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Scoop! Princeton’s Application Essays for 2015-2016

In Essay on Intellectual Development, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Supplement on July 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Otherwise known as application essays for the class of 2020.

I cannot resist scooping my peers and competitors by getting the Princeton prompts up first, so here they are.

While Princeton has not officially released its prompts, they have updated their pdf’s for those filing paper applications, and here’s the deal:  Nothing has changed.  The PDF is for the class of 2020, but the prompts are unchanged from those for the class of 2019 (That’s last year’s applicants, for you).

To save you the search, here are the prompts, followed by a link to my analysis of how to write about them:

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

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

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

3. Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150thanniversary 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.

4, Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”
Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University.

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

The Stanford Supplement for 2012-2013: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

In Essay on Intellectual Development, Influential Experience Essay, Stanford Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay on August 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm

In this post, after an opening discussion on how to approach any supplement with both short answer and essay responses, including advice on dealing with electronic submissions, I will begin analyzing the individual prompts in Stanford’s supplement for 2012-2013.  I will include all of the Stanford prompts, both for short responses and essays.  Keep in mind that this post applies to this year’s prompts, since they are not changed, but some details in this and other linked posts are aimed at what was happening last year.

My links to more in-depth discussions include protected material which is  only available in full to my subscribers and clients.  My client services include everything from a full range of college advising and application support to editing on  a single essay.  Contact me for more information at:  wordguild@gmail.com.  I will book up rapidly from mid-August into September so don’t wait too long to contact me–I offer inspirational help to those dealing with writer’s block, as well as editorial help on existing app essays.

The  Stanford supplement requires a series of short answers–a couple of lines, in most cases–followed by a series of short essays.  When I say short, the range will be from at least 250 words up to 2,000 characters.  I would suggest writing rough drafts of 300 to 350 words.  You could possibly fit in as many as 380-390 words and be under the 2,000 character limit, but I always advise  having a safe margin–one of the most difficult editing tasks is to take a tightly written essay and knock fifty words off of it.

There is a saying, attributed variously to Faulkner and other writers, that,  In writing, you must kill your darlings.  This applies to you insofar as you need to step back to look at each essay as a unit and to look at that unit as part of the larger package you will hand over to the application readers. Anything that doesn’t help the whole package needs to go.  You have to be prepared to throw out even the greatest sentence you’ve ever written if it doesn’t fit the essay, or if it somehow contradicts something you’ve said elsewhere.  And you may need to throw out even some great sentences that do fit the essay if you are over the word or character count.  (Do what I do and write the poor, discarded sentence down in a notebook for possible use elsewhere before deleting it from your essay–limbo is better than annihilation and you may be able to reincarnate it in another essay.)

I also advise–nay, remonstrate–that you should write, rewrite and further revise all of your responses to the questions ahead of time, not just the essays,  and that, when you have typed in a response (typing from one of your already polished drafts)  you then take the extra step of printing and reading a hard copy before submitting.

If you have a problem with the preview function, simply copy  the text into a new document, then print it and reread  the hard copy carefully and make any necessary changes before submitting it.   I ask my clients to do this with all responses, from a sentence in length to an essay.  It is generally easier to see mistakes on a piece of paper than it is on a screen.  Of course this also takes more time than simply sitting down and banging out your answers, which may seem awful given the amount of time you are going to be spending on college apps, but you will find that a response that seemed brilliant yesterday may seem ho-hum or even ill advised today.  You should have spent days or weeks polishing your responses before finally you sit down to fill in those boxes and submit.  Think of it as two years of English class  compressed into a few months, and keep in mind the potential payoff if you feel like screaming.

Need I say that you also need to check that all of your short answers and your essays present a consistent picture that coincides with everything else you present to the university?  You may come up with something witty or interesting to say in a short answer, but it needs to be thrown away if it contradicts the rest of your material or otherwise may cause you trouble, by being offensive, for example, or simply. . . not fitting in well.  When using humor, check yourself to see if you are  coming off as flippant or sarcastic.    If in doubt, show your answers to at least two other people you trust to get their opinions.  Remind them to think like an admissions officer.  Be sure at least one of them is an adult who is not afraid to be critical.

And now, on to Stanford, beginning with the short answer responses:

Stanford Short Answer Prompts for 2012-2013

Please respond to the following questions so we can get to know you better. Respond in two lines or less, and do not feel compelled to answer using complete sentences.  300 characters each.

  • Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.
  • What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?
  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
  • How did you spend your last two summers?
  • What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, sporting events, etc.) this past year?
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
  • What five words best describe you? (My note:  you have some characters left after the five words.  Find a pithy way to elaborate.  X because of y, for example.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

Essay Responses

Please respond to the following essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided. (I would shoot for around 350 words here; this will put you under 2,000 characters, which is their limit.)

