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Consider This: The Problem Essay (Common Application Prompt 2)

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

This post was originally written in the summer of 2011, but developments over the last year simply reinforce  my message about thinking critically and avoiding simplistic, bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems in this kind of essay.  

In this post, I will briefly discuss a couple of potential topics which address prompt two of the Common Application. Let’s start by restating the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

In my previous post, I discussed this topic in depth and distinguished between the prompt and choosing a good topic which addresses the prompt. I used an environmental problem/solution as my main focus in that blog post, with the electric car being the specific topic.

Our focus in this post will be on a pair of national and international topics and some things you should consider with each topic. For a broader discussion of the hazards and advantages of Prompt Two, please see my previous post. This prompt creates a particular problem that you will sound like a “beauty queen” if you don’t do your homework and think critically.

The topics I discuss below for Prompt Two will include: Sudan and specifically Darfur as an example of a topic on international conflict; and the problem of fresh water, both in a specific region of the United States and as an international concern. Despite the fact that my discussion will focus on these fairly narrow topics, the larger issue we are exploring is creating a good college essay; the questions I ask of and the approach I take to each topic are similar to those I would use with many topics. I hope to illustrate a way of thinking which will help you write better. If you share that goal, please read on.

This post goes on to describe in detail two topics for this essay, including background and reference links.  The next post will continue this discussion.  To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.


The Issue Of Concern Essay; Also Known As The Problem Solution Essay

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

2013-2014 update: A common approach on application essays is the Problem question, which asks you to discuss some issue of importance.  Because it sets up a discussion of a problem it also begs for a solution.  Here is how it was worded in recent years in the Common Application, Prompt Two: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.  The Common App has now dropped this prompt, but it lives on in the Stanford Supplemental essays–one problem there will be the length: Stanford has a 250 word suggested length, but in recent years has cut you off  a bit under 300 words, so you need to write very efficiently to hit your marks on this.  Read on for my general suggestions for writing about a problem.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay. While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown. This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.

If you aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end: “its importance to you.” Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems. If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment. These things are hard to judge. Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two? Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class, that may not be enough.

Consider this: the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising. We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change. This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper, or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length. This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area. Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that? Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis. An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem. The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example. I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic. As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular, to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here: you identify a problem, explain the cause of the problem and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution. For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food? A few of the essays were superb. Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car: batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple. Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity, the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution. Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants. Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way. The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib. Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on your essay readers seeing complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions. Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car? Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations? If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources. How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical? You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this: the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.  Keep in mind that the real point of the essay is your mind and voice–the reader wants to see you engaged in the problem and you might want to start the essay by explaining how you came to be involved or interested in it.  Hopefully this shows a real interest, not just a passing fancy or sudden fascination provoked by the need to write a college essay.

Note well:  if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.

The Common Application for 2012

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application on July 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The big news for the Common Application of 2012 is:  no news.  The application itself is essentially the same application used last year.  The essay prompts are identical.

For those of you eager to get started, the Common Application site will be closed from July 15, 2011 to August 1st, 2011, for maintenance.  Currently a preview version of the app itself is posted on the Common Application site.   Sorry, nothing to fill in yet.

The most important development for the Common App is its continued growth.  The number of institutions accepting the common app has risen significantly again this year, adding 49 new members, for a new total of 463 members.  I will append a list of the new members to the end of this post.

The essay prompts are these:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.Describe a character in fiction,  a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.

My recommendation:    Write to two of the prompts.  I suggest not starting with topic six.  More about that on a later post.

