add a bonus:
an excerpt of some quotes from an interview with a Dartmouth admissions officer, published on Business Insider; the “insider” tips offered by BI are not really anything new, and officials who are quoted as unnamed sources always have some kind of ax to grind–this guy sure offers some complaints as well as reveals some of his own biases– but his statements  on the admissions essay itself are worth perusing; here they are:

Essays 

“The essay is very important. It’s when you get a sense of what the kids about. We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness. The biggest mistake is when they aren’t very self-aware and write standard sports essay where they talk about the big game and that hurts them in the end. Not standing out is a big mistake for kids who are from demographic groups that are historically well represented.

But even an amazing essay can’t save a bad application.

“It’s difficult to see an app like that because every aspect of the application needs to be pretty strong, especially in the numbers driven game, it’s hard for a kid to stand out if not strong academically even if he writes this amazing essay. It’s a question of the marginal case.”

“Many kids write adversity essays. Some cases are more contrived than others. I remember one essay about a girl who struggled with a broken family in the ghetto, who lacked nuclear family structure at home. It was well-written, not case of pitying herself, but written matter of factly, very powerful.”

Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays. There’s a way to do that and still be tasteful. You don’t want to highlight a negative personality trait. Like if you’re a complete narcissist, if that comes across in tone even though the essay is creative it will put off admissions officer. I do think kids need to think more about what they want to present.” (My addendum to this:  use good judgement if you want to be daring.  Many “risky” essays actuall do come across as self-absorbed or in poor taste.  So be wary of what I would call stunt essays.  Notice also that the app officer specifically liked the simply factual essay by the girl from the broken family in the ghetto.  Notice in addition that he uses the word ghetto, which sounds quaintly like what those suburban middle class kids, whom he seems to both pity and sneer at in the article, might say. Instead of ‘hood, for example.  It’s additionally interesting, because these days the “ghetto” is more a pocket neighborhood than the vast and largely, to the middle class and upward,  unknown area of a city where poor people and immigrants live.  We often have urban professionals and hipsters on the same block or a block away from what this app officer would think is a “ghetto” neighborhood.  So, he sounds a lot like an older version of the kids he seems to address most directly here.  I’m just sayin’).

You can read more at the link below, though I hasten to add that some of this unnamed admissions officer’s complaints deserve a response from somebody, and a good journalist would have gone and asked other Dartmouth officials, on the record, for responses.  A really good journalist would probably capitalize the personal pronoun “I” as well, even in a blog format article.  Having offered those qualifications, here’s the link:   http://www.businessinsider.com/secrets-of-dartmouth-admissions-office-2012-10#ixzz2nwiWxswn

Amherst
I like Amherst’s supplementals the best of this bunch, so I saved them for last.  I won’t discuss all of them, but there are a couple that I think are worth looking at; here they are, so you don’t have to go back and open another page up:

1) “Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”

Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

This prompt is interesting on a number of levels in its definition of what a good physical scientist is like–that’s what it is, in essence.  And since the topicc is about the workings of the world, human artifacts and ideas like ethics can also be featured in this essay.  I think the best source of inspiration for this prompt that I can give you this late in the game is a podcast from a wonderful radio program, Radiolab–listen to this episode, about the scientist Fritz Haber, who was brilliant, made amazing discoveries, but who also . . . caused great harm.  Showed a certain lack of foresight, of some degree of common sense and personal responsibility.  Here it is:  Fritz Haber.  

In all of the Ivies, there has been some soul-searching due to things like the financial crisis and recent Great Recession–most of the major players in finance responsible for this fiasco came out of the Ivies, the best and the brightest, as it were, and while Professor Jagannathan seems to intend a more specific emphasis on empirical common sense, ethics itself, forseeing the potential outcomes of scientific work, in every sense, is also important.  As the Haber episode I linked shows.  So don’t write an essay focused entirely on some experiment you did; try to have a wider view into which your experiment might fit, a view of how your work might be of wider benefit, of an ethical dimension as well as a practical dimension.

2) “Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He’s the happiest man on earth when he’s performing, but when the show is over, he’s sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my name.”