Please print preview before submitting to make sure your responses fit into the space provided.

  • Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  • Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – know you better.
  • What matters to you, and why?

Prompt Analysis and Advice

I begin with caveats and advisories.  As I pointed out in recent posts, Stanford, like many other schools,  is using much of the same material they used last year.  An overhaul of the Common Application site is planned for next year, which may explain why so many schools are using retread prompts this year–I assume that they are waiting to roll out a bunch of new stuff with the new app portal, or maybe they just think they’ve found the perfect prompts.  I’ll know more about that next year, though you won’t have to worry about it, having already written brilliant essays and gained admissions to multiple excellent universities.

What you do have to worry about is coming up with good ideas for your essays.  And since there is all this material just lying around from last year, and in some cases from the last several years, it seems like  a no-brainer to approach older friends or siblings who still have app essays, or to look online.  And I do encourage looking around so long as you are simply picking up good ideas. If you do know people who applied in the last couple of years, surveying them for their opinions is a good idea.  In particular, I would ask them what they would throw away or do differently as well as asking what ideas or essays they thought worked best for them.

The caveat here is that you should be seeking inspiration rather than direct imitation.  While there is a long and colorful history of authors “borrowing” from each other, directly copying or barely reshuffling somebody else’s app essay is a bad idea,  in a number of ways.  I would say that first among these is your own knowledge that somehow you cheated; within the exultation you might feel when you got that acceptance e-mail or envelope would be a grain of regret, a sense that somehow you are a phony.  And that sense may never go away, may still pop into your mind years later.  Who needs that?

A second problem in relying on close imitation is what I would call the cul-de-sac problem.  If you focus on specific examples, you can end up in a mental dead-end.  If you are too specifically inspired by somebody else’s essay, you may find yourself stuck, unable to find a new direction when the idea–their idea–goes nowhere for you.  So if you are going to look at examples, look at many examples before you start to write.  And don’t look for ideas by simply searching for successful application essays to Stanford or to any other university you want to attend.  Figure out how to create categories for different approaches to the questions and search–and think– along those lines.

For example, when looking at the intellectual experience prompt,  instead of starting by typing “intellectual experience, Stanford,” into a browser and spending hours going through page after page looking for examples online, switch off the machine for awhile and spend some time thinking of all the things you’ve read and done in school or elsewhere that represent an intellectual experience.  And don’t limit yourself to experiences with teachers or books or experiments.   Especially remember things that truly sparked your interest instead of things that simply seem stereotypically “intellectual.”  I’ll get into this in more detail below, when I address the intellectual experience prompt directly.

A third problem with imitating too closely is the fact that data won’t die until civilization collapses.  That essay your friend Jimmy sent to Stanford last year is still out there somewhere, and electronic submissions have made it easy to check essays for plagiarism.  So if you borrow an idea, reshape it so that you own it.  Entire genres of literature and drama are based on loving mockery or sincere imitation that moves into new territory (and this isn’t limited to parody and burlesque).  Write in that spirit.  When imitating, you want to be like that artist who finds a bunch of junk and makes a brilliant new sculpture which incorporates old stuff made by others,  but which is at the same time one-of-a-kind. If you cheat,  Big Brother is likely to catch you.

So let’s move on to the intellectual vitality prompt.  As I pointed out last year, this overlaps with the Common App prompt about an intellectual experience.  The possible range of topics here is wide, but whatever your choice, do not forget that you are the real topic and the hidden form of the essay is that of the argument–your argument being that you should be admitted to the university.

Let’s start with classes, which could include anything from science and lab classes through your humanities and arts classes.  But don’t limit your brainstorming to school or classes.  Einstein found inspiration as a child by looking closely at the structure of individual leaves.  Think broadly as you start brainstorming.  Maybe you started studying strategy because of your interest in a team sport . . . or for a game . . .  sounds intellectual to me.

While an entire area of study may inspire you, you will want to identify a single experience or episode or unit in order to create a focus,  a source of specific, descriptive detail.    Being able to show the reader some of your experience through specific detail is almost always a good idea.

But it is not enough simply to describe an experiment or a poem or a chapter on Gettysburg or a technique for moving up a level in a challenging game or for finding a weakness in an opposing defense.   Imagine your reader constantly asking the question “Why is this important? And what does this show about this kid?”  You need to show them that, which means you need to show your passion or show why the topic is more generally important.

