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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Instructions of Master Shoitsu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three types of Quote Essays

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

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

They ask you to choose a quote to talk about;

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

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

Know the Background of the Quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Write Short Responses and Essays on Quote Topics

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

 

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THERE ARE THOSE WHO LOVE IT’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon.

 

Writing an Essay about a Quote–Some Additional Resources for the Princeton Supplement and other Application Essays Based on Quotes

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 28, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody looking for ideas on an essay about a quote.  You should also check out my last post on Writing About a Quote for Princeton, which introduces how to use an essay or a quote from an essay.

For those of you who read my post on using an essay for . . . an essay about a quote, and want more, below I have additional links to excellent writers and essays, good for quoting and good for ideas about how to write an essay that is interesting or even brilliant.

These links are centered on two long-standing magazines that are famous for featuring quality essays. Short descriptions and author links will help you choose, or just click on everything, and keep clicking until you find an essay, or a quote . . . that clicks.

One the one hand, these essays may provide a quote for you to use. On the other hand, you will find nothing but great writing in these links, which carries its own lessons about how to construct an essay, even if you do not use a specific essay for a quote.

Author and essay links

Atlantic—One of America’s Great, long-running magazines on culture, politics, the arts and writing.

Atlantic Writers Page

A sampling of writers and works

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me.

Coates’ essay on Obama, starting with quote from Gatsby

JJ Gould on culture and language:

A Brief History of Dude

Ian Bogost, contributing editor, tech subjects:

Essay on The Fidget Spinner

Or try this:

How Many Robots Does It Take to Replace a Human Job?

Key Quote:

Recent studies from McKinsey and the economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimate that around 45 percent of workers currently perform tasks that could be automated in the near future. And the World Bank estimates that around 57 percent of jobs could be automated within the next 20 years.

For the full essay:  Robots.     This robot article by Gillian White, Senior Associate Editor

Next up: Ross Anderson, Science topics, very cool stuff for science fans

Ross Anderson Page

Essay on Pleistocene Park—kind of like Jurassic Park, just more recent

 

The World’s Most Urgent Science Project

To know the Earth’s future, you must first know its past.

 

Matt Thompson, Deputy Editor

 Advertising That Exploits Our Deepest Insecurities

Key Quote

The web browser is a dissatisfaction-seeking machine.

 Key section

The web browser is a dissatisfaction-seeking machine. Every search query we input reflects a desire—to have, to know, to find. Ordinarily, that fact may escape notice. But there are moments when the machine reveals its inhumanity.

Speaking on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is cohosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s Note to Self, shared a story of a message she received from a listener who’d been following her series on digital privacy. “She was concerned that she might have a drinking problem, and so she went on Google and asked one of those questions, ‘How do you know if you have a drinking problem?’ Two hours later, she goes on Facebook, and she gets an ad for her local liquor store.

“And she left me a voicemail crying, ’cause she was like, ‘You know, it would be one thing if it were even sending me, like, clinics maybe where I could get help. But the fact that that’s how it was targeting me …’ She felt so betrayed by Facebook, this company with whom she had a very intimate relationship.”

Other Interesting Stuff:

New Yorker—Probably the most important general-circulation magazine on culture, arts and politics, with some detours into science, as well as poetry, famous cartoons and restaurants in . . . New York

For example, Mary Karr on high heels

And frankly, all you have to do to find more cool stuff is keep clicking—though quite a bit is behind a paywall, much is also kept up as a public service.

Here is where you can access a list of New Yorker contributors. In two words: Awesome Writers. Click away to find some excellent stuff to learn from or quote from:

 

List of New Yorker Writers, Linked to Essays

 

How To Write the Princeton Application Essay in 2015-2016

In Essay About A Quote, Essay on Books, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Quote Essay, Princeton Service Essay, Princeton Supplement on July 14, 2015 at 12:35 pm
The post below contains information from the 2015-16 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

I have written about several of these prompts before, for the simple reason that the prompts are the same this year (class of 2020) as they were for the class of 2019.  The  Princeton prompts fit into some general categories that I have analyzed, both in posts about more general topics, like Writing About a Quote, or in posts about writing about books as a whole, like How to Write About Books I or in How to Write About Books III, as well as in analysis on the individual prompts–see below for more.
I broke down the Princeton Essays from last year in specific posts, below–and what I said last year applies to the same prompts this year, though some specific references may need updating, like those mentions of the Occupy movement for use on the “disparity” prompt, (Prompt 2).  Last year, Occupy still seemed relevant.  This year, not so much–at least the movement as such.  Of course, the themes and concerns of Occupy are still relevant now, and just wait until the presidential campaign gets out of its warm-up phase–everybody from Hillary Clinton to Jeb Bush claims to be concerned with economic inequality,  largely because  pay has been flat or down in real dollars for going on decades now for most Americans.
Since it’s a hot topic, this also means it’s also an excellent essay choice, so long as you do not come across as preachy, lecturing, etc, et. al. Showing a personal connection to or concern with a problem like this is best, while avoiding bathos, as well as avoiding a patronizing tone.  If you have never taken any interest in inequality, now might not be the best time to start.
On the other hand, a little research might make you genuinely concerned.
Best bets for this topic are those who are majoring in or interested in:  Business and Econ, sociology, psych, politics/government and those who see themselves as innovators with a mission.
For more on the specifics of writing about the Princeton supplements, click below to read my analysis of each prompt:
 I hope this helps you get a good start.  Contact me if you need some editing help–I have a reasonable amount of space as of mid-July, but will my available slots will fill rapidly as the deluge of August 1st application releases approaches.

