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How to Write the University of Pennsylania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019: Part 1 of a 2-Part Brief

In 5 I's and 4 C's, How to Write About Penn's 5 I's and 4 C's, Ivy League Application Essays, Penn Application Essay, Penn Supplemental Essay, Uncategorized, University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019 on July 20, 2018 at 10:06 am

Back in Blue (and Red): The U Penn prompts are out. Of all the Ivy League applications, UPenn has the most elaborate contextualizing, and their prompts explicitly demand a level of research and personal introspection that is unique, even in the Ivy League.

Yes, Cornell asks you to explore your major and puts up an annotated list for you to study and then do research from, (please note the date and look for this year’s update on these Cornell prompts) and other schools throw up quotes and context that you really should research (Princeton, Harvard, Yale) but Dean Furda, at Penn, has always done more–and asked for more.

This also means that Penn expects more in terms of time and school-specific knowledge. Furda was one of the first college admissions leaders to set up a blog, and he has continued to use it vigorously. The current iteration of Furda’s admission blog is a full-on multi-page website that bears the name Page 217, a title taken from a well-known app essay prompt in which you had to write page 217 of your 300-page biography.

They don’t use that Page 217 prompt anymore, but it does reveal the philosophy of their approach— to think of a biography  required you to think about the direction of yor own life, as well as to fit in something that indicated how Penn would fit in that biography. This Page 217 prompt demanded a sense of where your life was going and implied that you should have a sense of what Penn offers that would help you get to page 217.  This is still the spirit of their essay prompts.

So there needs to be a sense of your past, as well as of your vision for your future, along with a good  understanding of Penn, all rolled into one essay. But today,  Furda has gone way past the creative riffing of the original  Page 217 prompt. He has come up with a framework of things that he wants you to think about as you write an application essay.

This framework starts with his “5 I’s and 4 C’s.” Yep, nine  things to look at right away, involving both introspection (the I’s) and research on Penn (the C’s.)

This is all about Demonstrated Interest, (also known lately by the more scientific-sounding “Interest Quotient”).  Furda has found a way to roll D.I. into application essays. He wants it to be hard to reuse some boilerplate from other essays for the Penn app.  Demonstrated Interest is increasingly important to elite schools, because they have to find a way to choose among the thousands of similar looking 3.9-4.3 GPA students with high SAT/ACT scores, two pages of activities, and who swear their devotion to  . . . . fifteen different schools.  Or more.  If they offer you a seat, they want to have some certainty that you will accept the offer.

To meet their needs and to write a good Penn application for yourself, your essays have to show something about you personally, but also have to show your interest in Penn by dealing with Furda’s uniquely complex framework for writing.  So let’s take a look at it:

The 5 I’s

A very cute idea, the 5 I’s are focused on you.  Yes, in  the country that has made defining yourself a lifelong project, Penn wants you to define yourself now.  I list each of the I’s below, highlight the important buzzwords and phrases and discuss what the prompts are telegraphing in terms of content and focus.   Notice this as you read the explanation by Penn (and my commentary):  in their explanations, the good people at Penn are quite literally suggesting some areas–topics or subtopics–that an essay could focus on.  But before I look at the “I’s” individually, let’s look at the actual essay prompt that the “5 I’s” address:

University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019:

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). The essay should be between 400-650 words.

Basically, the 5 I’s are the focus of the first sentence in this Keeping that prompt in mind, let’s take the 5 I’s one at a time; here they are, with Penn’s explanation, followed by my commentary and analysis; the bold font is mine, to identify key phrases and words:

Identity–To figure out this piece, you must ask yourself who you are as an individual. How do you see yourself and how do you think that others see you? How do you drill into–essentially, unpack–the definition you create for yourself? Forget putting a name to a college now–don’t say I have to get into Penn or any other school. That comes later. Think about who you are without connecting yourself to anything external, such as brands, people, grades, etc. Think about who you are at your core.

The explanation on this one is not super helpful. How can you know yourself  without connecting to anything external?  Of course, their point is that they don’t want you listing accomplishments, etc, but we all define who we are in a relative way by comparison to who and what is around us.    My suggestion:  shrug and return to this one after doing some work on the other I’s, below.  So let’s do that.

Intellect–How Do You Think and Approach the Acquisition of Knowledge?  The explanation here is a bit more helpful.  Again, I highlight the key phrases:

Part of your identity is your intellect. How do you think and how do you take in information? We want to know about your mind. Pretty simple, right? As educators, we know that all students have a unique intellect with different strengths and learning styles. Recognize that your intellect comes into play in a range of activities, not only while you are in class or doing homework. The problem solving skills that you utilize during club meeting, your perseverance during track practice, and the public speaking ability you employ while running for leadership positions are all positive manifestations of an intellect that is alive and growing.

This prompt seems to suggest that one of the more hackneyed topics, student government, could actually work here, but I think something else is better, as the typical high school leadership thing is now just a class, rather than being something you ran for and won.  Something like taking the lead in the robotics club as you redesign your submersible, troubleshooting the design through reading in theory while tweaking various paremeters, persevering as it sinks, malfunctions and swims in circles,  and almost drowns a teammate in the pool with it, and then, after an all-nighter of hands on problem-solving, fixing a leak and tracking down an electrical short while improvising with a butter knife due to   the fact that a teammate left all the philips head screwdrivers at the airport, and delivering your personal Saint Crispin’s Day Speech, at three a.m., as your team was ready to quit,  then winning that Navy competition (or placing third, or even competing at all–hey, it was a miracle your ‘bot even made it into the pool) –that might be better essay. subject.   

My message here is to look at everything you are doing for inspiraiton. It is not just okay to have a bit of overlap with your activities; if an activity is your passion, you actually need more space to talk about it.  Just don’t make your essay a pure recap or list of actities and accomplisments. The example above is probably for a person with engineering in mind, of course.

Note that my summary of a particularly interesting activity, focused on an example, shows a range of things, with hands-on learning, problem-solving skills and leadership. Also notice that if you put it in first person, you would have an essay subtopic of about 185 words, leaving hundreds more available in this Penn essay.

Ideas–We want to know what you think about and why. When you have time to hang out, what are your ideas? What do you think about big issues like global warming? What do you think about local issues right here in your backyard? What are your ideas and what has informed those ideas? Ideas are what make college communities really interesting. When diverse students with unique intellectual paths share their thoughts with one another, it results in a great synergy. Students who work together, crossing traditional academic boundaries, have the potential to make waves in their community and world. So yes, your ideas, even if at this point they don’t seem realistic, can help you get into college. We are interested in the intellectual innovation you will bring to campus. We are interested in your spark.