Here are the additions to the Common Application pool for 2012:

  1. Caldwell College (NJ)
  2. Carroll University (WI)
  3. Castleton State College*
  4. Centenary College
  5. Christian Brothers University
  6. Christopher Newport University*
  7. Cogswell Polytechnical College
  8. DeSales University
  9. Drury University
  10. Eastern Connecticut State University*
  11. Flagler College
  12. Franklin College Switzerland
  13. Goshen College
  14. Howard University
  15. John Cabot University
  16. John F. Kennedy University
  17. Lipscomb University
  18. Long Island University Brooklyn Campus
  19. Lyndon State College*
  20. Ramapo College of New Jersey*
  21. Rhode Island College*
  22. Rockhurst University
  23. Saint Leo University
  24. Saint Martin’s University
  25. Salisbury University*
  26. Samford University
  27. Seton Hill University
  28. Sierra Nevada College
  29. St. Joseph’s College – Brooklyn Campus
  30. St. Joseph’s College – Long Island Campus
  31. St. Mary’s College of Maryland*
  32. SUNY College at Old Westbury*
  33. SUNY Institute of Technology*
  34. The American University of Paris
  35. The College of Saint Rose
  36. Towson University*
  37. University of Evansville
  38. University of Hartford
  39. University of Kentucky*
  40. University of Michigan – Flint*
  41. University of New Orleans*
  42. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill*
  43. University of North Carolina at Wilmington*
  44. University of Southern California
  45. University of St Andrews*
  46. University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
  47. Wartburg College
  48. Wheeling Jesuit University
  49. Whitworth University

Evading the Cliche Step Two

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, personal statement on June 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm

In recent posts I discussed college essay cliches, focusing on  a set of common essay types defined by former admissions officer and current admissions and college app essay guru Harry Bauld.

I concluded that series of posts with a suggestion for an exercise with one of the so-called cliche essays, The Trip Essay.  I asked that my college app readers complete an exercise focused on close description of specific people and places that they encountered on a trip–not on writing an essay or a narrative at this point but simply on extended paragraph descriptions of locations and individuals.  Please read my last two posts, at least, before working with the material in this post.

To continue, you now have multiple paragraphs of description.  You have not tried to impose some sort of narrative on it, have not drawn some sort of lesson from experience.   This is good.  Here’s why:  didactic writing is often bad writing.  If you don’t know what I am referring to, one way to divide writing into categories is to split it into writing which is intended to instruct (didactic) and writing which is intended to describe–or mirror–the world (mimetic).

Most trip essays have two aspects:  a description of places, people and events, and an explanation which might be subtitled lessons learned.  All kinds of things can go wrong in the trip essay, particularly when the writer moves from a perfectly competent–even evocative and fascinating– description of people and places to a kind of lecture showing the reader why all of this was significant.  At this point, The Trip Essay often takes a wrong turn.

I blame the current thrust of education for the problems which arise in The Trip Essay and in essays in general.  The fundamental problem is that teaching today is focused on measurable results and so everything taught must have a clear and quantifiable value.  In literature, this requires establishing some sort of moral or other lesson which can be tidily summed up in a thesis sentence.

This is not just limited to essays written by students in classrooms.  I see this also in the kind of first-person testimonials which have become popular in newspapers, blogs and commentaries.   The effect of this can be deadly, as in deadly dull  to literature in general and to  your college app essay in particular, especially  if you are one of those students who needs the essay to distinguish yourself from the mob.

Picture your college app eader groaning as she reaches the end of your essay and finds a moral.  Aesop did this pretty well, but after the original, the cliche is born.  Cliches are evidence of a lack of awareness and a lack of thought.  This is not what you want your college app essay to show about you.

Think about your own experience in dealing with literature.  How many good stories have been ruined for you when your teacher insisted that you needed to extract some sort of “life lesson” from your reading.  This term, by the way, is of fairly recent origin.  I was in college in the 80’s, and I don’t remember hearing this used with any frequency until the late 90’s.  The first time I did hear it, I remember thinking, life lessons?  What other kind is there?  Death lessons?

I filed this phrase along with  a boatload of other silly coinings, like preplanning (planning to plan?), and moved on, but since then life lessons has spread throughout the teaching of English like an oil slick, greasing up and drowning perfectly wonderful stories and turning everybody’s reading experience into a finger-wagging lecture.  And that’s just the problem.  You don’t want to be wagging your finger at your college app essay reader, nor do you want to be boring them (oh, I’m near the end of the essay, here’s the “life lesson” this kid gained by living among poor people in a foreign place).