This means you need to give some thought to the whole idea of intellectual experience and growth.  I would suggest that a sense of  wonder, of excitement is necessary to all real intellectual growth and achievement.  Maybe a particular moment in a chemistry class, watching the seemingly magical transformation of matter,  gave you that sense of wonder.  If it did, then show it.  Maybe a biology or geography unit suddenly transformed your sense of time as you learned to look underfoot for that ocean that no longer exists.  Maybe it was the time the fourth grade teacher gave different kids different objects from peas to marbles to a basketball and taught you about the vast distances in the solar system by having kids run further and further apart across the practice fields, Neptune or Pluto way out there across the campus, an invisible  pea held up by an arm that seemed tiny from where you stood holding the basketball that was the sun . . . If you start with an early experience, go on to show how the experience amplified and echoed through your life, is still visible in your pursuits and interests.

Also consider the  examples offered by the greats in the sciences and the arts.  Inspiration or growth which may seem sudden most often comes from long labor, repetition, tedium, failure.  As you start thinking about this topic, don’t be afraid to consider the role of failure and the importance of determination and discipline.  Fiddling with tubes and beakers or reading and rereading to figure out meaning are part of the deal and you should not be afraid to talk about these things.  Your essay isn’t a movie trailer full of explosions and leaps from tall buildings, nor does it need to be about awards received and competitions won. Try to keep coming back to those things that made and make you feel wonder.

It’s wonder and joy that kept Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Leonardo, Beethoven and Matisse going, the desire to capture what is seen, to know more deeply.  The intellect isn’t some stuffy dude with patches on the elbows of his jackets. You are an embodied mind and anything requiring thought may be considered intellectual.  I’ll come back to the intellectual experience essay again, but for now let’s cut to a few links.

First, to get the synapses going and to help you broaden your thinking, here is a post I wrote earlier this year on an interesting intellectual experience essay that is on a topic that seems anything but intellectual:  comic books.

See this post:  Second Skin.

As you read this, look at how the author engages intellectually with the questions posed to him, how he works out his own way of seeing things.  Whether it is in an experiment in biology or an argument if favor of graphic novels, you need to own the experience you describe.  You need to be able to make and stand behind your own judgements.

Next, have a look at my entry on Stanford for last year, where I discuss and link information on the essay topics:

Stanford 2011-2012.

Then get out a piece of paper and start scribbling down times you were both learning and excited by what you were learning.  Work from these to describe single incidents or experiences, including  periods of trial and error.  You can work out how to frame an essay and create a complete narration later.  Start with topic ideas and scenes.

I will return to the Stanford supplement and its essay prompts again soon.  Check my site again in the next week.  I also expect to post soon on some of the Ivies who have yet to put up their supplements.  I guess they’ve extended their vacations over there at Dartmouth, et al.

Yale and Harvard Application Essays for 2012-2013: The Coquette and the Copycat

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on August 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Note to readers:  First of all, if you are reading this in December of 2013, this was written for last year’s apps; on the other hand, much of what I say still applies to Harvard as well as to other colleges that want you to write about a book or intellectual experience this year, so in those cases you should have  a look, but keep in mind that some of the information linked below is protected and available in full only to clients or subscribers.  You may e-mail me to get a subscription, which is normally only $15 dollars for the  application season, thoug if you use my editing or college advising services, the subscription fee is deducted from your first editing job or I will give you access to the private blog as soon as you pay for your first edit.  I do give a free editing sample on a single college application essay–serious inquires only to:  wordguild@gmail.com. You’ll need to provide some additional information and your bona fides before I do a free sample edit, though.

Where is the Yale supplement? As of 8/1/12 at 3:15 PM Eastern Time, this was the only information available:

Yale University Supplement:
Yale University allows this supplement to be submitted Online.
This supplement is not yet available.

Go Bulldogs!

What can we make of this strange absence?  Perhaps that Yale is so cool they can ignore Common App deadlines?  Either that or their I.T.  people are out to lunch, in the colloquial sense, which seems impossible.  I mean, it’s Yale, right?  They would know what they are doing?  Or is it a secret plan to have no competition when they put up their supplement?  Like a debutante arriving late for the dance?   While we await a solution to the mystery of the Yale supplement, let’s look at Harvard.

Harvard

So Harvard has put up their prompts in a prompt fashion.  But aside from being on time, this year Harvard reminds me of a kid trying to fob off a Junior English essay in his Senior English class.  What do I mean?  Well, look below at this year’s prompts and then have a look at last year’s prompts (the underlining and bold print is mine):

Harvard Additional Essays 2012-2013 

Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics: 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• A letter to your future college roommate

• An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research topic) 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

Harvard Prompts 2011-2012 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

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

My first hint is this:  most people write the extra essay, even if it is just suggested.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use, of course.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard now has six total prompts as opposed to last year’s five, with two new prompts and  the other four prompts essentially unchanged, aside from rearranging some words and a slight broadening of one prompt.  And of these two new additions, the prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate is a rerun from recent Stanford supplements.  Perhaps a former Stanford admissions officer took a new position at Harvard and  it really is a small world, after all.    This year’s  prompt on an intellectual experience is a bit broader than last year’s prompt on an academic experience, but then it also overlaps with the Common Application’s own essay prompts.