So this is great: what a wide field of ideas!   But my warning is to beware of the “Beauty Queen” essay, or the “Dude, have you every thought that the entire universe might be, like, an atom on the fingernail of a God” ramble.  Read my link on the Beauty Queen and click around to read more of my posts on the problem essay–the subjects may have changed, but the basic ideas are the same.  Warning:  be sure that these big ideas are things you have connected with at a deeper level than Pinto, in my link above.  The best ideas to discuss are ones that you have not just thought about in your spare time but that you have also done something about in your spare time, even if that just means chasing down more information on the idea.  Assuming you have spare time, of course.

Interests: What do you like to do? What do you like to do when someone is not telling you to do it? What are your hobbies? This is one way that I think about interests: If you could pick up three books or three magazines, what would they be? Sometimes we need to pick books or magazines up because they feed into the courses that we are taking; other times it is a reflection of our natural acclimations*  and interests. You can do the same exercise with films, or museums. When you walk into a museum, what is the first section that you go to? All these things are going to be interesting to you and they’re going to interesting to the community that you are looking to be part of in college. *(I think they meant to say inclinations here.  Hey, it’s a blog, not a dictionary . . . I guess.)

Quite a few schools ask you to write about things you read, mentioning books more often than magazines. However, when you write about books, you may feel you have to fall back on the literary analysis or argument format that you were taught to use in your English class.  This is more a first-person interest essay.  There are ways to work in some level of analysis however, and I have posted advice and analysis on writing about books a number of times–have a look at this as an example: How to Write about Books.   As always, the purpose in writing about books is to show what you are like, not to interpret what the river means in Huckelberry Finn.  So this is a bit like that old-fashioned art of choosing which books to put on the bookshelf in your living room, so that they make a statement about you.

Haven’t had time to do anything but the “required reading?  No time to start like the present, and since you are likely a super-connected post-millenial person, why limit yourself to paper?  There is such a thing as an online magazine or journal.  In the areas of literature, the arts and politics, you  could take a look as sites like n + 1 magazine (comes in printed form as well), or for a more purely literary slant, Tin House. There are, of course, still the old-school but excellent mags on culture, politics and art from the days of paper, like The New Yorker,  Harpers and The Atlantic, or for more political slant, the liberal Mother Jones, which also does quite a bit of investigative journalism, or The National Review for you young (but traditional) Republicans out there.  Breitbart–give it a  pass for this one, unless you are showing how you like to see what the lunatic fringe is thinking.  A couple of hourse of reading and looking around while taking notes can set your foundation as a budding intellectual–no time to start on that like the present.

As for visiting museums, well let’s just say that this really telegraphs more about the person who wrote the prompt than anything else, and conveys the assumption that you live in an urban core with parents who encourage museum-going, or that you are in an upper-middle class suburb, with access to a city, and ditto the parents.  Of course if you do like to visit museums–I have clients who are artists, or into paleontology, or like to visit the Tech Museum, etc, etc–go for it.

Next (and last up for this post):

Inspiration-What really motivates and inspires you? We can sit down for forty-five minutes and you might not be sure how you want to answer this question or you might be thinking too hard about it. But then, there is this point in the conversation where I ask you something and your eyes light up and your arms start to move about. You are inspired; something really moves you. Tap into this power source and build on it.

When in doubt, look at your responses to the I’s above.  If you have not talked about ideas and activities that inspire you above, then you need a do-over on those.  And any discussion of your passion needs to have some concrete stuff that you do to show it.  

As for who you are at the core, same thing:  your passions should tell you that, as should all the other “I’s.”.  But some broad questions may help–are you a thinker?  A doer?  Political or not?  Do you analyze and break down or does your mind leap to an answer?  Do you learn through the physical world or navigate the e-realm more?

Come back soon; I will post again about Penn, this time looking at The Four C’s, which means researching Penn in more detail

Demonstrated Interest, indeed.

You can follow my blog to see when I post on this again, or just contact me for help with college essays.  My editing and essay development is the best in the business.

 

 

 

How to Write a College Application Essay About a Quote in 2018-2019: Part 2

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Miles Davis Essay, Mind that Won't Stick Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, Zen Master Shoitsu on July 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Also known as How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay:  Part 2

I ended my last post by looking at U Chicago, so let’s return to that now.  Here are two of the numerous prompts from Chicago that use a quote:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Let me begin by saying that Master of Jazz Miles Davis is being pretty zen in his quote here.  In fact, Davis is basically presenting a koan to “explain” his art.   But Zen Master Shoitsu is being pretty jazzy–he is, in fact, suggesting  what it takes to be Miles Davis improvising on his horn. (Note:  I know Mr. Davis played the trumpet.  See this if you have any questions:  The Man With the Horn.)

In a recent post, I talked about looking into the background of prompts.  My statements here  relate to the deeper story that each quote tells–to their background.  Knowing about both of them–about something the Tao of Davis and the Way of Shoitsu–allowed me to connect them. Your essay does not need to connect them, of course, though Chicago does like a little improv, and they do offer you the opportunity to make up your own prompt, which could involve combining these two.  But to do that, you would have to know some things.

Of course, you could just riff on either quote without even knowing, for example,  what instrument Miles Davis played, or even what jazz is, and if the essay is good, who needs background?  Whatever great thing rises up without the interference of the stuck mind is fine with the University of Chicago, and with the universe as well.

But here is the thing:  that is hard to do.  It’s hard to improvise without knowing  what you are improvising  from or about or for.  And while you need and are searching for a starting point for a college application essay, your mind is already stuck, and filled with noise, due to your desire to get into college, but also due to what you have been taught an essay is and should do, by all the essays you have written for school, which have done little to help you deal with these two prompts.

It’s kind of a zen experiment in itself:   The fact that you are writing to an elite and highly selective college suggests that you are already  in a race for achievement. You are trapped by the past and by your fears of the future. Which creates a Mind that Sticks.

The purpose of the college application essay makes students get stuck in trying to write about not being stuck as they show off how flexible and yet full their minds are.  These students talk about how they were studying or working on A, then started reading B, then lost themselves in C.  They go on to list all the great things they have learned by being an autodidact or by simply being constantly distracted by curiosity, claiming that this is what it means to have an unstuck mind.  But they end up with a blatant list of activities and things they have likely not really read all of, or read at all.    Trying to separate themselves from the crowd by showing how much they know, how far they’ll go.

It’s almost a koan:  Bragging while not bragging about it!  Very Zen!

Not.  This is a stuck mind.  And a laundry list of activities doth not make a good essay on Mind that Does not Stick.  Mind that does not stick is relaxed and flowing, not worried about outcomes.

What to do?  Think about what makes you flow.  Look at the two prompts I selected.  Ask this:  what is Miles Davis thinking  when he is playing?  He is thinking, but he is also . . . in the music, moving with it while shaping it.  Not thinking in the normal sense of wondering what will be for dinner (or breakfast–late nights for musicians and all).  He is not wondering if he left his oven on.  He is not checking the clock to see if class is over.

