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Writing about a Quote for Princeton–Who Needs a Book When You’ve Got an Essay?

In Essay Beginning With a Quote, Harvard Application Essay, Intellectual Experience Essay, Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Application for the Class of 2022, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 20, 2017 at 12:44 am

Who should read this:  anybody interested in writing a Princeton Application Essay, or the Harvard Application (that book/intellectual interest prompt, still going strong) or the Stanford Interest short essay or . . . you get the picture.

The broad scope of writing an essay about a quote means some aspects of this post will work for prompts other than Princeton, inside and outside of the Ivy League.  So read on if a quote from an essay, or an essay about an essay, or an essay about ideas is a good topic for you.  

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My final word for those needing a quote essay, or an essay about a piece of writing, or even an essay about an intellectual experience is . . . read an essay. Or a bunch of essays, and grab the ones that really draw you in.  Then have a contest, in which you make the rules, to decide which one to write about and why.  See if you can find anything out about the author and/or otherwise find a framing context for how this essay altered your mind, and you are on your way. Some links provided below, to get you started.  More links and specific authors coming soon on my private site, available by subscription and for my college advising clients.  Read on or simply jump to the end of the post for more on that.

In my last post, I discussed writing about a quote from a book for Princeton.  In this post, I am writing for those who are  frustrated that their book essay looks too much like a school essay, and for those who like to write about ideas but have only had time to do the assigned reading in school and know that this will not set them apart (that’s most folks, these days).  Let’s face it, you do not want ot recycle a school essay on To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, or Twilight.  Kidding on that last one.

Or not, maybe–Have a look at this fun post about the Twilight series for an idea about how not to be boring and stuffy while writing about something you like, even if it is despite yourself:  Geeky Feminist Muses on Twilight.

She uses a series of quotes and has a good time.  You could too, though you won’t have space to wander as much or be as open-ended as she is–you need to make a more clear point, and to turn the attention back to yourself, and you have ca. 500-650 words, depending on what your essay is for (Stanford?  250 words), while this post is part of larger conversation that is itself part of an even larger conversation . . . .as you can see if you keep reading her blog.

And speaking of blogs, you might try looking at a few of them–there are all kinds of essays of superb quality in electronic form, with dozens of good to great sites that are online only, while some old-school literary reviews have migrated at least in part online in ways that work for today.  You will find great essays on some of these as well as discussions linked to essays and to ideas and events—with many quotes and googols of ideas:

Links to great lit and idea blogs

Paris Reviews blog and essay site, The Daily.  Caution for the sensitive:  can be rude.

Gotta follow that with a shout-out to Dave Egger’s old hang, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.    I can’t explain, you just have to click and then keep clicking and reading. Can be rude as well.  Super!

Essays on all kinds up in-the-now topics:  The New Inquiry

The book blog for the New Yorker (Never fear, plenty of essays here):  Page Turner

Science or history guys and gals, the Smithsonian is still going strong, online, and what if you did Crash into a Black Hole?  Huh?

The Los Angeles Review of Books (Great essays, great ideas, started on Tumblr):LARB

Mostly about reading books, but not yo Mama’s buddy-duddy book site: Book Riot

And I cannot leave out N+1.  Most of their stuff is protected:  you have to pay for quality work, they claim– what a crazy idea–but maybe this link will still work:  Now Less Than Ever.

Get reading, as you do, copy cool quotes, add a few lines of context, the title, author and place you got the essay, and you are on your way to some material that you might be able to make something out of.

Did  I say I will be writing about this in more depth, with links to authors, on my private blog? (Subscribers and clients only . . . like those N+1 guys, I believe my work has value . . . it ain’t all free, folks.  Contact me for more information).

How to Write the Princeton Application Essays for 2017-2018

In Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Engineering Essay, Princeton Quote Essay, Princeton Supplemental Essays, 2017-2018, Uncategorized on July 12, 2017 at 10:52 pm

Who should read this post:  anybody writing the Princeton supplemental essays for 2017-2018.  I discussed the short answers and listing responses in my last post–click here for that–Princeton Supplement 2017-18–then read on below for a complete,  annotated discussion of this year’s Princeton essays.