Ilán Stavans, Professor of Spanish, Amherst College. From “The Writer in Exile: an interview with Ilán Stavans” by Saideh Pakravan for the Fall 1993 issue of The Literary Review.

Well, there’s nothing like reading the interview as a whole to prepare for this question; here it is: Ilan Stavans Talks.

Then you might read my posts on writing about books, some of which are linked in my previous post, on the Princeton prompt.

As for the third prompt for Amherst, I think you could also  look at my post on the Princeton prompts for insight–here is the Amherst prompt:  3) “It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest…unless the graduates of this college…are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion… then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”

John F. Kennedy, at the ground breaking for the Amherst College Frost Library, October 26, 1963

And, to conclude, If you have a Social Justice class, or personal experience with stereotypes and overcoming obstacles, prompts four and five might work for you–notice my excerpt from the interview with the Dartmouth admissions officer, above; he seems to be advising you just to tell your story, if you do have one, without all those autobiographical narrative tricks designed to pump up the suspense and excitement (starting with a dramatic quote or scene, for example).  Straightforward is probably better for those with real drama in their essays.  You might also want to visit some posts I wrote long ago about ways to get prompts like these wrong.  I’ll put those links below the final Amherst prompts; here they are:

4) “Stereotyped beliefs have the power to become self-fulfilling prophesies for behavior.”

Elizabeth Aries, Professor of Psychology, Amherst College. From her book, Men and Women in Interaction: Reconsidering the Difference.

5) “Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals

General Advice/How Not To Blow It On Your College Application Essay

How to Evade the Cliche In Your Application Essay

Evade the Cliche Step 2

How College Applications Are Evaluated

Seven Rules For College Application Success (They Aren’t Really Secrets)

Princeton Essays for 2015-2016: Getting the Job done

In Essay About a Problem, Essay About Culture, Issue of Concern Essay, Princeton Supplement, Woodrow Wilson Essay, Writing an Essay about a Book, Writing an Essay About a Quote on December 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm

This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2014-2015) and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about national problems, essays about ethical matters, essays about culture (and food) and essays about personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  

Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  This is an update to last year’s post on the same prompts, with some new links and other changes to make your essays relevant for this year.  It is also a very long post, because I address all the Princeton prompts in it, in detail, so you might want to scroll down to the one or two prompts that most appeal to you–or you might read the whole post and find an idea you had not yet considered.

If you need editing, contact me soon to guarantee yourself and editing slot:  Editing Services.

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 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 (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Many people are choosing a “second string” Common App essay because of the way some of Princeton’s prompts overlap with the Common App prompts, and because of the very obvious way that the word count requirements fit the Common App this year.  Using an essay you opted not to use is okay only if you think it’s equal in quality to the one you chose or if you can work some more on it to improve it.  If this app matters to you, of course.  If it’s just a lark, don’t sweat it too much.

The rest of this post is for people who want to put in some work to have a great essay.  If that’s you, read on.

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 old Common App, which I discussed over the last two years–you can see my archives, or to save time,   use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, which is in the same topic zone, 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 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 economic 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–just look at the Occupy movement, which morphed into all kinds of weirdness, especially in places like Oakland, as various violent elements like the so called black-maskers and so-called anarchists infiltrated the scene–they were not always the same people– and caused trouble.  Seriously, smacking with a hammer a waiter who’s trying to stop you from breaking the window in the restaurant he works at is not fighting the Man, and the  Eat the Rich slogans do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change.

Anger isn’t a solution, nor are platitudes.   Though anger is necessary to get a movement for change started.   It just has to be channeled into something other than violence.  Ask Nelson Mandela, or Ghandi or Reverend King.  So try to avoid both overt anger and platitudes  if you write about economic justice and social well-being.  And keep in mind that in this country, having a shot at a decent income and quality of life is intertwined with that line you likely  memorized about the pursuit of happiness.

I would add to this that if you are writing about  social and economic justice, you wouldn’t want to appear as if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week.  A sense of commitment should be clear in your essay, and not just clear in the nice things you say. Hopefully you have either a track record in some sort of work or volunteering, and the best thing would be if it were in addition to your required community service hours.