No, he would mess up his playing if he started thinking in that sense.  So would you.  One way to hear what is not there is by not being trapped by thought and expectation.  In this case, what should be played next is not what Miles Davis played.  But once he played the next note, it was right (Okay not all the time, but most of the time).  He was absorbed in the moment, one with the music.

Likely you have had similar experiences, in which you lose track of time, are one with your activity.  Which means that you, too, have experienced an aspect of unstuck mind.  Maybe that is your topic.  What makes you lose yourself.  What makes you lose expectations to hear what others do not hear. Very . . . Zen

Speaking of Zen, let’s take a look at it and at Zen master, Shoitsu.  (Warning:  This is dangerous.  Many people talk about Zen, but almost nobody knows what they are talking about.  Because, first of all, you cannot really talk about it to get it.  You have to experience it. Which is obviously a problem for anybody, but especially for you, because, well, you are just trying to write a college essay and that has a deadline that is in a few months, unlike enlightenment.  But this prompt caught your eye.  So we will try).

Here goes:  It is common to oversimplify so-called Asian philosophy and religion, particularly in making broad generalizations that stand in contrast to what is supposedly the Western style of thinking.  But there are some aspects of Zen which are broadly shared with other traditions, and knowing something about them  can help you understand where Master Shoitsu is coming from.

In Zen, and in aspects of other eastern meditative traditions, like Taoism, the thinking mind is not really the thing.  In fact, it is fundamentally an illusion.  Here is why: We look out at the world from a particular perspective, shaped by experience and by desire, but most of what we do is: not see.   This is true for a range of reasons, mostly involved with wanting things and suffering–and we suffer mostly because we want things we cannot have or do not have at the moment.  And in this process, as we think, we constantly judge what we see in order to try to avoid what we do not like or want and to get what we do like or want.  Desire, then, drives us and blinds us.

That’s pretty much it.  But this is also pretty hard to know.  You just read what I wrote above, but you cannot know without experiencing the loss of that thinking or ego self.  Which is where the meditative tradition of a guy like Master Shoitsu comes in.  These

Zen guys were and are hard core–sit there and breathe (and do a bunch of other work with total concentration and other stuff, like giving up things you do not need, etc, et al) and eventually insight and maybe even enlightenment might happen.  Through a full-on confrontation with the ego over a long time.  Check out Bodhidharma, for how hard-core zen practice is.  (Note:  one story has Bodhidharma staring a hole in the side of the cave during that nine [or ten] year meditation described in the linked page).

So Zen Master Shoitsu is  pointing out that your mind is basically a kind of construct, a filter gone rigid over time as it sorts events into categories such as like and dislike to the point that it is always stuck (Yes, that subtext is aimed at social media categorizing.  Wait, Zen Mind vs. Social media?  A topic?  Could be . . . ).  The mind is not really seeing reality because it is too busy processing, seeking advantage, driven by emotions like anger that are the product of habit–notice when you have “knee jerk” reactions of anger due to old experiences.  That, my friends is stuck.

Yes it is also a deep part of the mechanisms that keep you alive, but there you are: wanting.

Wow, that went deep, fast.  For more background on Master Shoitsu and Zen emptiness, check these links out:

What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Instructions of Master Shoitsu

For Miles Davis hearing what others do not, try this: Miles Beyond

And for your essay, if nothing else works , but you like these quotes, and you want to go with the spirit of either quote, you want to think about what absorbs you utterly, what makes you flow with whatever you are doing.

Or just riff on one.  Have fun and ignore all my advice on using background.  Give it a whirl, as I did here, just goofing  an introduction to see what would happen–

Zen Master Shoitsu’s words on being unstuck fascinate me as a physics problem.  In a similar way, some time back, I was trying to work out the problem posed by that famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I embarked on a series of physical experiments to explore this question, but all I ended up doing was getting cramps from squeezing my hand a lot–though at one point I did slap myself as well.  That definitely made a sound, but my findings on clapping one hand were inconclusive. 

However, this is the spirit I try to bring to every question that  me:  rigorous but joyous experimentation.  Full on engagement.

This started at a young age as I attempted to build Leonardo’s Flying Machine in my garage, but was apprehended by my dad as I tried to haul it up the ladder to the roof.  It has continued as I  . . . . . etc etc etc.  Etc.  

Notice the way I use an interesting intro to set up a discussion that would follow the etc etc to show things about you that need emphasis.  Notice also that humor is a good thing, or it can be if it us handled well.  And since U Chicago wants edgy,  feed that desire . . .

Time to wrap this post up.  If you were looking for a lot more clear explanation about what to put and where to put it in an essay, you are kind of missing the point of both quotes.  Try some essay experiments, without being attached to them, and see what happens.

And follow my blog as I continue to post on essay prompts and related topics . . . Or if you need help from a Zen Master of Editing, Contact Me.

Writing an Essay About a Quote for Your 2018-2019 College Application

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 11, 2018 at 11:40 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to the Ivy League, or anyplace else that asks you to respond to a prompt that uses a quote or that asks you to use a quote.

My usual advice when asked about using a quote to start a college application essay is pretty simple:  Try something else–unless there is a really good reason, like the prompt using a quote, asking for a quote, or presenting a subject that includes quotes–such as your favorite book.

My main reason for being wary of the quote opener in a college essay is also pretty simple:  in order to prompt high school students to get an essay started, many teachers ask students to use a quote when starting an essay, or a question.  That makes the quote opener–and the question intro–overused and prone to cliche.  And given the way that most “quote” essays use the quote like you might use the word “squirrel” to divert the attention of a dog–as a kind of noise to get things moving in a particular direction, in other words–quotes are often a poor way to initiate a college application essay.  But not always, and in some cases, using a quote is a requirement of the prompt.

So there are exceptions to this rule, and many great essays have used quotes to get started and to develop ideas.  In fact, the gentleman who invented the essay as a form, Michel de Montaigne, used quotes all over his “little attempts” or “essais;”  I have never been bored by Montaigne and dozens of his essays are truly great.    Of course, these “essais”  also run from a few pages to a couple score of pages, and they were not written for college admissions.  Some of his techniques will not work, but I have some techniques and ideas below that have worked.

These techniques will come in handy this year, for there are already some important universities that ask you to write to or about a quote in your application.  Among the current year’s  releases as of early July, 2018, Dartmouth has multiple quote prompts, as does the University of Chicago.   Princeton had quote prompts last year, and I  expect them to do so again this year, so  I will be taking  a  look at the Princeton  prompts soon.  You can have a look at last year’s Princeton prompts, in last year’s main post about the quote essay, but hold off  on writing an essay for Princeton until they confirm for the 2018/2019 season, which usually happens in the last week of July–they may change one or more and it’s not worth writing until you know, though it’s not a bad idea to have a look at the old prompts and let your mind work on it a bit while you tend to other things.