In addition to the trap of moralizing or lecturing, these essays can also inspire a certain patronizing tone–those poor wretches, eating only beans and flatbread every morning.   The locals in your story become mere extras in your personal drama.   The worst of these essays actively criticize or mock local culture.

A particularly memorable example of this was written by a student who had gone on a church-sponsored mission to a South American country.  This student devoted considerable detail to the local diet, particular the habit the people had of poaching eggs in oil and serving these with beans.  Altogether he found this a greasy and disgusting nightmare which would not be consumed by any right-thinking person.  He concluded the essay by stating how much he had learned to appreciate his lifestyle in America.  Let me give you my lesson here straight:  you do not want to write an essay in which wretched, ignorant, poor people teach you to appreciate your logical and superior culture.  Which is what this gentleman in the example above did.

Let’s go back to those descriptive paragraphs you wrote.  Can you now combine or tie them together into some sort of descriptive piece, an essay which is not focused on you?    Can you become like a documentary camera, moving through the world you have sketched, without overt judgment, without talking about yourself beyond the basics,   along the lines of I went here because x and found . . ?  A full paragraph of  evocative description should follow.

The key to success here is to select details which are telling.   Describe selectively so that you show us what you learned or what the experience was like without making any overt judgments.  You will find this difficult, but this is the first step to writing a Trip Essay which is not the kind of essay that will cause the cliche warning light to start blinking.  Even better, you will not come across as The Ugly American Abroad.

How to Evade the Cliche in Your College Essay

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

In my previous post, I discussed one of the gurus of college admissions and the college essay, Harry Bauld.  Mr. Bauld described a set of essay types which he believes are “a noose” with which a college applicant can “hang” herself.  Scary.

What Bauld is after is a set of essay types which are commonly submitted.  Each takes the form of an extended cliche.  Among those essays condemned by Mr. Bauld is something he called “The Trip Essay.”  In this you describe a trip you went on and what you learned from it.  This is, in my experience, a very common type of essay used on college admissions, as is the “Jock Essay,” which is about what one learned in athletics, and the “Three D” essay, in which one describes or shows one’s  Drive, Determination and Discipline or some related set of positive attributes.

It doesn’t help that many college apps tend to push you toward some of these essays–”tell us something about yourself which isn’t immediately apparent,” or “describe an important situation or person from which you learned,” are examples of recent prompts of this nature.  And what if  you do want to write about a trip you took because it has been the most important experience of your life?  Can you not do this because Those Who Know say it is a bad idea, a sure dud?

Of course you can. Your challenge, however, is to avoid writing a cliche.   It’s not really the essay topic Mr. Bauld condemns so grimly as it is the way the essay is written and what it reveals about you.

Specifically, the problem lies in the kind of self-awareness you show and your audience’s reaction to your material.  Aristotle identified these two aspects of the rhetorical situation as ethos and pathos.  I discussed Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle at some length in an earlier post–see the archive for this, as a basic knowledge of these ideas is a strategic necessity for you.

So how can you write an essay about what you learned from a trip without writing a cliche or boring your audience?   The key is creating a lively narration and using detailed description.  You should show more than you tell.

Easy to say, but what do I mean?  Let’s start with a simple exercise.

This post continues with a series of exercises to develop application essay content, including experiments with point of view and use of detail.  It is related to previous posts on getting the college essay started.  

To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing , put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.

College Essay No-No’s: What Not To Do in Your Personal Statement

In applying to college, college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Before I get to the gist, a short preface:  I hope that you followed my advice in the last prompt and did a considerable amount of writing before you arrived at this post.  I say this because I think that it is important to write without having that inner, critical voice whispering negative asides to you.  You should start the process by simply getting entire herds of words on the page without worrying too much about their quality.  Start with quantity.  This you will use as raw material, for we are far from done with this process.  ‘Nuff said.  On to the post.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”  This post goes on to discuss in detail the kinds of essays that should be avoided and why, with examples.  