Let us begin with a quick look at the prompts for this year by looking at what changed since last year.  There are some notable changes, among them the deletion of the Woodrow Wilson topic–for years, Princeton has used Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” speech as the focus for an essay.  Unfortunately, Wilson, former Princeton as well as U.S. president, has, or had some baggage.  He was a kind of walking paradox whom  some have described as a Progressive Racist–see here for more: Woodrow Wilson’s segregation policy.

If you are wondering why I start my discussion of this year’s prompts with a discussion of the Woodrow Wilson prompt that Princeton just dropped, the answer is simple:  the politics of campuses impacts the policies of admissions.  And I would point out that the second and third prompts, below, represent a kind of counter to the recent imbroglio over the racial views of Woodrow Wilson, who many students at Princeton would like to see erased from campus.  

Does this mean you need to write an essay on race or race relations?  Not necessarily–it’s more advice about what I would call atmospherics–keep in mind that our supposedly post-racial country has rediscovered its problem with race as well as with economic inequality, and the disappearance of President Wilson from the prompts roster at Princeton is one sign of that.  Also keep in mind the potential pitfalls of writing about disparities and problems of race and money– looking arrogant or paternalistic or simplistic or self righteous as you insert yourself into the problems of others.  So if you choose to write about culture or disparities, try to do so without looking like some kind of imperialist in a pith helmet.

Also try not to sound like a reheated version of a ’60’s radical.  Times have changed and the problems that remain over time have evolved.

So with that preface,  let’s look at the prompts, with my annotations and links.

  • Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.–So let’s not write about Woodrow Wilson, even if some aspects of his vision were good and useful–the League of Nations, for example.  I have discussed this topic at length in several other posts–the person of influence is a tried-and-true subject–so click here for much more detail on this topic:  Writing About a Personal Influence (part 1) 
  • “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University and co-founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.  Back in the dark old days of ’07-’09 and the years following the Great Recession, inequality was all the rage.  Literally.  And phenomenon like the Occupy movement aimed right at these problems.  Here we are a decade later, and these inequalities have only grown worse (while the banks have grown bigger).  You can find interesting commentaries on many aspects of inequality in the U.S. of A, from Vance’s  Hillbilly Elegy to Coates’ Between the World and Me I can strongly recommend both, with the warning that writing about  topics like poverty and race pretty much demands a preexisting interest in things like politics, sociology and economics, and that you have done some reading outside of class–you know, current events.  And reading books like those I link can be useful, but you are writing an essay about a personal concern here, not a book report–or about personal experience.  Keep that in mind.  The best personal statements have a personal connection, to your experience, interests, and moral sense–as well as to your past involvement.  Don’t suddenly become a civil rights advocate or advocate for the poor just in time to write this essay.  For some more guidance on how to write about a topic like this, my old post on the service essay for Princeton actually (and perhaps ironically) works well– click to the right and scroll down to find the quote about not being a hand wringer, and read from there. 
  • “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University. Culture gives everything from a world view to food to ideas about who should wear what on their head and when; it is a kind of agreement about what is real and how to act.  And like fish in water, we do not really understand our own culture until we live in another.  For many of you, this probably happens every day, as you go from one culture at home to another at school and with friends.  This essay is probably the easiest for those who have that kind of experience.  On the other hand, as our current president recently argued in Poland, there are a set of ideas that may loosely be described as Western–but I don’t think that the president’s speech actually reflected ideas like empiricism, openness to new ideas . . . free thinking . . . . which I consider hallmarks of Western Civ, at least as ideals for the last four hundred years.  Certainly the Western or European culture that arose in Rome and led to the Enlightenment created a set of important ideas, one of them being expressed in the clause, “We hold these truths to be self evident,  that all men are created equal . . . ”  Notice how that piece of paper, arising out of the foment of ideas in a culture at a specific time led to a new culture . . . that of the United States.  But back to the president’s speech:  you don’t have to argue for  a war of cultures to describe the influence and nature of your culture.   
  • Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay. So my first point is that they do not want a book report or even an essay focused on an interpretation of a book–the idea is more to extend an idea from the book into your own experience or view of the world.  On the other hand, you should at least give some sense of context to the quote.  I have written about this prompt before–it’s been a standard prompt for Princeton for at least seven years–but as the post is long and covers other information, instead of linking it, here’s the part you are interested in: First let me digress yet again, to Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form and who also initiated many of his essays with a quote which conveyed an idea that he would develop throughout the essay.  He  quoted from classical authors frequently, both to frame his own arguments and to bolster them.  Therefore, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays, though I hasten to add that he was sometimes better in theory than in practice–his disappearance to the countryside during an episode of the plague has been questioned by more than a few–but his essays are great and we should, I think, use caution in judging others.