Let’s take a look at the basic types of quote essays, then have a look at our first example for this year and some ideas about how to attack the prompt:

Three types of Quote Essays

There are three basic ways that colleges can ask you to write about a quote:

They throw a quote at you and ask you to respond to it;

They ask you to choose a quote to talk about;

Or, less directly, they ask you to talk about something that will allow you to use a quote, like a book or a film.

One of the main problems in writing about a quote prompt is establishing some kind of frame for what you want to do.  What do I mean?

Know the Background of the Quote

Well let’s look at what you might not or definitely do not want to do:  write about a quote in such a way that you actually contradict the quote unintentionally and, well, make a fool out of yourself and fall victim to ultracrepidarian syndrome.  Think of that stuffy and rigid person you know who is always full of opinions, especially when they are wrong, and can go on at length about something they know nothing about.  Because most of the quotes used by the universities are presented without much context, you have an open invitation to becoming a card-carrying ultracrepidarian if you do not approach the quote in a skillful way.

Many prompts are intended not to have much context, and the reasons for this vary.  A place like the University of Chicago is  interested in how inventive you can be in responding to a quote, and is not  interested in seeing a research paper,  and in fact some really great essays take off from a quote in totally idiosyncratic or non-sequitur ways that end up having little to do with the original intent of the quote, but that do produce an entertaining and effective essay.  Other quotes, like that used by Dartmouth, beg for some background research.

But even if you decide to write a non-sequitur essay, in which you  goof around with a quote to show your innovative mind, you still need to have some understanding of the quote to find a starting point, in my opinion.   How can you make a joke or satirize something or riff on it if you do not know what it is?  So knowing something about the background of a quote is useful, especially if you want to cleverly subvert expectations.

One of the best recent public examples of people quoting foolishly and widely in public involves Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which a character says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”   Quite a few people, some of them very highly placed in government and elsewhere, have been using this quote as  evidence for the idea of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, as Vice President Mike Pence did, or just in defense of fences in general.

There’s just one problem with that:  the poem is not, in fact, in favor of fences or of walls  Instead, it offers a subversive and ironic take on walls–and fences–questioning them, not promoting them.  Before I show you that,   here is another particularly dim example of this quote, used out of context, to make the problem clear:  Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

Sure, this is marketing, really, but so is your college application essay, and if you were to upload something like this  as an essay response using a quote you like, I can pretty much guarantee that you would find the college gates shut, with  you outside the walls when admissions offers arrive.  Application readers know something about the quotes they present to you, and are generally well-read people who know about a wide range of quotes you might use.  This means that they usually know when somebody is totally clueless, as in the examples above.   Regardless of your politics, misusing a quote like that from  “Mending Wall” is a no-no.  Let’s just say the standards for application essays are higher than for political speech, these days.

If on the other hand, you were intentionally misusing the quote, great.  But be sure to give the reader clear clues to your clever and satirical or humorous intent.  At the bottom of this post, I offer a full analysis of “Mending Wall” and more links to clarify just how badly this quote has been used, but let’s jump to this year’s quote essays.

How to Write Short Responses and Essays on Quote Topics

For an example of how to look at a couple of quotes and learn some background, I will take a short response first, in which Dartmouth asks you to respond to a quote:

 

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

What to do?  You might start talking about wanting a small college, or profess your love for Dartmouth, or even recall the story “The Devil  and Daniel Webster” and discuss what  slick talker that Mr. Webster was.

Better, of course, would be to talk about the program you are interested in by doing some research, as this short prompt clearly wants you to show some knowledge of Dartmouth and why it fits you, or you fit it.  I discussed researching your university and the essay on why you are a fit in a recent post: The “Why Us” Essay.

But it helps to know something about Daniel Webster and this case, as the quote, and the prompt, says something clear–but only to those who know the background of the quote.  To begin with, the quote they use is specifically from a court case that shaped the contract clause and defined contract law in the U.S.   The court case is described on Wikipedia here: Dartmouth College v. Woodward.

In addition, this quote is prominent on the Dartmouth website.  Here is how this quote appears on Dartmouth’s website, summing up their own history:

 The charter establishing Dartmouth—the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States—was signed in 1769, by John Wentworth, the Royal Governor of New Hampshire, establishing an institution to offer “the best means of education.” For nearly 250 years, Dartmouth has done that and more.

Dartmouth’s founder, the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans. Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and one of Wheelock’s first students, was instrumental in raising the funds necessary to found the College. In 1972—the same year the College became coeducational—Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country. With nearly 1,000 alumni, there are now more Native graduates of Dartmouth than of all other Ivy League institutions combined.

Governor Wentworth provided the land that would become Dartmouth’s picturesque 269-acre campus on the banks of the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire and Vermont. The College’s natural beauty was not lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who visited in 1953 and remarked, “This is what a college should look like.”

‘THERE ARE THOSE WHO LOVE IT’

Dartmouth was the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1819, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, in which the College prevailed against the State of New Hampshire, which sought to amend Dartmouth’s charter. The case is considered to be one of the most important and formative documents in United States constitutional history, strengthening the Constitution’s contract clause and thereby paving the way for American private institutions to conduct their affairs in accordance with their charters and without interference from the state.

Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, passionately argued for the original contract to be preserved. “It is … a small college,” he said, “and yet there are those who love it.”

The underlining is mine.  Notice that this short history also implies an ethos, and that ethos includes a multiethnic approach to education–Who knew that Dartmouth’s original purpose included a mission to educate Native Americans?

Of course, that may not be as P.C. as it sounds, once you think about it, but leaving aside the questions that raises for now–that matter of genocide as European and then U.S. settlers moved west, not the mention the paternalistic view that a European education was necessary to elevate a native, etc–there is an obvious intent to show Dartmouth as educating all, and as multiethnic.  Then there is an emphasis on the right to pursue the mission of education free of interferance.  And there is a layer of American legal history.  So all of that lies in the quote, and in this, Dartmouth is presenting a sense of its values and purpose–always consider the audience you are writing to, which here is offering you some ideas about how they see themselves..

Yet all of that information may only yield one or two sentences in your short response–remember, you only have 100 words for this one.   But those sentences could be telling.  Showing that you know some background on Dartmouth beyond, oh, the fact that they have a good prelaw track is a plus.  Being  specific and knowing detailed information about your target school, and target audience, is a plus.  This allows you to tailor your response in a way that reflects you and the school, and so shows a good “fit.”  For example:

Centuries before CRISPR, Dartmouth altered the legal D.N.A. of the United States as Daniel Webster defended and won academic and institutional freedom for Dartmouth, his “small college. ” I believe in the values that Dartmouth established generations ahead of the rest of the country when it offered education to native Americans like Samuel Occom,  and I hope to  pursue a degree in x, in a prelaw program, preparing for a career in  y, by working with professors like Z Z in programs like X X,  and learning about YY from  a professor such as A A.

