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Archive for the ‘Essay Beginning With a Quote’ Category

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to great lit and idea blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts for 2016-2017; Or, How to Write Your Harvard Application Essay, for the Class of 2021

In Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Books, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Supplement, Harvard Honor Code Essay, Harvard Supplement for 2016-2017, Harvard Supplemental Essays, How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essay, Ivy League Application Essays, Uncategorized on September 22, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Hello–As an FYI, Harvard has not posted its prompts for this year, as of this writing (July 13th).  This post is for the class of 2021; if you are applying this year, you will be entering school (barring a gap or spring enrollment) in the fall of 2018, making you the class of 2022.  It is possible that Harvard will keep everything the same, so feel free to read on in this post.  You might want to stick to Princeton and Yale, which have both posted their prompts for this year, however, when it comes to actually writing an essay.  Here’s a link to my discussion of the Princeton short responses, and to the Princeton Essays for the class of 2022.  These will prepare you to write for Princeton this year.  I add that it is worth reading the post below on Harvard for some general ideas for this year, and some aspects of the supplement will no doubt remain unchanged.  And finally, you may contact me if you need essay editing.  

So first things first: How long is the 500 kb limit imposed on the “optional” Harvard supplemental essay? Answer—Really, really long. Much longer than any essay you would want to write by a factor of magnitude; see here for more on just how long a 500 kb document would be: Discussion of 500kb.

I would suggest that you write an essay of 1-2 pages, or in word count, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. If in doubt: Write 1 page. Keep in mind your app reader or admissions officer—they have too much to do and too little time.  To use the full two pages, you really need to be saying something important on this “optional” Harvard supplemental essay.

Your takeaway:  Don’t abuse the app officer with a long essay and don’t repeat things they already know.

But do write the essay, unless you already have an offer to attend (Really, some people, most of them athletes, already know they can go if they want to.  Feel that’s unfair? Consider how much money such a person brings to a university via happy alumni at football tailgating parties, etc, etc.  It is as fair as life in general is . . . ).

Also remember that whatever you do in your essay, you do it in the spirit of sharing not of lecturing as you offer real insight into yourself, your goals, your values and your interests.

An interesting thought experiment to try before you write any of your college application essays is to consider how your college education might serve others, and how you might become more beneficial to society.  As cynical as the colleges may seem at times as they compete for status, I do believe most of them still have that central mission in mind, and are trying to pick students who will go on to change the world for the better.  Like the rest of us, colleges do have to earn a living and engage in somewhat less lofty behavior as they do, but still:  creating well-rounded citizens is in the DNA of the American university system.

Enough about that.  Let’s look at the Harvard prompts for this year.

I started my work on Harvard this year by comparing the Harvard prompts to the University of California Personal Insight Questions (the new name for the application essays for the U.C. system). If you have not seen that earlier post, here it is: U.C. Personal Insight vs. Harvard Supplemental.  It would be a good idea to compare prompts across a range of our application targets to see where you can double up,as I do in this post–unless writing 20 or more essays and polishing them in the next three months, on top of your classwork, sounds like fun.

So let’s look at the Harvard prompts for 2016-2017 and then I will link you to my discussion on the traditional prompts:

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

– Unusual circumstances in your life

– Travel or living experiences in other countries

– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

– How you hope to use your college education

– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

– The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

– The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Please note: If you do not intend to provide a response to this optional question, you do not need to submit the writing supplement. If you encounter any problems submitting your application, please upload a document that says “Not Applicable” and hit submit.

Hint: File should be under 500 KB and one of these types: .pdf .doc .docx .rtf .txt.

 The most interesting thing about these Harvard Supplemental Essay prompts is this:  with two exceptions, they have not changed since 2013.  I will discuss those exceptions at more length in a moment.  

For the first six prompts, which are holdovers from the last couple of application years, please click here to get extensive commentary and links on the prompts: Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts. Scroll down to #2 in this linked post, and start reading there.  Bonus for Princeton applicants:  this post also has a discussion of how to write about books, which you need . . . or might need, if you choose the book prompt for Princeton.  


 

Now let’s turn to the two more recent adds to the Harvard supplemental essay prompt list:   the Harvard Honor Code Prompt and the the Harvard Mission Prompt. I will reverse the order as I address them.

There is an overlap between the Honor Prompt  and the Mission Prompt in terms of intent, which I explain below when I discuss the drone student, below, but I think you can also see the connection between Harvard’s Mission prompt and the Princeton essay on Service, so let’s start there.

The Princeton Service essay has been around for a long time.    Harvard wants to create changemakers, too–why should they leave saving humanity to Princeton.  So they are getting into that game with Princeton, seeking the student on a mission to do something for humanity.

This could start in your neighborhood, by the way, so don’t feel the need to be grandiose  if this prompt calls to you, and have a look at my much more lengthy discussion on writing a service essay in my very long post on Princeton’s supplements–just use your browser to search for the word Service and you can skip the long intro to Princeton by clicking three times, down to Princeton’s prompt on service.  What I say there, outside of the stuff on Woodrow Wilson, also applies to Harvard’s prompt.

Warning:  if you are not at all interested in serving humanity, or just know that this prompt will turn you into a cliché machine, move on.  But have a look at my discussion on Princeton’s prompt on service first.  Maybe this will help you find your mission.

Enough on the mission:  Let’s have a look at . . . the Harvard Honor Code prompt: to write it or not to write it.  