Now to the central problem of this prompt:  starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point.  And don’t force the book and your experience together.   You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way.  See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life.  Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.

If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are.  If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap.  An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay.  My view is, it depends on what you do with it.  Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.

Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs.  Be sure not to  make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.

The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay.  It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes.  This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.

I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.

In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you interested in the social and economic problems that led to Occupy, and that in part also fueled our current political fire –it’s a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt.  Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing.  It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.

Here are two  more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500 word essay but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes.  Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.

“Goodbye To All That”

“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going.

Oh, last but definitely not least:

Engineering Essay*

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

This calls for research into your area(s ) of interest, looking not just at majors and classes, but at specific interesting research, at who is doing it, at whether any undergrads are involved, at where you would like to take it.  If your ambition is to create the next breakthrough in batteries, you’d want to be looking at what they are doing there at Princeton and who is doing it.  A little name dropping of professors and description of projects can be useful here.  Even if the research is obviously post-grad, hey–you want to be at the source, in that environment, learning those cutting-edge ideas.  

And here’s the deal with this Engineering Supplement to keep in mind:  there is an additional supplement for engineers because places like Princeton are getting too many folks who want to be engineers but are, hmm, great test takers, super at math, good at enough other stuff to qualify, but lacking in practical skills–many have hardly ever built anything, having been too busy prepping for college–and also lacking in people skills.  So keep that in mind–try to find a way to look engaged, hands-on (as possible), and interested in the welfare of others–which after all, is really what engineering is all about:  building bridges both virtual and real and giving the rest of use tools that make our lives better, or even save our lives.

I will be returning to this engineering essay, as well as the Yale and Cornell engineering essays as an example of the tell-us-what-you-are-going-to-do essay pretty soon, so  come on back if that fits your goals.  NB–This post will be partly behind a paywall, but I will offer some good general advice on this kind of essay in the publicly visible version.

 

Princeton leads the Pack: The Princeton Supplemental Questions for 2017-2018

In Princeton Admissions, Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Application for the Class of 2022, Princeton Supplement, Princeton Supplemental Essays, Uncategorized on July 11, 2017 at 11:16 pm

Who should read this:  Anybody applying to Princeton this year.

Here is your content:

Wow, that title alliterates nicely.

Below you will find my annotated discussion of Princeton’s supplementals for this year, which popped up this week on Princeton’s website, complete with a pdf for those of you living with dial-up modems and whatnot.

So here goes my first post on Ivy League Essay prompts for 2017-2018; rather than a super-detailed analysis of each prompt, I am going to annotate as I go. And this post will cover the short responses for Princeton; we will look at the essay prompts in the next post, though I will list them below my advice on the Princeton short responses.

Here goes:

Princeton Supplement

My note:  Here is a link to the Princeton Supplement, with writing prompts, in pdf form— Princeton Application Class of 2022 pdf.   Please note that, if you are using the Common Application site or another portal like Naviance, you do not need to print out and fill out the pdf form to mail to anybody—it is enough to fill in all the boxes online, thank you very much.  But research also shows that handwriting ideas and scribbling is great for inspiration, so I also suggest that you print it out and use it as a scratch sheet or carry it around in a notebook so you can write down all those brilliant ideas before you forget them.