(Note that this example is a few words under the 100 word maximum, and that it also required research into some programs at Dartmouth, as discussed in that post I linked above, and was written by a person with clear goals–all of which will help an application.  And yes, the letters denote name variables for programs and instructors.  This is meant to be farily generic.)

In my next post, I will move  on to a more pure quote essay prompt, this one from the University of Chicago.  Chicago throws six new prompts out there this year, along with a “make up your own” prompt, but then goes on to recycle old prompts, which include at least four that count as quote prompts.  A couple have caught my eye:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Here is my first idea on these:  they both look pretty Zen to me.

You will know when I post on these if you follow my blog.  In the meantime, keep a notebook or phone handy to jot or type ideas as they come.  The creative mind tends to let an idea surface at unexpected times, whether it is for a topic or a great word, or a sentence–but they can easily evaporate.  It’s kind of like that dream you remembered when you woke but forgot by the time you finished breakfast.  Write it down when it appears. 

For those needing a little more evidence that you should not take the quote  “Good fences make good neighbors” as literal truth, take the time to read the poem that is the source of the quote, you will see that the neighbor who advocates fences is portrayed as a dark character, filled with latent violence,  and is directly compared to a  cave man, “an old stone savage” who carries rocks to the wall like some head hunter returning with the skulls of those he has killed.  Throughout  the poem, the narrator argues against his neighbor, questions why they are rebuilding the wall, mocks the idea by wondering if   the neighbor fears that his apple orchard is going to invade the pine trees on the other side, and suggests that we should be careful when building walls–or fences–that we should pay attention to what we many be fencing out–and in.  The poem is highly ironic, but its purpose is clearly to question the reason for fences and walls, not to promote them, and the wall here is linked with fear and violence. In an additional irony, the reluctant narrator and his neighbor are repairing a stone wall, not a fence. 

Here is a more detailed discussion of the poem, as well as of Pence’s misuse of the quote, with some good insights on ambiguity, which is often the way the world is, and which good essayists understand:  D.T. Should Read R.F.’s “Mending Wall.

See you soon.

 

How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay for 2018-2019, Part 1: The New Word Essay

In Making Up a Word Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 9, 2018 at 11:14 am

Also known as the essay for students who wish to absquatulate to the University of Chicago, or if you prefer, to skedaddle, or  for those who are in a real hurry, to skidoo.  

Always suckers for a punny response and for innovation, the University of Chicago is taking aim directly at your ability to innovate this year:  not only can you make up your own essay prompt for the 2018-2019 application, you can also choose to write an essay in which you make up your own word, as shown in the prompt:

University of Chicago Essay Option 3

The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

Some Rules for Neologisms

So first, let’s get our tools in order here, which in this case means let’s look at a few useful words about words.

What you are being asked to do is to create a neologism, which means to create a new word, and therefore some kind of new idea–so start by looking around to see what new things need a new word, or what old things seem to have mutated in such a way that a new word is in order to describe the new strangeness.

This brings up a second term, etymology,  which is the history and usage of a word, or if you will, the biography of a word.  Yes, words have lives–they are born, they live, and if they do not die they do fade away.  So think of your new word as being alive, and think of your essay as explaining the birth and life of your word.

Here, for example, is the etymology of floccinaucinihilipilification:

“action or habit of estimating as worthless,” in popular smarty-pants use from c. 1963; attested 1741 (in a letter by William Shenstone, published 1769), a combination of four Latin words (floccinaucinihilipilifi) all signifying “at a small price” or “for nothing,” which appeared together in a rule of the well-known Eton Latin Grammar + Latin-derived suffix -fication “making, causing.”

[F]or whatever the world might esteem in poor Somervile, I really find, upon critical enquiry, that Iloved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money. [Shenstone, letter, 1741]

The kind of jocular formation that was possible among educated men in Britain in those days. Just so, as in praesenti, the opening words of mnemonic lines on conjugation in Lilley’s 16c. Latin grammar, could stand alone as late as 19c. and be understood to mean “rudiments of Latin.” The entry above comes to us courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which for me is worth ten Wikipedias).  

Obviously, Chicago is revivifying an old and obscure word in citing floccinaucinihilipilification  (Notice that the word is composed of a series of Latin words used as a repetitive root that basically restates the same meaning, followed by the suffix ification, so a certain amount of nonsense is clearly okay when making up a new word, as long as the nonsense in your word is aimed at skewering some real nonsense out in the world.  

This alone should give you some ideas about how to proceed, among them the careful selection of an existing word or set of words which you then combine and add prefixes and suffixes to, as needed for effect. You could start our search by going to the Online Dictionary of Etymology to look up the suffix just mentioned (ification) and then just click around  to find ideas, notebook at hand:  Etymology and Examples of ification.

Why We Make Up Words

People make up new words in order to describe new realities or situations and/or because making up words is fun.  Just look at the etymologies for the words I started this post with to get an idea of how new situations and the need for fun can promote linguistic creativity:  skedaddle, absquatulate.

Being in the midst of the Civil War and wishing to be elsewhere, plus the long periods of boredom between battle promoted the invention of many words, it seems, though there was also a fad through much of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for coining new words using Latinate roots, because they sound great and meaningful while conveying silly or lightweight ideas, mostly.   Some of these 19th-Century neologisms live on, partly because they capture an idea well, but also because of the way they sound.  Bloviate  is an example, which conveys what it means partly by how it sounds.  So sound really does matter.  Say it out loud after you coin it to see if it passes the fun sound test.

What New Situations Need New Words Today?

Your new word should also, hopefully, describe something you see going on that, as of yet, has no single word or simple phrase to describe it.  As an example of a word that was created to describe a new situation, you can look at the idea of “buggy” software or a “computer bug,”  though the source of “bug” as a word for a technical problem is actually quite a bit older than that, as shown in this OED blog entry:  Buggy

When we are not making up words for new situations, we often simply borrow them from other languages, either directly or by slightly repurposing them, as can be seen in words like monsoon and tsunami (extended discussion here), so you should also consider looking at foreign languages for ideas–but do not simply borrow the word straight from the other language, lest you offer your frenemies an opportunity for schadenfreude when your application is turned down for lack of originality.

If you find an interesting foreign word, tinker with it a bit.  For example, if you take a noticeable stand against certain public figures these days, say on Twitter, you might face a Trollnami of attack Tweets.

Which brings up some additional advice:  I thought I was pretty clever in coming up with trollnami,  until I did a search and found multiple examples, and saw that trollnami already has its own hashtag on Twitter.

So back to the drawing board, but this does show you one of the elements of making a new word: it has to define a current phenomenon that does not yet have its own name, and the armies of trolls on platforms like Twitter is a reality that is creating new words.