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 4: A Lesson in Invention and Homonymic Non-Sequiturs

In College Application Essay Example, Essay About A Quote, Essay and Literary Terms, Essay Beginning With a Quote, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 25, 2012 at 11:05 am

This post ranges far and wide as it covers prompt 4 for the University of Chicago for this year.  Warning:  this is one of my few remaining “freebie” posts for this year.  Other posts will be available completely only on my private website, which is open to subscribers and college advising or application essay editing clients.

Essay Option 4.   “…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern   Present: pres·ent   1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.   Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.   Inspired by Jennifer Qin, admitted student Class of 2016.

This prompt, like the other U of Chicago prompts, opens up a vast space for invention and creativity by asking you  to respond to  what I will call a homonymic non-sequitur.  But even with a quote prompt that repurposes its source material, like this one, it is still a good idea to look at the source of the quote.  In this case you are more interested in understanding the weltanschauung of this prompt and in seeking inspiration than you are in getting some obscure information to use in the essay. You are, after all, going to be writing a work of fiction here.

The source of the quote in this prompt, The Rose Rabbi, is a near-future or alternate history novel, depending on how you look at it.  So we will begin with a quick look at The Rose Rabbi, then discuss other topics that are worth exploring before writing to this prompt, including  a thematic discussion  in which I reference lyrics by The Talking Heads.  This will be followed by   a quick assessment of the homonym and its origins in the history of the English language   and, for the first time this year, I will conclude this post by dashing off an example essay responding to this prompt.

I generally don’t use example essays for specific prompts because this tends to funnel people toward a particular response, but since I will be inventing a history for that great gift to civilization called espresso, I don’t think there is a danger that I will be coopting somebody else’s idea or, on the other hand, steering too many people toward my topic.  Especially since I will be claiming that espresso was developed as an adjunct experiment during the Manhattan Project.

The Source of the Prompt:  The Rose Rabbi and Its Theme

The Rose Rabbi is about a gent named Wolf Walker who tries to understand how he has arrived where he is in his life.  This after being tasked with discerning whether one the clients of his advertising agency is the mafia.  The novel is set in a New York and in a world which are both like and very much unlike ours, with political chaos widespread and the “Chateau Wars” engulfing Europe.  Employed in the world of  the huckster, of those who try to shape the reality of others, Wolf grapples with the great philosophical questions as he reaches his 40th birthday and tries to make sense of his life and place in the world.   The Talking Heads aptly summed up the existential situation captured in this novel in the song Once in a Lifetime:

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

So that’s Wolf’s problem.

Your problem in writing about this prompt is a little more Shakespearean, though I think your essay should be informed by the spirit of Once in a Lifetime.  What I mean by my reference to Shakespeare  (and those of you who come to English after learning another language are more sharply aware of this than are most native speakers)  is the fungibility of English vocabularity, the source of our rich tradition in puns and of this essay prompt.

The Prompt:  Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results

Ms. Quin, the author of our prompt, presents a literary non sequitur, conflating one definition of the word present with another.  She is, of course, also working with a pair of homonyms to define her prompt, and I emphasize that, in choosing a definition and therefore a word that the original sentence did not intend, she is using a non sequitur that emphasizes this prompt’s attitude as well as establishing parameters for the topic.  To put it more concisely, she’s inviting you to play:  Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.

Her homonymic invitation is deeply related to the nature of English.  We English speakers are citizens of a mongrel linguistic world, for English is a pastiche of languages, Germanic at its root, an offspring of Norse cousins, reshaped by French, injected with Latin and Greek and borrowing from most major languages in the world.  Even something as seemingly All-American as a cowboy riding up to a bunkhouse and asking, “Who’s the head honcho around here,” shows the mixed nature of English.  Honcho comes into English  from Japanese, and appears in English for the first time in the years after World War II, as a slang term interchangeable with “boss” .  In Japanese it means “Master Sergeant,” and it became the term G.I.s used during the occupation of Japan when they wanted to find out who was in charge (noncommissioned officers are always in charge–ask any officer).  The very history of this language is nearly as strange and convoluted as any imaginary history you could write.

As a result, we have a language composed of many languages, with words  from completely different sources sharing the same space. Many of these words,   jostling elbows as they find a place in the language, come to sound and look like existing words.  Thus you have a rich supply of homonyms both native and imported.  In this prompt,  present, that point in time between past and future, and present, a gift.  Think about this phenomenon  as both a philosophical matter and as a source of material.  In this way, the language itself is a gift to all of us.  In fact, word etymologies are a great place to start considering where anything comes from, even if you are going to make up a history for the object or metaphor in question.

If  this topic intrigues you but you are having trouble getting traction, I would suggest that you  start by having a look at both the word gift and the word present.  Try a good dictionary, like The American Heritage Dictionary or a good dictionary app, like the free Merriam Webster app through the App Store.  Be sure to consider the etymologies of these words and to check out the synonyms and usage discussions.

Next, think of gifts broadly, listing objects that were gifts to you or discovered by you in one way or another,  and then move on to substances, ideas, places, traits, and accidents or coincidences that you could now see as gifts.  Eventually you will find a suitable “present” for which you can invent a history. Need I say that a gift may have been given intentionally or simply stumbled upon?  A trait received from a parent or an answer to a question?    A work of art (a poster facsimile counts here) or a bridge over troubled water?  (Note that the latter is a metaphor, per the prompt.)