Next item, from Princeton:

In addition to the Common Application or the Universal College Application, Princeton University requires the Princeton Supplement. You submit the Supplement online through either the Common Application or Universal College Application. You will be able to view the Supplement in full on whichever application you choose, after you add Princeton University to your list.

For quick reference, below are the short answer and essay questions included in the Princeton Supplement for 2017-18. 

My note: do not go into the Common Application portal, et al, and try to fill in the blanks or upload your essays until August 1st or later—all existing accounts on the Common Application will be eliminated at some point in the last week of July, when the Common App website is largely offline as it is set up for the coming year of applications.

Activities

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)

Stick to the word count, though you may try compound words as a tried-and-true strategy for reducing word count.  See what I’m saying?  Note as well that just saying what you did in your activities is not enough–why did it matter?  Try to let the reason it was important enough to list  show,  and make a statement about that if possible.  You don’t need to be saving the world all the time, but it can be helpful to show that you actually like and care about what you are doing and you do try to help where you can.

Summers

Please tell us how you have spent the last two summers (or vacations between school years), including any jobs you have held. (Response required in about 150 words.)

Being a dishwasher is not necessarily held against you–hey, that would be classist, after all–but that N.I.H. internship in D.C. would obviously look better–maybe.  If you were washing dishes to help support your family or making money for college and could not afford to find a place to stay near D.C. in order to do the N.I.H internship, then the dishwashing thing might actually look pretty good, especially if you were working on your kinetic sculptures and robotic submarine on your evenings off.  Keep in mind that, on the one hand, you are filling in the colors of a picture of yourself, and you get to pick the colors–the details–you provide.  Choose wisely.  But on the other hand,  keep in mind that the modern app officer can and will check on your social media–so with this and the last answer, be sure all the dots connect between your virtual life and the life you present to Princeton.  

A Few Details

My comment:  Think about these questions in this way:  If a Princeton admissions officer were  going to visit you, what kind of stuff would you put away and what kind of stuff would you keep out in full view on the coffee table and book shelves?  If you think about it, we often arrange the information that others can see about us in order to create the right impression.  So that is my overall comment on how to approach these short responses.

  • Your favorite book and its author–My note–Try to avoid listing “school” books–and  be aware that many books are on school reading lists as well as curriculum; I have written extensively on writing about books before, but this is a pretty good intro and can help you show how to think about this before writing, even if it is just a blurb: How to Write About Books, Part 1.
  • Your favorite website–As with the books, you want to choose in a way that does not make you look like a phony or like an incurious and shallow social climber–so just as you should not be listing War and Peace and talking about your love of Russian literature for your favorite book, if in reality you only read graphic novels that eschew words, so you should not list The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as your favorite website if your idea of philosophy is quoting Dude Lebowski as deep philosophy (Note to hipsters:  The Big Lebowski is in part a satire on what happened to the Love Generation and its social conscience.  Oh, and I am a fan of the film, and the Cohn brothers).  On the other hand, if Twitter, Snapchat or Netflix are your favorite websites . . . maybe put those in a drawer, so to speak, and come up with something else.  TinHouse?  Vox?  N+1?  Just be able to explain in a convincing and pithy way.  
  • Your favorite recording-You are getting the picture by now, and I am not going to guide your musical taste . . . though maybe this book would help with some ideas on popular music and inspire some other essays:  Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
  • Your favorite source of inspirationNow we start looking not for repetition between all these short statements; we look for how they add up.  Go with your favorite inspiration as long as it seems okay.  That little voice that Socrates supposedly heard in his head might not have worked so well for this one.
  • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title-Let me give you my own example, for this one; My favorite movie line comes from Casablanca, as the prefect of police, having just gambled, shuts down Ricks’ Cafe:  “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”   I love the full-throated cynicism that keeps this romantic movie’s feet on the ground.  And somehow it speaks fully to our current political moment.
  • Your favorite movie–Hmm.  Casablanca or Kurasowa’s Ran or The Big Lebowski or Blade Runner or Lawrence of Arabia  or The Searchers or True Grit (Cohn Version) or The Marriage of Eva Braun  . . . This would be tough for me.  So I will just remind you to look at what fits you and the you that you want to show.
  • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you–Be positive but not cheesy.
  • Your favorite keepsake or memento–Please, no alt-right memorabilia and no Disney plush toys.  Well maybe the plush toy if you can make it meet cute instead of cheesy cute.
  • Your favorite wordBe positive and don’t say positive.  