If we ditch tsunami and look for some other words to combine to describe a situation that is new, we could come up with  Donaldangst, something that is plaguing some of my acquaintances, and many I know are upset by the Ubersqualidification of our culture due to social media (mis) use.  These last two neologisms use German word parts–one a root word, the other a prefix, so I will now point you to one of my favorite word books:  

Schottenfreude is a book in the spirit of this U Chicago prompt, in which a British man who speaks no German makes up fantastic new Teutonic words, like Schlagerschmeichelei, which means enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated, or Eisenbahnscheinbewegung, which denotes the false sensation of movement when, looking our from a stationary train, you see another train depart.  

For more ideas from this book, go here: Shottendfreude Op Art, and if you like that, support the arts, and buy the book:  Schottenfreude.

For some more inspiration in fearful times, as well as a supplemental discussion on making up words, have a look at the word of the month for June, 2018, from the Oxford English Dictionary:  Trepidatious.

The OED also has a blog that discusses neologisms and has basics on word roots, prefixes and suffixes–a good place to scan for ideas.

This ends my first post focused fully on writing the 2018-2019 University of Chicago application essay.  I will write about U Chicago again soon, and have written about them frequently in the past, as in this example. so come back soon.  You might also want to follow my blog as I continue to post on various essay prompts for 2018-2019, and if you need editing assistance on college essays, I offer highly detailed editing at a great price–you can find me here:  Contact Me.

 

How to Write the Yale Supplemental Essays for 2018-2019 (And a bonus look at the Dartmouth Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019)

In Community Essay, Problem Essay, Uncategorized, Yale Application Essay 2018-2019, Yale Supplemental Essay on July 6, 2018 at 11:59 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to Yale or Dartmouth and anybody who needs to write about community or about a problem that needs solving.  In my previous post, I discussed sorting prompts into categories in order to save time by creating reusable essays, or at least some reusable language.  To summarize the basic point, many prompts have overlapping topics that allow you to reuse material, which saves time and suffering.  In that spirit, this post will focus on connections between the Yale and Dartmouth prompts for 2018-2019.  For a link to  a discussion on how to write about a problem, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Background to This Year’s Yale and Dartmouth Prompts:

No doubt if you are reading this, you have already visited the Yale and perhaps the Dartmouth site, and seen this year’s application essay prompts.  Yale and Dartmouth have both launched their essay prompts ahead of their Ivy League peers, as well as Stanford, a move that suggests they are interested in seeing the effects on their application numbers.

Yes, the others have essay prompts up, but they are last year’s prompts, and even though little change is expected for essay prompts this year, I advise that you wait until each school’s prompts  are officially released for this year before you write an essay, so that you do not find that your topic has disappeared.  It have seen this happen.

The reason for the early launch by two Ivies is  easier to guess than, say, why Amazon is changing the prices of product x or y at Whole Foods:  Yale and Dartmouth want a boost in applications this year, by getting the work-intensive part of their applications up early.  Yale has often been a bit tardy in getting their essays out, so it is even more noticeable, at least to me (I do pay attention to this stuff, after all.  It’s my job).

For more on last year’s Ivy League application data, as well as a bit on Stanford, have a look at my recent post on early versus late applications, here:  Ivy League and Stanford Application Data for 2017-2018.

So why would Yale get out there to stir it up and boost numbers?  In my opinion?

There have been identity issues in the Ivies, and there has been some discussion of Yale’s brand slightly declining against those of its immediate peers due to a perception that it is not “STEM-y” enough.  Yale also sends a high percentage of grads into the financial industry in New York, which is a pure blessing for its alumni donations, but a mixed blessing reputationally.  Or maybe those folks in  Yale admissions have just been drinking a lot of double espressos (on ice, given the weather of late) and are operating at a hyper-caffeinated pace.   There is further evidence of another intent within the Yale prompts that is perhaps related to reputation, however, as well as to the kind of student the most elite schools have been working with.

Yet it is not like Yale is the only school struggling with some identity issues.  Harvard had a notorious cheating scandal–and you can see these institutions dealing with their own paradox:  it is so hard to get into most Ivies that some people will do almost anything to get admitted, and some continue their anything-goes-to-get-my-grades habits during their college years.  These things  may explain why so many essays this year can be sorted into the “community involvement” or “do good for humanity” category.

Yale, for example,  has three supplemental essay prompts, but two of them are really about being part of a community.   Note, by the way, that this makes a total of three essays for one Yale application (the Common App 650 or the Coalition App essay, then two of the three supplementals).

And what does Dartmouth have as a supplemental prompt?  Three of the five options are in some sense about being part of a larger community or purpose.  Of course, Dartmouth had its own cheating scandal, in an ethics class, no less.   Satirists take note.  The messaging  in the choice of prompts that the schools are choosing is clear.  Have a look at the Boy Scout Oath if you have any further questions.

Yale and Dartmouth Essay Prompts for 2018-2019

To save you the effort of toggling between windows, here are the supplementals for Yale, followed by a brief analysis, then Dartmouth:

Yale

After a series of short responses with an emphasis on academics, Yale presents this:

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application will select from the following topics:

  • Think about an idea or topic that has been intellectually exciting for you. Why are you drawn to it?
  • Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community?
  • Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international importance. Discuss an issue that is significant to you and how your college experience might help you address it.

Applicants submitting the Common Application: Please choose two of the topics above and respond to each in 250 words or fewer. (The bold print here is mine)

Let me point out why I sort two of these essays into the same basic category:  Both the community essay, which is the second option, and the significant issue essay, the third option are about engagement with the greater world.

Please notice as well that, when you begin to talk about being part of a community, it may involve things like food and music and family and geography, but it also tends to involve specific challenges–all communities have to be maintained and all communities face problems.  A quick look at our politics shows you that, whether we are talking about decaying mining communities in the Appalachian region or immigrant communities in Oakland:  place, music, food, all the elements of culture are there, but so are a specific set of problems that define the communities.

I do have something for you to consider as a counter-zeitgeist move, though–instead of talking about what it means to be part of some sub-group, is it possible to talk about what it means to be American?  Is that a community anymore?

I am asking this seriously.  I heard a teacher from a highly diverse high school interviewed recently, and he observed that his non-anglo students did not identify with the term “American,” seeing it as a code word for “white”.  So one thing I might challenge you all to think about his what means to be “American” today.  I qualify that as well, by pointing out that, in South America, people tend also to think about themselves as “Americans” in some sense, as this link will show you: “What Does American Actually Mean?”