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 You will receive in response an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  After payment, you will get full access to all articles and college essay analysis appearing on this Site.    The subscription fee is 15 dollars.  This includes all future entries through January of 2013.  I will be writing 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.

So You Want To Write a College Essay

In applying to college, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on June 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Long ago, a man born in a peninsular region of far northeastern Greece left his provincial home to head for Athens, the New York of his day. Any young man who wanted to hit the big time went to Athens in this era, and if he were particularly bright and lucky, he would enter Plato’s Academy, as Aristotle did. It was here that Aristotle produced his first works, which are now known only through a few fragments, but it is also here that Aristotle first began to formulate his ideas about persuasion, ideas which were saved and passed on to us in the form of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

So what, you say; cut to the chase. What does this have to do with a bloody college essay?

In a word: plenty. Regardless of the prompt which you must address and the approach you take to this prompt, you are writing a persuasive piece when you write a college essay. And what is the purpose of persuasion, my friends? To change minds, to shift your application from the great, gray stacks of anonymous folders and computer files to the Arcadian vales of the admitted.

So back to Aristotle. He gave us a description of the persuasive situation which has been formalized as the Rhetorical Triangle, due to the three parts he identified: logos, ethos and pathos. What exactly the triangle is and means depends partly on which aspects of the description you emphasize.

Bear with me here while I explain. If some brilliant teacher has already indoctrinated you into the Aristotelian realm, read on anyway for the gems I will secret in this familiar landscape.

Ethos is you, or more specifically, your character. Who you are can help persuade your reader to accept your argument. Would you by more prone to listen to Sammy Slacker or William Wonderful? Would you want to admit a careful craftsman to your school or an inattentive layabout? Does your essay show care and craft? Dumb mistakes like homonym errors or poor grammar immediately cast doubt on your ethos. If you don’t seem to care enough to polish the essay, why should your reader care about you? What kind of voice speaks in your essay? Is your tone right? Do you establish your credentials or personal qualities?

Logos is the reasoning and language which conveys an argument. It is your essay as a physical block of words, your thought embodied as a verbal structure presenting certain ideas or proofs in a certain order which leads to certain conclusions. In a classical argument, this is the proofs used to demonstrate a proposition. But wait, you say. The prompt asked for a narrative–I had to write something about a time I did x or when I experienced y. Excellent, I respond. But in the personal statement or admissions essay situation, even a tale told is a kind of argument, the thesis of which is: let me attend your university. What did your story demonstrate and how did it demonstrate it?

Pathos relates most directly to your audience, to your effect on your audience. Do you engage your readers’ emotions? Do you establish a connection with them by giving them a story or an argument they can care about? Humor is invaluable here, but it can also backfire with depressing consequences.

Here is another way to look at these elements: ethos is most directly involved with you, the writer or speaker; it is both the “inner you” that shapes the essay and the way in which the essay reveals your character. Logos is the essay itself as a construct of thought, of vocabulary and syntax; pathos is the audience you address and the empathy, the emotional response you create in your audience.   It is this last element with which you must begin and end.

Let us consider your audience: an adult faced with stacks of folders and thousands of screens full of admissions information and essays. Imagine that person sitting in front of a computer screen eight, nine, ten hours a day, reading, reading, reading. Imagine that person with his own smart-alecky teenagers. Perhaps that person at one time was a classroom teacher.  Have you considered the person who will be reading your essay?

One of my clients, let’s call him Chuck B, responded to a common app prompt to tell something about himself which the rest of the information he submitted did not necessarily reveal. He began in this way:

I was already reciting the alphabet when I was two and I could read alone at the age of four. The summer I first picked up a basketball, I was able to do layups by the end of July,  and by the end of August, I could play horse with my older brother, who was a starting guard on a rec league team.  I didn’t start playing soccer until eighth grade, but they made me team captain in ninth grade, as I have been every year since. In a similar way, I picked up the guitar late, only two years ago, but in the last few months have started taking lessons in the classical Spanish style of playing, in addition to fronting a punk-oriented band.