Next up:  the essay prompts–I will list them below in full, but will not comment on them in this post–it’s long enough already, I think.  I will annotate them in my next post.  To see the prompts, scroll down.

Essay: Your Voice

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application or the Universal College Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application or Universal College Application.

  • Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.
  • “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.”
  • Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University and co-founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.
  • “Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”
  • Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and director of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, Princeton University.
  • Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

Engineering Essay*

If you are interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, please write a 300-500 word essay describing why you are interested in studying engineering, any experiences in or exposure to engineering you have had and how you think the programs in engineering offered at Princeton suit your particular interests.

*This essay is required for students who indicate Bachelor of Science in Engineering as a possible degree of study on their application.

To see my comments, come back soon.  I will write about them before July 15th . . .if you are visiting on or after that date, just check the a post or two before this one or visit my homepage and start clicking if you do not see the post–you will find links there.

Writing the Princeton Application Essay for 2016-2017

In Princeton Admissions, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Quote Essay, Princeton Service Essay, Princeton Supplement, Uncategorized on September 19, 2016 at 1:59 pm

The post below contains information from last year’s admissions cycle–some of it still applies, some of it does not, depending on which prompt you will use.  For posts on this year’s Princeton application prompts, check these out as well:

Princeton Essay on a Quote (from an essay)

The 2017-2018 Princeton Application Prompts

Who should read this post:  Anybody who needs to write a Princeton Application Essay this year; Anybody writing a college application essay dealing with social issue or experience.

This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2016-2017) and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about national problems, essays about ethical matters, essays about culture (and food), essays about social justice, particularly racial and economic matters,  and essays about personal beliefs.  Much of the content therefore, applies to these topics in general.  Some of these topics can lead to highly emotional responses, so keep in mind that this is a college application essay, not a protest speech.  Of course a really great protest essay could be good . . . just don’t patronize or insult your audience.

Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  This is a very long post because I address all the Princeton prompts in it, in detail, so you might want to scroll down to the one or two prompts that most appeal to you–or you might read the whole post and find an idea you had not yet considered.

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

I will address the Princeton Supplement prompts one at a time, repeating each prompt so that you do not have to look it up again. After you have written a draft, you can send it to me as a Google Doc or Word attachment, to wordguild@gmail.com. I will give you a free sample edit and a price quote–but serious inquiries only, please; I’ll give you enough for you to judge what I can do for you.  I will ask you for some information upfront as part of that, but add that I never outsource or share your information with outside entities.  Sooner is better than later, as my open spots will book up in the coming weeks.

Preview and Analysis of Princeton Supplemental Prompts for 2016-2017

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this :

In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more than 650 words and no fewer than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event, or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  (The underlining is mine.)

If you have a specific person, event or experience that clearly relates to any of the prompts, just sit down and start writing to see what happens, with a few caveats here: Avoiding Essay Doom.  But if you struggle with finding that hook to hang the essay on, I would point out that if you feel connected to something, you are connected. What do I mean?  That these days a person who influenced you does not have to be in the same physical space.  As one example, I see reading as an experience that connects me to other things, and I definitely choose to read things that connect with my experiences.  Therefore,  I have a connection  with the writer and public philosopher (my term for him) Ta-Nehisi Coates–through his writing.  He is often referrred to as an activist, but he sees himself, first and foremost, as a writer (and a dad).    I see him as a public philosopher.  