I also point out that the question of community identity is behind many of the troubled headlines today–tied to the fear of the Other.   (What else is the fear of migrants in, say, Bavaria, when you look at it?  Well that and manipulation by fear-mongering demagogues, which might also be a topic for this year, if you have been paying close attention and can avoid writing a rant.   For the record, for those of you who read the article linked here, I have been to Duisburg and Berlin and did not see the rampant crime claimed by certain Bayerisch politicians.  Felt safer in both places, in fact, than I have in more than a few American cities).

This fear of others is a world-wide phenomenon now, not just an American problem.  Just beware of preaching or going off as if this were a class discussion in Civics or history.   And please note  that this kind of problem or community essay needs to have a strongly personal foundation in  you, your family, your sense of place within a community or within a term like “American,” and that none of these topics ask you to sermonize.

As an addendum to this short discussion I can also suggest that you listen to a short essay by the great linguist Geoffrey Nunberg–words and identity are inseparable, and Nunberg talks about tribalism as his word of the year for 2017 (which involves both a problem and deals with what community is) here.

 

Everything he said in 2017 seems totally relevant now.  He has a lot to say about related topics if you keep clicking.

If you have an appealing or interesting personal and family history, that also has a place in this kind of essay, but of course you may have crossed that box off already for your Common App or Coalition main essay.

Dartmouth Supplemental Essays

Here they are:

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

B. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.

C. “You can’t use up creativity,” Maya Angelou mused. “The more you use, the more you have.” Share a creative moment or impulse—in any form—that inspired creativity in your life.

D. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

E. In The Bingo Palace, author Louise Erdrich, Class of 1976, writes, “…no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” Discuss.

F. Emmy and Grammy winner Donald Glover is a 21st century Renaissance man—an actor, comedian, writer, director, producer, singer, songwriter, rapper, and DJ. And yet the versatile storyteller and performer recently told an interviewer, “The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet.” Can you relate?

So let’s sort these as well:  Prompt 1, the short response, is clearly of the “Why Us” variety which I discussed in my previous post. It is also really  short, so look closely at a few programs/aspects of Dartmouth that appeal and good luck.

Prompt 2 has a clear “problem” essay in Dbut this problem also implicitly demands a degree of awareness and engagement with the larger world.  So, a community aspect, define that as you will by the problem you want to address (and those you therefore want to help).  Again, watch the preaching.

As for community prompts here, that starts with B–history, legend, tradition are all community things.  Sure, it is about you, but it is about what has been transmitted to you and what you are part of.

Prompt E is also in about connecting to somebody else, whether because they are an outsider, or as part of just connecting, to which I add that some sense of shared connection, some sense of empathy  is always what underlies a community.    (Warning for this essay:  Beware of a Kumbaya overdose, for which the antidote is a good sense of humor).

And finally, Danny Glover in E.  Maybe what Glover was thinking about that does not exist is just being a person in America, without all that other stuff he often talks about as a comedian, like always having a hyphen attached to his identity, or what one has to do while black in America.  Think about what it would be like to have an America where that did not happen and Danny Glover was not an “African-American” comedian, but instead was just an American comedian.  Or just a great comedian.

Before I leave, I have written about the Problem Essay long ago.  Some topics not have changed  much, which says a lot.

If time allows, I will discuss problem essays at more length in the coming weeks.  But hey, when Yale gets its application prompts out this early, I may be busy pretty soon.  Speaking of which, if you are seeking editing help, Contact Me sooner rather than later, as my book will start to fill up soon.

 

 

 

 

And They’re Off: College Essay Season Has Begun

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Cornell University Application Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Ivy League Application Essays, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Southern California Supplemental Essay, University of Wisconisn, Yale Application Essay 2018-2019 on July 6, 2018 at 12:28 am

Some of the major super-selective colleges and a range of other solid schools have already released their essay prompts for 2018-2019, and the Common Application and Coalition portals have had their prompts out for months, which means it’s time to get started on those college essays.

(Momentary pause for sinking feeling and/or butterflies).

Not ready to write?  Then how about some sorting?

I do encourage my clients to get writing by giving one of the Common Application prompts a go, but if you are stuck and can’t get that started, or you already have a draft for a main essay like the Common or Coalition Apps well on its way, the next thing you need to do is have a look at a range of target-school essay prompts and start doing some categorizing.

After all, you are likely to apply to ten colleges, in some cases twenty, and one way to save a lot of work is to compare essay prompts, looking for ways to overlap essays and, when possible, to reuse essays.

Yes, essay polygamy is the name of the game if you are doing more than five or six apps, which most of you are, and in this case, polygamy is totally legal.    (Just don’t forget to change the college names if/when you do reuse an essay, by doing search all for the last college’s name and changing it to the current college.  Telling Brown they are your one and only in an essay that you are reusing from Princeton, and in which you forget to swap Princeton out for Brown . . . yes, that is usually a deal breaker.  Think it cannot happen?  Listen to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech . . . by clicking here.  It will take a few 2.5 minutes to get to Rick himself, and a couple of minutes to get to those who don’t proofread . . . ) .

How the University of Chicago Essay Prompt is Like (Almost) Everybody Else’s Including Yale, Northwestern, Indiana, Tulane, Cornell, Etc, Et Al.

To kick off our research on essays, let’s start with a place that prides itself on its weirdness, at least when it comes to application essays:  The University of Chicago.

Sure, for U Chicago this year, you have many options: you can write an alternate universe/speculative essay in which you are onboard a 13th-Century ship that suddenly sails off the edge of the world, or you can write an essay in which you consider the world from the point of view of a Mantis Shrimp, but the opening question for Chicago, which all applicants must respond to is this:

Question 1 (Required)

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Despite Chicago’s well-cultivated reputation for nonconformity, their Question 1 actually conforms pretty well to  prompts used at hundreds of universities, including, so far this year,  Yale, Dartmouth, Northwestern, U-Texas Austin, Tulane, Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana.  Some ask for an essay on this in longer form, some want a shorter response in the 100 to 250-word range, but this kind of prompt shows up pretty often–call it the “Why Us” question, or the “What are You Planning To Do Here” question, and whether it says this or not, this “Tell Us What You Want to Study Here and What You Want To Do With That Knowledge”  is always a two-part question.

One part is about you.  The other part is about the university.  Many applicants forget that, and either talk at length about themselves, showing no due diligence in researching the college itself, or they talk about the college without showing how they fit in–no school needs you to give it a research paper on itself, and no school that asks what they can offer you wants to hear only about you.

What to do?

Use that wonderful tool of the modern age, the search engine.   That’s Google, to most of you, but even more than Google, it is the web site not just of the university in question, it is also the sites of each school and program within that university in which you might have an interest, and on down into what various departments are within each school, any associated labs, research arms, then on again into what is posted by individual professors, blogs, research projects and so on (nearly) ad infinitum.

What a question like this asks is what you want to learn and what you want to do with what you learn.  Yes, that’s a lot to ask of somebody who, as I write this, has not even started the last year of high school yet, but that’s the point.  And the best place to start on this kind of essay is to pick an important target school, dig in via the internet, dig more, then consider yourself.