Start  brainstorming.  Don’t forget:  you are inventing a history, so if you know the real history of the “present,” you need to make up some sort of alternate history that may include some facts but which should, to some degree, be your invention.  Feel free to use your own non sequiturs.

And now I will, in keeping with the spirit of the prompt, and name dropping the U of Chicago in a wink-wink kind of way,  fabricate a history for one of the great “presents” offered us by modern culture:  espresso.  Look below the essay for links and explanations that show how I mix fact with fiction in my “Secret History of Espresso:”

Espresso: Ah, the nectar of the gods, the elixir of invention, the quintessence of the coffee bean.  Espresso is perhaps the greatest gift bequeathed to us by the marriage of nature and technology,  and it is itself the father of more inventions than can be counted.  How many late-night cram sessions, how many tech start ups, how many moments of artistic insight can be attributed to its influence?  How many millions stand in line each morning, awaiting its benediction?  Yet its true history is almost unknown.  In fact, dare I say, I alone possess the true secret of the origin of espresso.  And now I am, for the first time, going to share this tale with the world.

It all began in the dark days of World War II.  Scientists assigned to the Manhattan project needed a version of coffee in keeping with their theoretical work related to  the relativistic universe, and not wanting to master the engineering challenge presented by creating sub-atomic-sized  cups of coffee, they settled for the demitasse holding an essence of coffee distilled at high speed and drunk slowly.  They used a prototype nuclear reactor to heat the water and high pressure pumps to force the atomic water through a fine grind of coffee.  All well and good.  But then, after an experiment with time travel via wormholes went wrong, espresso was introduced into turn-of-the-century Italy.  

This occurred when a scientist named Luigi Bezzera, having just distilled a fresh cup of espresso from the experimental, reactor-driven espresso machine which was located in the lab under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, trotted directly into a wormhole time-travel experiment being conducted by Enrico Fermi.  Bezzera found himself suddenly transported to his grandfather’s village in Italy in the year 1899, still holding the freshly made espresso.  The villagers, attracted by the enticing  odor of the pungent extract of the coffee bean wanted to know, “How did you make that?”  Lacking a nuclear reactor but able to utilize the mechanical and metallurgical talents of the extended Bezzera  family to whom he was thus awkwardly introduced, Luigi perfected the first espresso machine in 1901.

It was as a result of this that espresso  is widely but incorrectly thought to have been invented  early in the 20th Century, in Italy, where it changed history by providing energy and inspiration to generations of espresso-drinking philosophers and rebels, and also established the paradox called the Doppio effect, a little-known corollary of both the Grandfather Paradox of time travel and the Twins Paradox of relativity.  This was illustrated when Luigi visited the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904, with a portable example of his new espresso machine and, demonstrating it to a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, provided the inspiration for Einstein’s insight into the relativity of time by producing a beverage distilled from coffee beans at near-light speed.  The rest is scientific history. 

This is, of course, also an example of the Mobius-strip pattern of history as it is Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity that led  to the moment under the bleachers when Luigi wandered, espresso in hand, into a gap in the space-time continuum, which then led to the transplantation of espresso technology to an earlier time and Italian place which led to . . . me having the gift of espresso-fueled inspiration for this little history, as I plot my own journey through the space-time continuum,  from high school to  the University of Chicago, where espresso was really invented.  

Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:

On wormholes, time travel and what Al Einstein has to do with it:

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago (I presume that Enrico did drink espresso, but would have picked this habit up in his native Italy where it actually was invented.  No pets were hurt in my little experiment in fictional history and many of my basic facts were true)

Fermi at U of Chicago

For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:

Einstein in Bern

Last but not least, I offer my apologies to the great Luigi Bezzera, who actually did invent the first espresso machine, though he was not transported half a century back through time to do so . . . I add that the modern pump expresso machine  can be traced to the Faema machines from the 1960’S. Here’s an espresso timeline

Espresso Past and Present

And if you happen to by touring San Francisco, you can check out a couple of early-20th Century tower espresso machines still in operation at Tosca Cafe, then go around the corner to Trieste for a modern espresso in a classic environment, or across the street to Cafe Puccini or visit Roma (Warning:  Tosca uses boozy additives to most of their “espresso” drinks.

Tosca

And finally, note that this blog post, including my example essay, is copyrighted material, available for use by individuals but not to be shared or used commercially without my express, written permission.  (Need I add how dumb it would be to copy my essay and present it as your own work?  Also note that this essay is 587 words long and so would need to lose about a paragraph of material to fit the 500 word limits imposed by the authorities. If this were your essay, and you asked me to edit it, I’d eighty-six the last paragraph.)

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 3: The Dark Lady

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag on Silence, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm

This post will discuss Ms. Sontag and her quote at great length, but I will also focus on the broader problems of responding to quote prompts, particularly the context issues that quotes raise.

The Lady and the Prompt

Here she is,  in Essay Option 3:   Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.   Anonymous submission.

Part 1:  Watch Your Context

As usual, I want my readers to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues they must tackle to write a response to the prompt.  This despite an e-mail about my recent posts on Chicago.  In this e-mail, I was asked why I didn’t just let people make it up, slap something together on the fly, in keeping with the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

My response–Go ahead, if you want to, but here’s the problem:  this isn’t a scavenger hunt.  It’s an essay.  And among other things, you would probably like to have an original idea for this essay, right?  And you’d like to relate your essay to the quote.   But how do you know if it’s original?  And how do you know what to make of the quote?