So what I am advising here is a flexible interpretation of potential topics; as long as you explained that you feel a connection to the writings of Mr. Coates,  which is an experience, or even that you feel a connection to the author himself, through his writing, you meet the topic’s letter and spirit.  As long as your essay shows or demonstrates that this changed your view of the world, of course.  

Your takeaway here is that, in terms of defining what an experience is, I think almost anything goes–we all live in that global village now, created not just by “the media,” but by our connection to social media.  Through it, most of us can be directly exposed to any event, good or bad, in real time, whenever someone streams video.   And we can keep reliving these experiences simply by clicking a link or going to Youtube when a video has been posted (Or Vimeo or whatever platform we choose).  Viral experiences, that’s us.

In this spirit I include quite a few links, below, to articles and arguments about the Princeton essay topics–and these articles and arguments connect to people, in the end. People like  Woodrow Wilson or Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So I begin here with a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for the Atlantic Magazine, where he is national correspondent:  Coates at The Atlantic. 

My purpose throughout this post is to help you get a wider perspective and new ideas for focus as well as for content in these very socially aware Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

This aligns with an old  Common App prompt, which I discussed over the last three years–you can see my archives, or to use this link to see how to write about an  influential person:   Prompt Three of the Common Application, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.

Princeton Essay Supplement Prompt 2

“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, Assistant Professor, Politics; Co-Founder, Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

This prompt has a clear potential overlap with prompt 3, below, where I include discussion and links for a variety of social justice topics in relationship to the Princeton ideal of Service.   Princeton’s prompt 2, however,  suggests a more direct focus on inequality than does Prompt 3,  though both prompts provide an opportunity to discuss a range of social justice issues.  Economic inequality is obviously an important topic possibility for the disparities identified in prompt 2, and you can see it referenced in our current political campaign, as I am sure you have noticed (If you haven’t, you can go here to get a primer on how income and poverty are playing out so far in the election:   spotlight on poverty).  And Ta-Nehisi Coates talks a lot about disparities that are hard to resolve as well, so go back to the link above for more, if you wish.

The Challenge for Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 2

One problem for many of you addressing Princeton’s prompt 2 is that you live in an American suburb, and while there is plenty of stress in the ‘burbs about finances, work and life balance, life in a place like Danville, CA, or Scarsdale, NY, is relatively good to great overall.  So if you live in a place like this, you won’t be face-to-face with the kind of economic troubles that millions of people are facing everywhere from declining Midwestern manufacturing areas to the Central Valley of California, where five years of drought have pushed many out of houses and into tents.  You do need to have an awareness of the big picture of any problem, which you will get through reading or watching video or hearing interviews, but be sure to remember that your awareness is mostly second-hand.  So have a look here:  Fragile Economy and here: Poverty and Drought.   Notice how varied the causes of disparity are as you read the articles–a topic in itself. And be wary about appearing patronizing as you discuss the suffering of others.

A word about Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 3:

At the least, I see quite a bit of overlap between the idea of service in Prompt 3 and the issue of disparity raised in Prompt 2, and you could write the same essay for both.  In addressing either prompt, avoid the  black/white simplistic ideas that people tend to float in response to social problems. App readers are not too interested in being harangued.  Try to be thoughtful as well as passionate. See below for ideas on Princeton Prompt 3 and more ideas that might help with Prompt 2.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 3

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

Let me begin by suggesting that the Princeton admissions officer might be a bit more impressed by an applicant who actually showed that she had read the speech.  Try this link and give it a few minutes; I recommend taking notes:  Princeton in the Nation’s Service.

I will pause for dramatic effect while you read the speech.

