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 recent Princeton prompts, but hold off on writing an essay for Princeton until they confirm for the 2019-2020 season, which usually happens in the last week of July–they may change one or more and it’s not worth writing an essay in full until you know–although 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 an earlier post, and what it says still applies: 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.