One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is.  You may have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it.  Just like Alfred Russell Wallace, who had a great and crazy idea nobody else had, so he sent it to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here.

Because literally thousands of people will be responding to this prompt, you can expect that a seemingly original idea may have a twin or even an extended family out there.  Alfred Wallace was still a brilliant and original thinker, even if you didn’t recognize his name.  His application file would definitely be stamped “admit.”

So my advice is paradoxical:  Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.

There are some basic mistakes you will then avoid. As an example, you don’t want to invert or reverse a quote’s intent and meaning unless you know you are doing it and have a reason for the reversal.     It’s pretty easy to take a quote out of its context and get it badly wrong.  Even though our app readers will understand that you are reacting to the quote from your own particular place and time, they will also not be able to help cringing if you  get it totally wrong and seem blissfully unaware of it.

This is a pretty common problem, and not just in application essays.  For an example, just look at what Justice Antonin Scalia did to poor Robert Frost–In support of a ruling about separation of powers, Justice Scalia quoted Robert Frost thus:

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

Dude, you are so blowing your quote there.  This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spends all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say.

Why?  In the first example, Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in a poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman.     The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence.  Read it and see, here.    And it’s Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius who speaks the Shakespeare line.  He’s speaking it to Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword.  Right on, man!  Be true to your own selfish, murderous self!  Using this line as a positive aphorism is a good example of philistinism.    (Bonus activity:  Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)

The point is this:  You should assume that your app readers are  literate in the older sense of the word, in the sense of having read widely and deeply, and that they know something about the quotes you respond to.   So before writing in response to the Sontag prompt, I would suggest knowing something about her and about the specific source of this prompt.  Try looking at the links I annotate below; after the links, and hopefully after you have taken some time to read them, I will turn to some of the many ways you might interpret this quote without mangling it.

To begin with, the quote is from one of Sontag’s essays called  “Aesthetics of Silence” which was published in her collection “Styles of Radical Will,”  a work available on Google Books here:The Aesthetics of Silence  You should read the whole essay, but she cuts to the chase in Part 2 of the essay, beginning on page 5, where she details retreats into silence.

Next, you should have  a look at this link, at what I suspect is the efficient cause of this prompt–the Sontag essay is on this U of Chicago Media Studies page devoted to . . . silence:

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/silence.htm

This includes a rich discussion of exactly what the prompt asks for.

Then it might be wise to learn a bit more about the author,  Unfortunately, one of the best places to get a quick overview of her biography, work and  influence is in an obituary, as she died in 2004.  Try this obit on Sontag in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

If you want to keep reading about her and want to check out more of her work, the New York Review of Books has this page with links to her writings and writings about her:

http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/susan-sontag/

And finally, one of her best essays, called Looking at War, in which she analyzes “Photography’s view of devastation and death” was published in the  New Yorker in 2002.  This essay is particularly interesting as she talks about how the viewer of a photograph forms the meaning of a photograph. You, of course, are going to take a quote and make meaning out of it.  We’ve got what you might call an epistemological parallel going.

The text of the article is not behind the New Yorker’s paywall but, sadly, the incredible photographs published with the article are not included here–due to some copyright issues, I’m sure.  These are all shocking photos; in one example, a militiaman in a neatly pressed uniform,  with his sunglasses pushed back on his head, his  Kalashnikov dangling from one hand and his cigarette daintily raised in the other, is swinging a boot to kick  the head of a woman lying face down on the pavement.  The woman appears to be dead or dying.  Sontag had a commitment to seeing and writing about what she saw, whether it was horrifying or beautiful.  You can read the article here Looking at War.  (Late Addendum–I have just found the article posted as a pdf, with the photos, at the following link; the image quality is a bit compromised, but worth a look; copy and paste this address into a new window in your browser:  http://www.uturn.org/sontag_looking_at_war.pdf )

Part 2:  Some Approaches to the Quote

Approach 1

Whoa, heavy and serious, you may be thinking.  Well, yes, Ms. Sontag was very serious about her work, and the quote does present a serious argument for the value and meaning of silence.  Specifically, as you know having read The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag was looking at artists who renounced their work or retreated into silence, and to other ways that silence can be both a haven and a statement.  This makes sense for a writer who focused with some regularity on the grotesqueries and philistinism to be found in our consumer culture.  She’s after an aesthetic for the artist and thinker, and her tone was often critical, detached, and paradoxical–note how she asserts in this same essay that   “Art becomes the enemy of the artist.”

So you might be constructing an essay that follows the lead of Sontag.  If you are, you need to know something about paradox.  (If you’ve looked at my posts on the other U of Chicago prompts, it’s deja vu all over again.) You might want to write about a time you used silence constructively, or as a shelter, or as a renunciation or as an assertion of the self,  in an act of authentic resistance to shallow blabber.  You could build on what you’ve learned about Sontag and the source essay directly.

Approach 2

On the other hand, the two most important requirements of the prompt are that the experience be personal and that silence play a role in your response and in the outcome.  You could go in a completely different direction.  For example, silence is often assent. This can be a good  thing  or a bad thing.  This can be an intentional affirmation through silence or  it can be acquiescence.

You might follow the example in another famous quote, that of Martin Niemoller, speaking of the response to the Nazis in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Here we have acquiescence, silence as an act, out of fear.  All of us have been silent out of fear or apprehension at some point, so this could be fertile ground for an essay.  Perhaps you silence was unwise or made you complicit in something wrong–handle this with care–perhaps your fear was well-grounded and your silence wise.