First let’s look at why this prompt exists, in my opinion:  Bad P.R. and Too Many Drones Applying.  By drones, I mean that sleek, deadly airborne vehicle that can operate remotely but that is controlled from afar, a vehicle that can do all kinds of things, really, but cannot do anything outside of its programming or what its operators want it to do.  Of course what I really mean to discuss is the student that the drone analogy refers to: super high-achieving and sleek packaged, controlled at a distance by parents, and not really thinking for or examining themselves.  And doing whatever it takes to get to their target (schools).

And speaking of that bad P.R. doing whatever it takes seems to include cheating, on the way to the Ivy League ( or other elite schools) and apparently continuing to cheat or take the shortcut once there–and this has been a very specific problem at Harvard–take a look:  Harvard Cheating Scandal.  This has long been a problem that all schools struggle with, but it does seem to be becoming a bigger problem as everybody focuses on some kind of quantifiable outcome in education, like grades to get to the next level, or the diploma that will get you a job, or the job that leads to the next job and the next and . . . so on.

This kind of strategic climbing is not just understandable, it is necessary (to a degree,  pun intended), but on the other hand, the most important thing for income is getting a college education and degree–from any of the 500-800 really good four-year colleges in America.   The degree itself is, still, the most important thing.  Recent studies show that where you go does not matter that much for the income of many majors, especially the technical ones (and in this case, especially for women with technical majors).  I have demonstrated this in other posts, if you like, you know, data and empiricism as a proof.  I do find that the bright, shiny objects in the Ivy League tend to blind people, though, and make them unable to process the possibility of going elsewhere, so I resist the temptation to add a link here.

If you want to be a general business major, sure, having a  Harvard Business diploma is very useful, but after your first job, what matters most is what you did at your first job, and what matters most for pay is performance on the job and your network of support in your professional life–not your college dorm network, though yes, your best friends are likely to come from college.  And yes, at some point a college friend or connection could prove useful to your career–but that depends on what they do with their lives as well, doesn’t it?

If I sound preachy to you, go look at this  newest Harvard prompt again:

The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

This could be a dangerous prompt.  That might be why you would write about it.  If you think you will, then you should read closely the  Harvard Cheating Scandal article,  and see some of its impact–this is, after all, the clear sponsor for the Harvard Honor prompt.  How could they not address the problem?  Here’s more of the story:  Harvard students expelled for cheating.   More recently, Harvard students have been taking a pledge not to cheat–check it out:  Honor Pledge.

So now you know what Harvard is up to:  they want to change their culture.  Of course, the difficulty of getting into Harvard, and the very high value people place on that Harvard degree work against that new culture–you have to have the numbers to get in, don’t you?  And getting the best results can require a few corners to be cut, right?  Talk about a feedback loop.

How could you write this essay?  If you have experience with the problem.  The downside: looking like a cheater in the event you were involved, or looking to self-righteous or preachy or just writing a very predictable, clichéd essay.

How to solve the problem:  Think about your own experience and what kinds of pressures there are in your community.  Build from that picture.  You are almost certainly feeling some kind of pressure to excel in order to get ahead, or you would not be here.  And this can take extreme forms, going beyond cheating to things like the suicide cluster in Palo Alto California–see this article for a good discussion of that:  The Silicon Valley Suicides.   The evidence suggests that the pressure you see in this article is the same thing that drives students to cheat, at least in many cases.

The depressing thing is how this pressurized system has created young people who see nothing wrong with it.  In some cases you will no doubt find some extreme psychologies in these people–hey, every population has some sociopaths and psychopaths in it–but more of more concern is the kind of “so what” cynicism shown by many of the Harvard students who were caught–it was not cheating because everybody does it, it was not cheating, we were collaborating, it was not cheating, we were consulting other sources.  Personally, I have a problem with that. So does Harvard.  How could you address each of those three attitudes and examine the wider reasons they exist, as part of an essay built on your experience?  That is your challenge.

And a good essay about honor would likely use some specific example, or list of examples, from the author’s own experience.  I hasten to add, however, that if you were at the center of a cheating incident, you would have to really be able to show a change for this essay to work.  I would, in fact, advise you not to write this essay–unless the cheating incident was  prominent enough to register on social media.  In that case, you probably have to write this essay.

Whatever the case, I think a good essay on this starts with your experience of or observation of cheating around you, but it must pull back to look at the problem as part of a larger problem.  Sure, the irony is clear–you are also using this essay as leverage to get into one of the three or four most selective universities in the world.  But if it comes from the heart as well as the head, so be it:  you will write a good essay and hopefully bring that attitude to Harvard.  Use your personal experience, connect the cheating to pressure, connect that pressure to wider social problems–shrinking middle class, pressure on students to succeed, etc–and then show how you will act in an ethical way.  Without being preachy.  A tough task, but a worthy one.  If you touch the reader with your detail and authenticity, you will go far.

 

But wait, you ask–you are offering to edit my essay, for a fee:  is that not cheating?

No.  I do offer close advice, but you have to write it.  I am your guide, but yours are the feet walking down the path.  So to speak.  For sure I will give you detailed advice on how to write in general and specifically on this essay, and you will become a better writer after working with me.

If that doesn’t work for you, I will just close this way:  the moral world is full of gray with black and white on either side.  I would say that I am off-white.

Come back soon for more posts on writing your college essay.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.

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 used for the  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.