Things just come easy to me, which is why I believe that I will quickly adapt to college and be an asset on your campus.

And so it went. For two more pages. While I was first reading this essay, I kept waiting for the punch line, for the glimmer of ironic humor or the linguistic wink that would allow me to laugh along with the writer at the blissful pomposity of the essay–could he leap over buildings with a single bound and outrun a speeding train?   It never came. He was not joking. He was also not aware of what an arrogant jackass he came across as.

As a matter of fact, Chuck is one of the sweetest young men I have ever taught and he is, in fact, as talented as he claims to be in this essay. But all a reader sees is a self-congratulating bozo. Because Chuck did not consider pathos, the nature and feelings of his audience, he also failed on a second leg of the triangle, ethos, for his true character was misrepresented despite the fact that he truthfully related a lifetime of skills and accomplishment packed into seventeen years.

This shows a certain kind of blindness which is very common, even among students who are otherwise self aware and intelligent. It also shows how, while you may emphasize one aspect of the rhetorical triangle over the others—perhaps you highlight logos as you lay out a logical and detailed solution to a great problem, or you demonstrate ethos as you describe how you volunteer every summer to build housing for those who need it—ultimately the triangle of ethos, logos and pathos are impossible to tease apart. You must write well in a way which appeals to your audience to show your best self.

Your next step is either to get going on an essay—show some ethos, some discipline,  and start now—or, if you have an essay, or several, get some feedback, preferably from an adult. Your sharpest and therefore most useful criticism will come from someone in the craft, a writer or a teacher of writing who is familiar with this particular kind of essay, but any adult who is a good reader can get you started. You need to see and hear the response of that older audience, you need to ask them for suggestions on the piece of writing you give them, and you need to find out what kind of person they see there on the page.

And remember: this is a process. Don’t cling to anything as somehow necessary and final. You will learn a lot about yourself and about the world by being open to criticism and reexamining yourself and your world. That’s what Aristotle did when he left home for Athens and entered the groves of Plato’s school.

Starting Your College Essay Step 1

In college application, college essay, Uncategorized on June 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Step 1 is to get something–anything–on paper.   For those high school juniors—or parents of juniors–who are facing the final push to college admission, now is the time to start thinking about the college essay.

Most students who plan to apply to a university will be facing a heavy workload come September, so putting off this very important requirement is not going to make the process easier. And, might I add, you should not be viewing this as “an” essay. You should, like a professional writer seeking the best story, write multiple essays.  If you think it is too early, that the prompts for next year are not out, I would point out that there are a few prompts which, with minor changes in wording, appear over and over in college applications.  I will summarize them at the end of this post.  This post goes on to discuss exercises for getting the college essay started, and it includes the most commonly used  prompt types for the last five years.  To get full access to this post, copy or type into an e-mail “subscription please”  and your name.  Send the e-mail to:  

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College Application Tips Part 1

In college admission, college admissions, college application, Uncategorized, university rankings on June 16, 2011 at 6:29 pm

While it’s a truth widely acknowledged that many institutions game the U.S. News and World Report rankings by inflating their app rates (among other things) A quick look at the admissions statistics tells the tale.

For 2010, U.C. Berkeley had 50,312 applicants and admitted 12,914—a 26% rate of admission; U.C.L.A. upped that by admitting only 13,088 of 57,608 applicants, for a 23% admit rate; on the other hand, the most popular of the Cal State campuses, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, had a 33% admission rate, and CP SLO has consistently been one of the highest rated universities on the West Coast.

Over on the right coast, Columbia admitted 9% of its applicants, Harvard admitted 7%–excuse me, with that rate, it’s Haaaaaahvad–while Princeton admitted 8%. In the midland, U of Chicago admitted 19% while Northwestern admitted 23%.

