Who should read this post: anybody writing the Princeton supplemental essays for 2017-2018. I discussed the short answers and listing responses in my last post–click here for that–Princeton Supplement 2017-18–then read on below for a complete, annotated discussion of this year’s Princeton essays.
Let us begin with a quick look at the prompts for this year by looking at what changed since last year. There are some notable changes, among them the deletion of the Woodrow Wilson topic–for years, Princeton has used Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” speech as the focus for an essay. Unfortunately, Wilson, former Princeton as well as U.S. president, has, or had some baggage. He was a kind of walking paradox whom some have described as a Progressive Racist–see here for more: Woodrow Wilson’s segregation policy.
If you are wondering why I start my discussion of this year’s prompts with a discussion of the Woodrow Wilson prompt that Princeton just dropped, the answer is simple: the politics of campuses impacts the policies of admissions. And I would point out that the second and third prompts, below, represent a kind of counter to the recent imbroglio over the racial views of Woodrow Wilson, who many students at Princeton would like to see erased from campus.
Does this mean you need to write an essay on race or race relations? Not necessarily–it’s more advice about what I would call atmospherics–keep in mind that our supposedly post-racial country has rediscovered its problem with race as well as with economic inequality, and the disappearance of President Wilson from the prompts roster at Princeton is one sign of that. Also keep in mind the potential pitfalls of writing about disparities and problems of race and money– looking arrogant or paternalistic or simplistic or self righteous as you insert yourself into the problems of others. So if you choose to write about culture or disparities, try to do so without looking like some kind of imperialist in a pith helmet.
Also try not to sound like a reheated version of a ’60’s radical. Times have changed and the problems that remain over time have evolved.
So with that preface, let’s look at the prompts, with my annotations and links.
- Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.–So let’s not write about Woodrow Wilson, even if some aspects of his vision were good and useful–the League of Nations, for example. I have discussed this topic at length in several other posts–the person of influence is a tried-and-true subject–so click here for much more detail on this topic: Writing About a Personal Influence (part 1)
- “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University and co-founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University. Back in the dark old days of ’07-’09 and the years following the Great Recession, inequality was all the rage. Literally. And phenomenon like the Occupy movement aimed right at these problems. Here we are a decade later, and these inequalities have only grown worse (while the banks have grown bigger). You can find interesting commentaries on many aspects of inequality in the U.S. of A, from Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to Coates’ Between the World and Me. I can strongly recommend both, with the warning that writing about topics like poverty and race pretty much demands a preexisting interest in things like politics, sociology and economics, and that you have done some reading outside of class–you know, current events. And reading books like those I link can be useful, but you are writing an essay about a personal concern here, not a book report–or about personal experience. Keep that in mind. The best personal statements have a personal connection, to your experience, interests, and moral sense–as well as to your past involvement. Don’t suddenly become a civil rights advocate or advocate for the poor just in time to write this essay. For some more guidance on how to write about a topic like this, my old post on the service essay for Princeton actually (and perhaps ironically) works well– click to the right and scroll down to find the quote about not being a hand wringer, and read from there.
- “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 and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University. Culture gives everything from a world view to food to ideas about who should wear what on their head and when; it is a kind of agreement about what is real and how to act. And like fish in water, we do not really understand our own culture until we live in another. For many of you, this probably happens every day, as you go from one culture at home to another at school and with friends. This essay is probably the easiest for those who have that kind of experience. On the other hand, as our current president recently argued in Poland, there are a set of ideas that may loosely be described as Western–but I don’t think that the president’s speech actually reflected ideas like empiricism, openness to new ideas . . . free thinking . . . . which I consider hallmarks of Western Civ, at least as ideals for the last four hundred years. Certainly the Western or European culture that arose in Rome and led to the Enlightenment created a set of important ideas, one of them being expressed in the clause, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” Notice how that piece of paper, arising out of the foment of ideas in a culture at a specific time led to a new culture . . . that of the United States. But back to the president’s speech: you don’t have to argue for a war of cultures to describe the influence and nature of your culture.
- 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, title and author at the beginning of your essay. So my first point is that they do not want a book report or even an essay focused on an interpretation of a book–the idea is more to extend an idea from the book into your own experience or view of the world. On the other hand, you should at least give some sense of context to the quote. I have written about this prompt before–it’s been a standard prompt for Princeton for at least seven years–but as the post is long and covers other information, instead of linking it, here’s the part you are interested in: First let me digress yet again, to Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form and who also initiated many of his essays with a quote which conveyed an idea that he would develop throughout the essay. He quoted from classical authors frequently, both to frame his own arguments and to bolster them. Therefore, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays, though I hasten to add that he was sometimes better in theory than in practice–his disappearance to the countryside during an episode of the plague has been questioned by more than a few–but his essays are great and we should, I think, use caution in judging others.
Now to the central problem of this prompt: starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point. And don’t force the book and your experience together. You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way. See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life. Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.
If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are. If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap. An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay. My view is, it depends on what you do with it. Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.
Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs. Be sure not to make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.
The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay. It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes. This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.
I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.
In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you interested in the social and economic problems that led to Occupy, and that in part also fueled our current political fire –it’s a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt. Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing. It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.
Here are two more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500 word essay but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes. Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.
“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going.
Oh, last but definitely not least:
If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.
*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.
This calls for research into your area(s ) of interest, looking not just at majors and classes, but at specific interesting research, at who is doing it, at whether any undergrads are involved, at where you would like to take it. If your ambition is to create the next breakthrough in batteries, you’d want to be looking at what they are doing there at Princeton and who is doing it. A little name dropping of professors and description of projects can be useful here. Even if the research is obviously post-grad, hey–you want to be at the source, in that environment, learning those cutting-edge ideas.
And here’s the deal with this Engineering Supplement to keep in mind: there is an additional supplement for engineers because places like Princeton are getting too many folks who want to be engineers but are, hmm, great test takers, super at math, good at enough other stuff to qualify, but lacking in practical skills–many have hardly ever built anything, having been too busy prepping for college–and also lacking in people skills. So keep that in mind–try to find a way to look engaged, hands-on (as possible), and interested in the welfare of others–which after all, is really what engineering is all about: building bridges both virtual and real and giving the rest of use tools that make our lives better, or even save our lives.
I will be returning to this engineering essay, as well as the Yale and Cornell engineering essays as an example of the tell-us-what-you-are-going-to-do essay pretty soon, so come on back if that fits your goals. NB–This post will be partly behind a paywall, but I will offer some good general advice on this kind of essay in the publicly visible version.