On the other hand, somebody in a meeting in which Roberts Rules of Order are being followed is offering positive affirmation when by remaining silent when the chairperson asks if there are any nays, and the person does not speak.

Or maybe you have been in a setting in which silence was a rule, intended to create a meditative or contemplative environment, or to foster nonverbal communication.  Taoist and Buddhist cultures have places reserved for silence . . .

Or maybe you spend time out in nature, observing, where you have discovered the virtues of silence, what silence allows you to see or what silence brings to you (is this also true in some social settings?  That those who constantly talk cannot see, blinded as they are by themselves?)

And what about that John Cage composition 4’33”, composed of . . . silence . . . or the sound that fills the hall when the instrument is silent . . .

Have fun with the process and look for a post on prompt four for U of Chicago soon.  And remember what Hamlet said:  The rest is silence.

What a closer!

The University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2012-2013

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde Enemy, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

The University of Chicago has posted its questions for this year.  They are earlier in getting out their prompts than many of their competitors, which is only fair–they will, as usual, have some of the most challenging questions out there, as well as some of the most entertaining, so you will want to give this essay some extra thought.  I will look at the prompts one at a time,  beginning in a moment.  Before I do, may I suggest that you get into the spirit of the prompts by investigating the U of C scavenger hunt.  It’s always a good idea to have some idea of your audience’s perspective, something I have discussed before in a number of posts.

You can start here, with the site for the scavenger hunt:  Lore.   The hunt represents the University of Chicago’s world view, taken to an extreme, so it is worth knowing about.  You will get a broader look at the atmosphere and outlook of the university in a recent article  published in the New Yorker: U of C Scavenger Hunt.  Like my website, the  New Yorker has a paywall on some content; if you or your parents have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the full article; if not,  you can pay for access to it.    This article does give you some history and insight into Chicago’s essay prompts and school tradition as well as the scavenger hunt itself–I’d say it is worth the fee to learn more about the school.

Continuing to the prompts, I will deal with them one at a time, with suggestions, ideas and background on prompt 1 in this post, and the others to follow in subsequent posts.

2012-13 essay questions:

Essay Option 1.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.

Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).

Inspired by Martin Krzywy, admitted student Class of 2016.

Let me say first that you could write a satirical or otherwise humorous response to this prompt.  I want to start by making that point clear because the background to this prompt, which I will discuss below, is not so funny.

This prompt also has some overlap with those for other essays, such as Prompt 4 of the Common App, which asks you to discuss the influence of a character from fiction or a historical figure.  If you strongly identify with a character in a book or in history, hey, their enemy might be your enemy. Imagine yourself entering an elevator to find some literary or historical baddie on board.   So if you are all geeked out over a particular set of characters from books or if you are a history buff, feel free to insert yourself creatively into their story.  Do try to make it relevant to “real life” or show what this opposition means in your life and says about you.

Before you do, however, you might want to take apart the prompt a bit more.   First I offer a little detour into the taxonomy of this quote–it’s probably better to call it an apothegm than an aphorism–go here for the distinction.

Though this prompt seems aimed at generating responses both creative and humorous,  the relationship this prompt has to Wilde’s demise is anything but humorous.  It’s worth looking at Wilde himself while you are trolling the depths of your mind for an idea for your essay.  Wilde’s enemies were multitude, as it turns out, from the power structures of his time, political, legal and social to . . . his own lover.  He is a good example of of a person who did not take his own advice.

As England’s leading wit and one of its great writers, Wilde lived flamboyantly in London and elsewhere, and made a very bad enemy in the form of the father of one of his lovers.  When Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas came to light, Douglas’ father, the Marqess of Queensbury, was enraged.  Though the Marqess instituted the Queensbury rules of boxing, making it a “civilized” sport, his own conduct was anything but civilized  (he was considered something of  a brute in his own time, which is saying a lot, given his noble status).  Queensbury threatened Wilde with physical violence both through proxies and in person, and when this and other means, including cutting off Lord Douglas from funds and any other support failed, he attempted to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s  play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though  Wilde had used the police to keep the raging lord out of the opening of Earnest,  he did not foresee the potential for revenge that he handed Queensbury when he told his solicitor (that’s lawyer, to you Yanks)  that Queensbury’s charges were lies.  Queensbury himself was, as a result, arrested on libel charges.  But Wilde’s verbal pyrotechnics in the trials that followed were not going to allow him to evade the obvious fact that he had himself lied in denying the nature of his relationships with other men. Today the  odious Marquess would have been the one found guilty and punished, but this was the late 19th Century; Wilde did not account for the legal system he faced when he tried to use it against his enemy.  A gay man turning to British law at this time for respite from  an enemy like Queensbury should have understood that the law, too, was his enemy.  But the cruelest betrayal for Wilde would be that of Lord Douglas himself.

Rather than defeating the brutal Marquess, Wilde himself was eventually arrested, and in the end, convicted and imprisoned for “Gross Indecency” under sodomy laws.  His trial is also generally seen as marking a turn to much harsher attitudes toward homosexuals in Britain, attitudes that would reach a peak of nastiness during World War I.

If you wish to explore the Wilde angle of this prompt and the potentials it raises further, Barbara Tuchman puts Wilde in the context of prewar Britain in her great work of popular history The Proud Tower.  For more immediate information on Wilde’s trials, try this link: Famous World Trials. If you are a Wilde fan and want to really get into this, try Ellman’s biography:  Oscar Wilde.  Wilde himself created a great artistic response to the injustice done him by writing the poem Ballad of Reading Gaol; use the link for some background and  to access the poem itself through the Guardian website.