Welcome back.  This speech will feel archaic  to most of its modern readers in its vocabulary and in its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ideals, but I would say that this is the point.  Hopefully you read all the way to the bottom of the page and read the footnote about the fact that Wilson had suffered  a stroke and struggled physically to finish rewriting the speech on a typewriter.  There is a moral message of a sort right there, folks, about Wilson’s grit as well as  his  sense of duty.  Compare the person making the speech and the content of the speech to many of our politicians and much of what passes for political philosophy today. The contrast is clear.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I would point out that  the last few decades have been notable for material excess and personal aggrandizement, often at the expense of others–the upper echelon of Goldman Sachs, for example,  has been wildly successful in the terms of our culture, meaning they made incredible amounts of money, but it’s hard to argue that much of their work has been a boon to our society or to the world financial system in general.  A quick review of their role in the European debt  crisis–they enabled Greek currency manipulation–and their simply fraudulent actions in the derivatives market in the United States makes this clear.   I would suggest to you that Princeton is taking a strong stance against the attitude embodied by people who act in the interest of short-term and personal profit over the long-term good for all.

You don’t have to be Anglo-Saxon or Protestant to have a sense of duty, of course–go look up Dharma if you have any questions about that–but clearly Wilson himself in his speech and in his physical situation while writing and giving the speech was embodying a certain spirit of sacrifice.  This is  important because a prompt like this tells you  what your university is looking for in its prospective students:  a future Lord of Wall Street needs not apply.

If I may quote from Wilson’s  essay, this section, by establishing what Wilson saw as the purpose of the university, also reinforces what the university still sees as its purpose:

“Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, –not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher sort of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted “a seminary of true religion and good literature” which should be after their own model and among their own people.

 It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen . . .”

It’s not an accident that this speech tweaks one of its rivals, Yale, and Princeton clearly sees itself as a liberal institution in the traditional sense of the word, producing people of wide-ranging  knowledge and overall excellence who will practice the Aristotelian virtues of service and thought.   So may I strongly suggest that your essay for this prompt show you as a thinking and active member of American society who is concerned with the state of the world and the welfare of his or her fellow citizens.  (To be fair to Yale, I think Harvard has more suspects behind some of our recent economic troubles.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as a hand-wringer or platitude fabricator as you demonstrate your sense of duty and your awareness of the Big Picture, and your essay should not fall into the trap of being too self-referential; its focus should be more on what you observed than on what you felt, on what should be done rather than on how to point fingers.

You should also not offer simplistic solutions to the problems which you  discuss–just look at the Occupy movement, which morphed into all kinds of weirdness, especially in places like Oakland, as various violent elements like the so called black-maskers and so-called anarchists infiltrated the scene–they were not always the same people– and caused trouble.  Seriously, smacking with a hammer a waiter who’s trying to stop you from breaking the window in the restaurant he works at is not fighting the Man, and the  Eat the Rich slogans do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change.

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

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

But wait, you say–don’t we have a problem with racism?  How can I volunteer there?

I leave that to you to figure out, but I would also have a look at the Black Lives Matter movement for some ideas for a social justice theme.    Just type in the search term and start clicking, or follow my lead and have a look at this article, which does a great job giving some perspective on the BLM movement:  Black Lives and the Police.  Of course, if you have had not interest in this in the past, or do not have some kind of feeling about it, it is a terrible topic for you–app readers do not like the essays that leverage somebody else’s suffering to get into college, and the BLM movement would not exist if not for a lot of suffering.  So you need to have some genuine interest and find the right angle that does not seem too self-interested but is more interested in the topic.  Avoid lecturing about the obvious.

In keeping with that, I  would add that you also want to think outside the box and perhaps avoid the kind of binary opposites that have developed around the movement–try to find something original to say.  As an example, I look not just at the idea of racism, but at the idea that the police have become militarized–in particular, I have pondered, but not researched, how many police officers have done tours of duty in occupied cities and had to shoot at people who look like civilians . . . whatever you do, try to be thoughtful.  People will have strong emotional reactions that are not entirely predictable.  Take my last statement–some veterans (and friends/family of vets) might become instantly irritated or angry at it; others would nod their heads and say they knew what I meant.  Remember that this essay is for admissions to a university, not to a protest group.