For recent background on economic justice and its history in the last few years, I would start with this month’s fast-food strike, in which workers in hundreds of cities walked out of their jobs or took their day off to ask, en masse, for a living wage.  Start here, for information:  Fast Food Strike.  Then there is the Walmart food drive–for its own employees.  Probably you have heard or read about it, but here’s a decent summary:  Food Drive.  

I must add at this point, that these two items would be nice examples for an essay, but they don’t offer much in the way of solutions to the bigger problems, though I would say that a higher minimum wage would be a good start.  I add that I am aware of the argument for inflationary effects, but many economists see no problem for the greater economy with a national minimum wage somewhere between twelve and fifteen dollars an hour.  I don’t have time to get into the whole we-are-competing-with-the-whole-world/race to the bottom thing in this post, though you might want to bring it up in your own essay.

Did I mention that many fast food workers have trouble getting a second job because  fast food joints–the big corporate ones–expect their workers to work a varying schedule, filling in wherever they are needed in a given week?  Makes it tough to fit a second job in when you can’t schedule time more than a week in advance.

It is also worth looking at the Occupy movement in its early days, for the spirit of the thing and the reasons for anger–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 quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life.

“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”

Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University

Pretty stuffy-sounding phrasing, but this is a great prompt, and not just for people from specific and clear ethnic bacgrounds.  Music, architecture, dance, literature, all the artifacts around us represent culture.  Cars are culture (and also capture the often paradoxical nature of it, the good and the bad:  with the car, independence and mobility, really the entire American way of life, set against urban sprawl, traffic deaths, pollution and climate change.)

Clearly, culture is an enormously   broad subject, so I am going to focus in this post on one area of culture everyone shares:  food. (I’ve already written about books–about writing about books, about books as culture–elsewhere, both in my links for Princeton this year and in other examples in my archive).

Whether your mother (or father–things have changed) makes saurkraut or brews beer or has kimchee fermenting away or simply cooks anything with regularity, you are in touch with culture as food.  Just look at holiday meals, how they are used to  pass on traditions, and not just in the form of recipes.  This is a rich source of personal experience for essays.

I’ll start my links with Roi Choi, who is a pioneer of the new-wave food truck industry, and who recently published a cookbook that is more autobiography than recipes; here’s an interview with him:  L.A Son.  The early part of this interview pretty much shows what I mean about food and culture as Choi talks about kimchi and how his native Korean culture is, for him, rooted in food.

Also roaming the greater L.A. area is one of the great food writers of today, Jonathan Gold, food critic for the L.A. Times and fanatical hunter for cheap and interesting ethnic food.  Here are a couple of appetizers that give a good taste of his writing–pay close attention to his use of detail and the casual but tightly written style he has evolved:

Jonathan Gold on Tacos

Jonathan Gold on Udon

And consider your own family’s food traditions as an expression of culture and get writing.  I recommend starting when you are just a bit peckish, to stimulate your descriptive skills, dining only after the first draft is done.

 

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

1.Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.

“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?”Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.  

This prompt asks for a very personal response.  I am revising this post in the week after the death of Nelson Mandela; though imprisoned when I was in high school and college, he was still a presence in my life, here, in America, and in addition to your own experience, I’ll just add that there is no better model of how to address this prompt than Nelson Mandela.

The book Conversations with Myself is a good introduction to his life, and if you have seen the recent movie, you really should also read this, which shows even more clearly  how he lived the idea of racial equality, moving from his involvement in often violent resistance to apartheid to his stance against revenge and violence when he left prison.  It shows both his incredible will and discipline and his humanity, his quirks and foibles.  A good, quick  introduction to the book and to Mandela’s life is in this review, from The Guardian: Conversations With Myself.  

Princeton Supplement Prompt 5

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.  

Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form, also initiated many of his essays with a quote that conveyed an idea which he would develop throughout the essay, and he would weave in more quotes as he went, so this essay prompt harks back to the beginnings of the form.  Too see some stuff from him, 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,.  Montaigne himself is a great source of quotes.  By the way, if you read an essay, say, today, and really liked it, and could use it, that fits the prompt’s requirement that you have read this in the last three years.  That’s called inspiration and it’s totally authentic, if you do it right.