Wilde’s life represents a serious side to this prompt, but whether you lean toward humor or toward being earnest, you might want to begin by simply making lists of things you oppose.  Don’t prioritize, don’t establish a heirarchy, just do it–from pet peeves like the missing sock to existential threats like nuclear destruction, you have a large and every growing category of problems, threats and villains to choose from. If you’ve written or thought about writing the Problem/Concern essay for the Common App, you may be able to turn there for inspiration–you aren’t writing the same essay, of course, but you may be recycling the same idea.

You can then easily split your list of That Which You Oppose into either serious or lightweight and humorous topics.  In either case, consider how to make the essay about you as well as about the topic–how do you fit in to the picture; what is your relationship to the topic?  I have written before about the nature of the college app essay, which is often about an “external topic,” but which is always, nevertheless, about you, the writer.  Keep this in mind.

If you have selected a problem that is serious, these can be represented by individuals whom you feel are responsible, but only if you can easily show it’s a clear-cut case of malfeasance–you have hundreds of words available in this essay, not thousands. In general  I  suggest that, if you are going to write about an issue, you focus on the issue rather than a person–ad hominem attacks are generally better in politics than in application essays.

As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, both serious and humorous.  We have all kinds of serious examples from various banks in well-deserved trouble to despicable political leaders who kill or incarcarate their own people.  Be sure you know what you are talking about, however, and avoid cliched discussions with trite solutions for dealing with your “enemy.”

As for humor, the range of topics is also wide open, and I think that you could include inanimate objects and phenomenon beyond human control.  You could also include notable individuals, if you choose with care and handle it with wit, such as a certain New York City developer with bad hair . . .or you could use the late and great Pogo as an inspiration–“We have met the enemy and he is us”–to  examine  some personal or social foible.  For my part, on Monday morning, my sock drawer is my enemy . . .

Spend some time brainstorming and riffing off of the basic idea this prompt presents to come up with any  antagonist you wish.  You know you have an enemy somewhere . . .

I’ll return to more of the University of Chicago’s prompts in the next day or two.  Come on back soon but be aware that some of this will be behind my paywall.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Essays: The First Prompts For 2012-2013 Are Out

In Colgate Personal Statement, Colgate Supplemental Essay, Essay About A Quote, Penn Application Essay, Penn Personal Statement, Penn Supplemental Essay on July 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Who this post is for:  Anybody who needs to write an essay about a quote; anybody applying to Colgate or Penn.

Note:  some of the links in this post are samples of full length posts available to my clients and subscribers.  Subscriptions require that you create a WordPress account and pay me a small fee, or that you retain me for editing or college app services.  See the “About” section for more information.

An increasing number of universities are timing their own release of supplemental prompts to coincide with the Common App rollout. The Common App posts a “draft” form by early summer, but the website for the Common App is taken down in mid to late July and then goes live on August 1st; this year, the site goes offline on Friday, July 13, at 11:59 PM.  I have the common app prompts available on this post:  The Common Application for 2012.

Colgate and Penn are among the few universities that have already posted their 2012-2013 supplemental prompts, so let’s take a look at their offerings.  I will follow some analysis of each prompt with a discussion of approaches to each prompt.

Colgate’s prompt asks for what I would call a fictional travel essay.  Here it is:

At Colgate we value global awareness and the diverse perspectives of our students. Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  If you had the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world during your time at Colgate, where would you go and why?

This prompt is  an alternate to the  classic “My Trip” essay, in which generations of high school students have bored readers by summarizing a trip to a foreign place and describing the odd habits they encountered there.  It is possible to write an interesting essay about a trip, as hundreds of books on travel show, but more often than not students generate not particularly interesting descriptions or end up appearing arrogant in their descriptions of foreign places and people.

Colgate’s prompt is an attempt to avoid the typical “My Trip” essay by having you invent a destination.  This means that they are trying to evoke your imaginative abilities as much as your cosmopolitanism,    so you should avoid simply describing some place that you have already been.  An exception to this might be if you  have a commitment (in a Peace Corps kind of way)  to a foreign country, and you intend to  continue it.  I have  had clients who have gone on missions or service trips to do everything from constructing housing and water facilities to assisting with medical services; if  you’ve done something along these lines and you are committed to doing it again, then you might want to write about this place–but keep in mind  that Colgate asks you to imagine a future trip, so make clear an abiding commitment which you intend to deepen during your time at Colgate.  Also make clear what it will allow you to bring back to the Colgate community and what new things you might learn or do.  It might help if this relates in some way to your major.

In addressing this Colgate prompt, you  need to consider what your audience is looking for–if you are a first-time visitor to this blog, you should look at some of my earlier posts, like this one:  Evading the Cliche.  Colgate telegraphs the values they seek throughout the prompt:  we value global awareness and . . .  diverse perspectives . . . Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  

In addressing the ideals established here by Colgate, try to avoid simplistic, Social Justice class responses.  I don’t have a beef with the Social Justice curriculum as an idea, but increasingly I am seeing a kind of social justice cliche, or set of cliches, in response to prompts about international problems and in response to prompts which, like this one, are motivated by the university’s desire to create more aware and cosmopolitan people.  I call this the reverse of the cultural superiority fallacy, which I will discuss in a moment.  Before I do, please see my earlier post here, where I address some of the cliched responses elicited by problem essays, cliches which this prompt may also elicit.