After you have done this once, and written an essay, you will have what I call boilerplate–in this case, language about yourself and your interests that relates to the areas you researched in the essay–that you can reuse in other essays, and you will also have some specific reference points about the university.

Exactly what the balance should be between talking about yourself and talking about the university is a variable that depends on you and the exact wording of the prompt, but I usually find that this kind of essay has slightly more to quite a bit more about the student–but the references to and descriptions of the college are all the more important for being limited to some extent.

For  a simple reason:  showing that you know about them shows a degree of seriousness about the school.  To put it in more human terms, you know a lot about the face of your beloved.

Examples of Researching a University for the “What’s Your Major” or “What Makes You a Good Fit” Essay

So let’s start with an excerpt of an essay edit for an elite school, with my editing comments and some specific references-this is still in rough draft form, but you can already see how we are trying to cite specific detail on the school and drop some names:

I hope to  interact with professors who have a passion for research and chemistry, such as Geoffrey Coates, whose research on catalysts includes new, biodegradable polymers, that might be used in biomedical devices—bringing my interests in surgery and chemistry together. Or, and Peng Chen, who has been applying single-molecule microscopy in a variety of fascinating ways, with applications that may range from  solar power to medicine, the kind of thing that makes me wonder about powering medical implants with solar technology, hmm, a solar shirt that recharges a heart implant . . . my mind is on fire with ideas.

This section of the essay followed the introductory portion of the essay, where the writer reviewed her own life and interests, and how they developed and grew, until we reach a point where we pivot to specific things going on at that specific university.  The app reader learns a bit more about you in general, but you also provide some bona fides by showing–or appearing to show–that you know a lot about the school.

Talk about your Demonstrated Interest:  You, too, can click to see what Geoffrey Coates is up to, here:  Coates Research.  For Peng Chen, you would have to find his main page, here–Chen Research–do some reading, and click through two more layers to find out how his work relates to solar energy, here:  Chen Solar.  It’s the kind of reading and clicking that gets you to these details that will convince your app reader that you are serious about their school.

Yes, all of this may be just to name-drop twice in a single paragraph in a single application essay.  But in an application game that is all about nuance and margins, paying attention to the details makes a lot of the difference.  And that rough-draft, above, became a final draft that helped this particular student get admitted to that Ivy-League university.  Not only that, some people I have worked with have, in fact, found their mission in life as they did this kind of research.

Researching the University of Southern California Supplemental Essays and Responses

Sounds like a lot of work, and it is, which is why you want to start working on college essays early because, yes, they are actually research essays, in their own way.  But let’s look at one more example, in which we just start clicking:  U.S.C., and specifically the Viterbi School of Engineering.  I am skipping U Chicago for the moment because I plan to revisit them again, in a separate post.  You might want to follow my blog to get notice when I do.

So how to research an app essay for a potential engineering student at U.S.C.: Let’s say you just have an interest in engineering, but it is not, at sixteen or seventeen years of age, completely in focus.  That’s okay.  This exercise itself may help you get a focus, and if not, well, fake it ’til you make it.

So let’s start with the main page for Viterbi, which you can go ahead and click on, then have a look around, clicking and reading on whatever interests you, here:  Viterbi Main.

Possibly you will find some stuff that interests you right away, in which case, click away. But in the case of my next example, knowing some of my client’s interests, I was able to suggest going to this page to  search for manmade retina–I will have a specific link to a specific page below, but just type in ‘manmade retina’ here to see what happens:

Search: Manmade Retina

Here is where this student settled in to do some reading:  Artificial Retina.

And here is how some of those references appear in a mid-stage essay draft on why this student wanted to go to U.S.C. and specifically the Viterbi School:

When I flew out from Georgia to visit  USC last May, I loved the campus and diverse disciplines, like the school of gerontology an unusual but absorbing subject for a young engineer who hopes to reverse the effects of aging–but the research being done at Viterbi particularly fascinated me. I will pursue experiences like learning under a former NASA employee and in an internship with real world applications.  From perfecting the 3-D printing process using the MIP-SL technique to creating a manmade retina, Viterbi is at the forefront of innovation, which is exactly where I want to be in my own future.

This is part of an essay that was part of a successful application package for ‘S.C.  The essay as a whole is just under the 250-word limit, and it begins on a personal note about how the applicants engineering interests started with a model rocket, then to a self-built telescope, then after the illness of a relative, the focus turned to more terrestrial concerns, which you can see manifested in that paragraph, above.  In the essay as a whole, you have fewer than 100 words that reference truly specific information about the Viterbi School, but those words have impact because of their specificity and the way they fit into the context established by the personal focus of the introduction.  Returning to my earlier point, the best essays of this sort offer insight into you, the applicant, and show that you have knowledge of, and insight into, the university–even if you just got it last night off the internet.  Good internet research is good material for an essay.

Where to go from here?  If you are interested in engineering at U.S.C., let’s just continue with that example.  You are looking for specific areas of interest to you, and if you are not sure, see what does draw your interest, and your purpose is to get just a few examples and references to drop into your essay.  Of course if you do happen to stumble upon your true mission in life–this does happen–as you click around, super.  Don’t forget to mention my blog for getting you started when you collect your Nobel.

So let’s start by looking at the About page for Viterbi, and be sure to scroll down to see what lies below the banner and P.R. stuff at the top of the page:  About Viterbi. Read and click on anything interesting.

Next, be sure to visit the Research and Innovation page, which also gives you a handy breakdown of divisions within the School of Engineering: Research and Innovation at Viterbi.  Notice how you can use this to get an overview, as I just mentioned, but also to chase specific and intriguing ideas and areas–take a look, for example, at Research Centers.  And maybe you had a biology or earth science teacher who introduced you to Climate Change, but maybe you turned aside, because, well, how depressing, not to mention Tech pays way better and an education at U.S.C. is expensive, (Or maybe not; more on that in another post, soon), but then you see this, while clicking on the Research Centers:  Arid Climates and Water Research Center.  And then within that, you keep clicking until you find a page on the people involved, like this:  Watercenter About.

Then you click on a specific professor for the heck of it and find robots: Nora Ayanian. Then you start to think about what the heck robots have to do with water, which takes you back to their research page, which talks about robotics for monitoring water and suddenly you see where to go with your engineering career.

Or maybe not, but you’ve got some specific stuff to reference for your application essay.  At the least.

So there you go.  Notice what attracts you as you do some research, and start coming up with some language about things you’ve done and what inspires you to start the essay.  Then get to where you name-drop learning from people like Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian, whose robots are probing the changing chemistry of the oceans even as I write these lines . . .

Good luck, and come back soon for more posts on this year’s application essays, data, and the scene as a whole.