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 who believe in the idea of economic justice, or even if you think our financial system should be run in a more ethical or simply open and clear way–the article linked here is 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.  Good luck and good writing (and reading).

The Harvard Application Essay for 2013-2014: Back to the Future

In Harvard Application 2013-2014, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Supplement, Harvard Supplemental Essays, Intellectual Experience Essay, Ivy League Application Essays on December 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Or to the past, because Harvard’s prompts are a blast from the past, especially if the past is the old Common Application Prompts.

The prompts that Harvard has up this year are a mix of old Harvard prompts and the prompts that your older friends or siblings wrote for the Common Application if they applied in recent years.   I’ll analyze the prompts separately, in order, right after this message:

Editing Update, 12/26/13:  I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have 1-3 essays that need editing for a final app, contact me by splicing this address into an e-mail, with the heading “editing request” and a brief description of what you need:  wordguild@gmail.com

Final requests taken on Sunday, 12/29/13.  

And now, here is my Harvard analysis: 

1. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Required, 150 word max, Paste in).

150 words is not much space, which reinforces that this “essay” prompt is meant as a chance either to elaborate on material you (hopefully) already listed for them, or to describe an interesting aspect of your life that merited essentially a footnote in your application or that is not visible at all.  Choose wisely, by which I mean, look first for ways to offset weaknesses and next for ways to play up strengths that may be apparent in your application, and choose a topic  that shows a person who truly  is curious instead of a person who is merely trying to look as if he or she is curious .

If you appear to be a stereotypical asocial math and computer whiz, try to find a way to talk about something else–your stats and classes should already show your prowess in these fields, supported by your transcript, so maybe you should talk about your love of windsurfing or (harmless) flash mob organizing.  If you are weaker in math, find a way to offset that–your love of philosophy and logic, through your sideline, studying Zeno’s paradoxes, or perhaps your organizing skills or ability to find your way in the dark without a compass.  Be creative.

It’s fine to repeat things that are prominent on your “resume” so long as you are truly and deeply enthusiastic about the topic you choose.  You can sneak in some other things by showing, for example, how your interest in Topic A lead you to Topic B, the subject of your essay here (or paragraph, probably).

As for essays on work, I wouldn’t necessarily say not to write about your job flipping burgers, but you might want to give it some heft.  Try reading or at least perusing Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed for some ideas on how to add depth to an essay on your fast-food/entry-level side job.  Internships will hopefully also provide fodder for an intellectual experience essay.

Now let’s look at the remaining prompts as a group, with links to topics that can be used to address the prompts:

2. You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics (Optional, 1300 word Max, Paste In) 

Unusual circumstances in your life
– Travel or living experiences in other countries
– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
– How you hope to use your college education
– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months


My first advice is this:  You should, of course, write this extra, “suggested” essay.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard  has for the most part just  rearranged some words  from last year’s  prompts.  The prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate was introduced last year, and is either borrowed from recent Stanford supplements or great minds really do think alike.

This year’s prompt on an intellectual experience was added as a word change to a similar, earlier prompt and  is  much broader than that earlier prompt  on an academic experience, which it replaced in 2012.  Academic limits you to school and maybe that internship or research project you did.  Intellectual does not limit your topics as much. Music, film, rock climbing, almost any serious human endeavor or experience can have an intellectual aspect to it, if you look at it the right way.  Books, of course,  are an ancient source of intellectual experiences and these will be a specific focus in this post.

I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013 that relate to or could be topics for this years prompts.  These posts will help get you started as you generate ideas.

I  address the list of books essay  in a separate post–this essay can take various forms, but avoid just making it a list of book blurbs; find a way to tie the books together, based on some sort of shared idea or other connection.  The posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

My full-package college application clients are all done with their apps, so I will have some space for new editing work from today on through the 28th of December, 2013.  You can e-mail me at wordguild@gmail.com to inquire.  Good luck and Good Writing.