For  other topics in the realm of social justice, I  start with economic justice–as seen in the fast-food strikes, in which workers in hundreds of cities walked out of their jobs or took their day off to ask, en masse, for a living wage in recent years.  Start here, for information:  Fast Food Strike.  Then there is the Walmart food drive–for its own employees.  Probably you have heard or read about it, but here’s a decent summary:  Food Drive.  

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

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

It is also worth looking at the Occupy movement in its early days, for the spirit of the thing and the reasons for anger–have a look at this link in the New York Review of Books for a good discussion of Occupy if you are interested: In Zucotti Park.  This may seem like ancient history to you, but aspects of Occupy are in the other movements of the last few years.

A few other things to remember about this speech involve  Woodrow Wilson himself.  He was an internationalist who believed strongly not just that the United States participate in international affairs, but that we be, well, a bit Arthurian, a leader yet seated at a Round Table–he did want a League of Nations, after all . . . so if you are an isolationist or  tend to speak like the more hysterical members of the Tea Party movement, Princeton seems to suggest in presenting Wilson’s speech that you might want to go elsewhere for school.  Yale, I guess.  Or tone it down.

In concluding our discussion of this prompt, I mention my view that the Tea Party and the Occupy people share a fundamental American concern for fairness and equality, and that I look forward to some sort of shared agenda arising from these populist movements, especially if things get worse.  If you do prefer tea to coffee, so to speak, you might explore that kind of common value, which would prevent you from coming  across like, well, Sean Hannity.  Woodrow Wilson would not have been a fan of the Tea Party; in using his speech, Princeton is taking a stance that is both principled and political.  Keep that in mind.

Princeton Supplement Prompt4

Using the quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Gold on Tacos

Jonathan Gold on Udon

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

 

Princeton Supplement Prompt 5

Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.  

I have written about how to write about books a whole buncha times, so I will bounce you back to this post on Harvard prompt about books and then let you click around there and elsewhere in my archives:  How to Write About Books.

You will notice that the New York Review of Books comes up in links, which I would use.

 

How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples

In common application, Princeton Application Essays, Stanford Application Essays on September 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Oh, and what not to do.  For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay.  Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros.  More on that in a moment.

Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out.  Read on for more.

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To begin with,  I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life.  Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into Collegeand, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below).   In it,  an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).

Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest,  and,  most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring.  The admissions director talks about  the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay).  This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you )  or why this has come to pass, something I explain here:  Common App.

So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s  College App show, and listen before you read on.  After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below.  More on that later; for now, here it is:  This American Life:  How I Got Into College.

Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons.  First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective.  Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the  protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.

As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here:  Prank Admissions Essay

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Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.

By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays.  The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.

So my first advice for the Common App is this:  Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected.  (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.)  This does not really require anything radical or crazy.  It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.

The next point I’d like to make is this:  none of my essay examples below will be student examples.  The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation:  if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers.  You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field.  Somebody with proven chops.   It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where  I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good.  Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures.  My caveat:  you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote.  Thanks.  Now on with the show.

Essay Examples

After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them.  I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.

Okay, here we go:  to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world.  I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational  exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.

So go to this  long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years.  Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below.  The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link:  My Wonder Years.

And here is your brief and painless editing exercise:  copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs.  After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18.  Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted.  Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word.   Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.

You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s  original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen.  Yes indeed,  a  nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic.  And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.

Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place.  The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes  with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have  in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.

Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital  This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here   the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another  great example of the Unexpected, in point of view  and attitude.  The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.

Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops.  The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above.  Or just  skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more.  Good stuff.

Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I BelieveThis link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays.  The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics.  The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids.  The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.

I do have one warning for this collection:  this specific  essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe  project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio.  So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or  This I believe: x.  An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now.  Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.

As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in  few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here.  Thanks for dropping by.

And remember:  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is  . . . theft.  Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante:  Wages of Sin.  Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.