These are ugly numbers and even more fearful in our bad economic times. But what do they really mean?

In the big picture, they mean that we have a resource problem. The elite schools have always been selective—and have, for many years, gamed the ratings to appear as selective as possible—but the shortage of educational opportunities in California is particularly acute. Demand far outstrips supply and tax revenue has declined at a time when public institutions are viewed by many in our country as part of the problem if not as an actual enemy within. If you want to deal with the big picture, you’ll have to get involved politically. This is a workable approach for parents of 6th graders and a civic duty for everyone else, but not very useful if you have a college-bound student in high school.

If you have a high school junior, you will have to focus on an immediate, pragmatic strategy. Presumably you are already been making all the basic stops on the Via Dolorosa of the college admissions process, but some things to consider might not be immediately obvious.

Start with researching your preferred campuses. At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, for example, admission rates for each school varies. The Business School at Cal Poly is ferociously competitive. The history department, not so much. A history major with a business minor would be a far easier admit ticket to get punched than the reverse would be. And turning out more students with such a background might be an improvement overall given the recent history of our banking sector.

Be aware, however, that CPSLO is discouraging double majors due to budget cuts and has always been hard on those who wish to change a major. Not only that, the admin at SLO is ramping up pressure on students to finish a degree in less than five years, all of this as a response to the budget problems as well as to prevent those who game the system by selecting a low subscription major and then switching to a more impacted major after being admitted. And yes, at the same time that fewer sections of many classes are being offered. Of course, that will be true on many campuses.

Next, consider colleges which have higher admissions rates. Sonoma State has many of the advantages of Cal Poly, including a fairly bucolic setting (though Rohnert Park is nobody’s idea of a happening little town, unlike SLO) and the admit rate is in the 80% range.

A final consideration I would look at is the location—is this a great place to spend four or five years? Out of state is looking better all the time. Eastern Oregon University offers in-state tuition for all students—okay, so the location is isolated, but Portland State, as another alternative, is in what might be the nicest place to live in the Northwest, and they offer a scholarship to out-of-state students with a high GPA. Visit their website for details.

Finally, do spend extra time on the college essay for the applications that require it. By the time the junior year is over, you don’t have many opportunities to stand out from the crowd, and the essay is the only place to really show your creativity and brilliance in a first-person way.

Early College Admissions Data for 2011 and What This Means for You

In college admission, college admissions, college application, Uncategorized, university application information, university rankings on June 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Some early data is rolling in on this year’s college admissions, and all the news is up for those institutions known as “selective” universities–up meaning turned down for even more applicants this year. To wit: Stanford saw the number of applicants rise from 32,022 for 2010 to 34,000 in 2011, an increase of over 6%; across the Bay, U. C. Berkeley went from 50,312 to 52,920, an increase just north of 5%; and across the continent, Harvard saw an increase from 30,489 applicants last year to 35,000 this year

The wide net cast by many–if not most–of the schools who have risen to the top of U.S. News and World Report’s heap of illusions is well known by now. This includes promos and invitations sent with more frequency than credit card offers to the homes of high school students, many of whom have a snowball’s chance in a pizza oven of being admitted.

Also widely reported is the effect that these tens of thousands of what I call “prejects” have on the bottom line of these same selective universities. Thirty thousand admissions fees paid by kids (okay, parents of kids) who will under no circumstances ever tread the halls is a tidy sum reaped by a university for a very inexpensive data collections system. An admissions officer can screen dozens of applications a day, most electronic, and let’s face it, the first step is an algorithmic gate–at or below GPA x, no admit. At GPA y, maybe. If I were cynical, I would argue that the universities have found a way of making rejects pay for the system that screens their students.

It is still true that the sweat and tears of applicants does matter, but only for those already near the top. So be realistic. If you don’t have a 4.0, or a 3.75 with a tremendous story to tell, don’t waste your time with the “selective” schools. If you do, go for it–and put plenty of time into your essay if you are going to be a Senior in September.