Keep in mind also that this Colgate essay prompt is aimed at a communitarian as well as cosmopolitan ideal–whatever you learn will bring something back to the Colgate community and so, I guess, help Colgate deepen the cosmopolitanism of America at large.  You are the point of the essay not as an isolated individual but as part of a learning community.

A major risk of writing a travel essay, even a fictional one,  is the cultural outlook we all carry.  It’s almost impossible to avoid viewing and describing other places and cultures from the point of view of your own, and many well-intentioned travelers past and present come across as patronizing or arrogant in describing the places they visit and the people they see there.  I would say that this risk is not mitigated by the fact that Colgate asks you to invent a trip.  If you haven’t been to the place at all, it is nearly certain that all of your information is  second-hand  and without adequate context.  So be wary of passing judgements, especially about people and places you have not experienced or not experienced in depth . . . and even if you have, try to be aware of your own assumptions and how they shape what you say.  Try starting here for a serious examination of this problem:  ethnocentrism.  Keep in mind the fact that Romanticizing a place or a people is nearly as ignorant as being dismissive and can be just as patronizing.

You could make stereotypes and cultural myopia the explicit  topic of your essay by writing about a place that many have preconceptions about.  Pick an easy target, like the French . . . it wasn’t so long ago that some Americans took to eating something called Freedom Fries instead of french fries . . . and more than a few Americans are intimidated by the mere idea of trying to order from the archetypal Arrogant French Waiter.  The archetypal Arrogant French Waiter does exist, of course, but he’s just as easily found in New York or San Francisco as he is in Paris, and he may not even speak French.

It will help this essay  if you have a fascination with some aspect of another country or culture–maybe you are into Anime in a deep way, or maybe  you are really into  some form of dance,  like Flamenco.  Why not  go to the source–or do some research and make a plan to go there?   This would definitely help you avoid sounding like a condescending twit-as long as you aren’t faking your interest.    For more general comments on the risk I describe above, along with some other things to avoid, see my post from last year:    College Essay No-No’s.

If you are in an international school that follows an International Baccalaureate curriculum, I suggest that you consider some of what you have learned in your Theory of Knowledge class and essay.  The cosmopolitan philosophy of IB fits this prompt; how might a trip develop what you already know about different ways of knowing?  The IB philosophy matches up well with the ethos expressed by Colgate in this prompt.

If you are daring and creative, you might write a true work of fiction, even write about a place that does not exist but which is in some way an analogue if not an allegory for some aspects of the modern world.    In this case, you could take a cue from Jorge Luis Borges, who is often called one of the world’s great short story writers, though it might be more accurate to call him a writer of fictional essays and memoirs. Borges creates places that never existed but might have,   labyrinthine libraries that sprawl endlessly across some parallel universe, fragmentary detective stories set in vaguely familiar  lands that have never existed, encyclopedias of things that might be . . . Borges spun out fantastical and science fictional tales and treatises that always say something about the here and now.  Check him out in that Borgesian realm, the internet:  a good Borges website.

And finally, keep in mind this: nobody is going to check  that you  follow through on any commitments you might make in this essay, though it would help your essay if you felt committed while you were writing it.

Next up are Penn’s prompts for this year:

Penn

Short Answer:
A Penn education provides a liberal arts and sciences foundation across multiple disciplines with a practical emphasis in one of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Wharton School.

Given the undergraduate school to which you are applying, please discuss how you will engage academically at Penn.

(Please answer in 300 words or less.)

Essay:
Ben Franklin once said, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”

Which are you?

(Please answer in 300-500 words.)

I am not going to do an analysis of the short answer prompt as it is specific to the different schools and majors offered by Penn.  You’ll want to spend some time thinking about the major you intend to choose, and if you don’t have one, start researching before responding to this prompt.  The Penn website is a good place to start.

Let’s have a look at the Ben Franklin prompt.  The first thing I will point out is the obvious–this is an essay about a quote, and as with most of this class of essays, there is  little in the way of background for the quote, particularly since, in this case, the quote is an aphorism-by definition, an aphorism should distill wisdom, not provide an explanation of how it was reached.    I discussed writing an essay about a quote in several posts last year, so you might want to take a detour to explore some of that before moving on to my specific discussion of Ben–try this link on last year’s Princeton prompt, among others:  Writing an Essay About a Quote.

Penn could have used a more obscure source for their aphorism; the fact that they chose one identified with Ben Franklin is suggestive. To me what it suggests is politics.  Whatever you do with this quote, knowing something about Franklin himself is helpful, and about his times– Ben Franklin was  a scientist, a printer, a successful small businessman, a lady’s man, a drinker and gourmand,  a Founding Father of the United States as well as our most important early diplomat  . . .  and therefore a politician, a word which seems to have become dirty of late.  Perhaps this has something to do with Penn’s use of this aphorism, as it can be read as a fundamentally political observation.  Franklin himself was also  a master of the art of compromise,  repeatedly assessing and persuading assemblies  and individuals at home and abroad.

Franklin’s aphorism offers a way to classify and divide any group, but it is also very open to interpretation, and how you interpret it will say a lot to your application reader.  I mean by this that you have to assign values to the categories Franklin establishes–it’s hard to create a classification system for human beings that does not also create a hierarchy, and in creating hierarchies, you are at risk of seeming self-righteous or narrow-minded or naive.

One example of how to use Franklin’s triptych might be to argue that, in any given group, you have people who are inflexible, even fanatical,  people you might call The Immovable; then there are people who are compromisers, whom you might call the movable, and finally there are those few people who move,   the leaders.  If you examine the U. S. Congress using these types, you might find that politicians who claim principle may not look so good in contrast to those who are willing to compromise.  If you set it up this way, you obviously would want to be one of the leaders, those who move, though  you would praise the movable for being practical.

On the other hand, if you went in this topical direction, you would want to keep in mind the danger of oversimplifying the nature of politics and conflict–when real and important issues are at stake, compromising may actually be surrender of important principles.  I think that one way to read the current political impasse in the United States is to see it as a real conflict over real ideals, both practical and theoretical.  When faced with fanatics or ideologues, even compromisers may become immovable in response.  Perhaps those who otherwise might be movable become immovable when facing radicals or fanatics, and so save the Republic . . . after a long and ugly political fight.

As you can see, answering the question “Which type are you” depends completely on how you define the terms, what qualities you assign to them.  Maybe Franklin’s three types are  just a description of people who are more or less peripetetic, or more or less inclined to changing channels on the television.  I’m sure you could have some good, satirical fun with this one, but use caution, as always, when relying on humor in an app essay.

You need to think about this one, and you might ponder deeply what your audience, the Admissions Officers, are after in asking you this question in this most political of years.

I also suggest that a little research and reading may lead you to a good idea for this essay, or may help you develop a good idea into a powerful essay. One way to do this would be to read one of the good biographies of Ben Franklain.

Another way is to find other philosophes like Ben–Franklin’s aphorism is of a kind with the tactical and political aphorisms of many great thinkers–Macchiavelli, for example, or Sun Tzu,  the great Chinese strategist who said that in any conflict you must first know and understand yourself and then know and understand your opponent–which might also be a way to look at the meaning of what Franklin says.  See this site on Sun Tzu’s Art of War or find a good print translation, looking for one with an introduction that puts Sun Tzu and his work in meaningful context, such as this one by Thomas Cleary.  For some advice from Machiavelli, try this site:  excerpt of Machiavelli’s Art of War.

In keeping with this analogous approach, you could  write an essay focused on  “dueling aphorisms.”   This could be either a serious way to explore what Franklin meant by looking at other words of wisdom, or  as a humorous exercise in contrasting.  Get your hands on a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in the reference section of  a library, or look here for the 1919 edition online.  At the least you can amuse yourself by finding quotations that contradict with Ben’s, or that can be combined with it to go somewhere interesting.

My closing advice is this: Necessity is the mother of all invention and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Just don’t plagiarize.

Writing an Essay About a Quote

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Experience Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Supplement on December 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

This post discusses a previous year’s Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts  and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about ethical matters and personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  Please note: I have updated the information in this post in a new post  dealing  with all of Princeton’s prompts for this year, as well as updating some of the links and information for the old prompts.  Click the link above to access it.  I have also added more posts on writing about quotes for this year’s prompts by Princeton and others–Start here for that:

Writing an Essay about Quote from an Essay

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 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. (Note again that some of these prompts are different for this year, but my discussion on the others still applies).

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this admonishment:  In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Given that prompt 1, below, is essentially identical to Common App prompt 3, you shouldn’t do both of them.  With that said, it’s on to the individual prompts.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

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

I really don’t have anything to say about this prompt beyond what I have already said about the same prompt on the Common App.  My suggestion:  use this link to see what I gave you on 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 Supplement Prompt 2

Using the statement below 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.

“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 Greedhead 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 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– a number of essays I have seen recently deal with the Occupy movement, but you wouldn’t want to adopt Occupy’s slogans as policy positions.   If the Occupy Movement is an inspiration for you, you will need to describe it within a larger context of justice and define a practical focus more clearly than the movement itself has.   Eat the Rich and Tax the 1% do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change, though the energy behind this movement does.  Try to make any values you promote more concrete than a slogan for a poster or bumper sticker.

I would add to this that if you are writing about this movement, you would want to show that you have been concerned with social and economic justice prior to Occupy–you wouldn’t want to write this essay if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week, but perhaps the inchoate nature of Occupy has inspired you to focus your own goals, to rethink  your values . . . If you do want to write about this movement it would help to note that  a profound sense of duty  has caused many of these people to camp out in our cities. . .  even if some of them seem eccentric or seem to be professional demonstrators.  Of course, if you had actually spent some time at an Occupy site that might help you in an essay on this topic.

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

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 Prompt 3

Using the following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” 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.

“Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

It appears that, while they ask for some verbiage to demonstrate your commitment to Action to Change the World, they also want some evidence that you are actually doing something about it.  This, by the way, is  a social justice prompt, so you want to avoid the kinds of problems I have discussed in social justice topics before; have look here at my entry on the Problems essay for the Common App, which treads similar ground: Common App Prompt Two.

Since your essay here is supposed to be about a personal experience which defined your values, you might think you were inoculated against the Miss America essay I discuss in the link above, but  it’s a truth commonly acknowledged that it’s hard to write about yourself without looking self-absorbed.  I give more advice on this here as I discuss how essays on a variety of recent world and social justice issues come off as too self-referential: More Thoughts.  By the way, I note for the record how modest Princeton is as it quotes its own profs, both the quick and the dead.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

4. 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 at the beginning of your essay.  

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 with Occupy sympathies–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.

That’s all for now, folks.   I’ll be addressing this again for the 2012-2013 app period.