Since Harvard is not adding a lot of new material here, I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013.  I will be discussing the list of books essay in a separate post soon, with new examples, but these posts will get you started as you generate ideas.

 In my posts for Harvard last year,  I focused on the book prompts.  Some of this material, especially when it relates to establishing genres or categories for different books, would be useful in a “list of books” essay.  I will address the list of books essay soon in a separate post, with some examples, but the posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

I will be addressing the Harvard prompts for 2012-2013 again soon, starting with those I haven’t addressed yet and updating for some of the prompts I discuss above.  Stay tuned.  Hopefully Yale will give us something in the meantime.

Topic Generator #1 For The Problem Essay and The Essay On What You Care About

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Issue of Concern Essay, Problem Essay, Significant Experience Essay, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

Many universities use application essay prompts that ask you to write about either a problem of some kind or something you care about.  I encourage my  clients to try to come up with at least one counterintuitive essay, so let’s do something completely unexpected and go with  a retro subject that could fit both of these prompts:  libraries.  There is nothing more cool than bringing back something retro, right?  And what could  be more retro than a place full of printed material?

More specifically,  here’s my first idea for a problem essay or an essay on an issue everyone should care about:  The Decline and Fall of Libraries.

I use an e-reader, have a blog, follow news online, etc, etc, etc, but still: I believe, nay, I know that traditional  libraries are important.  If you think this makes me sound totally 20th Century, then read on–below you will find an annotated list of links to brilliant essays,  articles and a book, all of which defend and explain the purpose of libraries and all of which are full of ideas that you could use to develop your own essay.  Read them for ideas and information relevant to essay prompts ranging from the Personal Influence and Intellectual Experience  to prompts about Problems of Local or National Importance.  If a librarian has influenced you, this subject could also work for Common App prompt three.

Here are links to essays and opinions on libraries (and of course on books, as well):

Grazing in the Stacks of Academe–Here music critic Ben Ratlif offers a great example of how to write persuasively and evocatively; he also provides enough ideas for half-a-dozen new essays.  Example: How ugly can be good (even beautiful). Click the link to check it out.

North West London Blues  In this piece, published both in the print version of The New York Review of Books and as a blog post, Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, writes about the unremarkable but vital library in her community.  Her introduction is a bit roundabout, and some of her references are obscure for those who do not follow British politics, but the problems are similar to those we have on this side of the pond, and she makes the importance of her library and libraries in general very clear.

The superb book critic and social commentator Laura Miller has a good piece on the value of libraries in Salon: Why Libraries Still Matter. Read it and be persuaded.

Did you know that the destruction of print didn’t actually start with the internet or even with the computer?  Did you know that old print material is often destroyed by a machine called “the guillotine?”  Nicholson Baker can tell you all about it and  why places that store print materials on shelves are irreplaceable. Baker is no luddite fuddy-duddy; he was an early proponent of both e-readers and Wikipedia.  He also likes video games and has written about them.  Yet he strenuously defends the value of books as objects and he has written an entire book himself on the destruction of libraries:  Double Fold. You can glean a great deal of information about Double Fold  just by reading this excellent review in Salon:  Stephanie Zacharek on Double Fold.  You could also buy the book from this superb bookstore:  Double Fold at Powell’s Books.

Next up is Lions in Winter.  Big changes are in store for New York City’s public library system, and in this fine piece from the superb n+1, Charles Petersen gives an extremely detailed and fair-minded assessment of the changes proposed for NYC’s libraries, and in the process gives you excellent background and perspective on libraries in general and on how the world of information and books is changing.  Petersen understands the need for change but also knows the value of what may be lost, and describes it eloquently.  If you have trouble getting your teeth into this because of the lengthy introduction,  you might actually start with Part II of this article here–Lions in Winter Part Two– and then return to Part I.

The changes planned for the NYC library system have, of course, provoked a lot of response from journalists at the New York Times and in their opinion and letters sections.  You can get a variety of opinions on the value of libraries there, including but not limited to:

Sacking a Palace of Culture by Edmund Morris–he sounds a bit too much like a cranky old guy when he complains about the aroma of coffee, but he also offers an eloquent and even moving defense of the traditional research library, based on his own experience.  You don’t bump into a new idea or book in the same way online or via the Apple store or Amazon as you do in the library, something Morris and a number of other writers I link point out.

These kinds of changes have been going on for some time; meet a book robot here, and assess the different views of it:  A Robot Will Be Happy to Find that Book for You

On a more fantastical note, you might find this article, again by Laura Miller in Salon, which deals with the idea of a library for imaginary books: The Greatest Books that Never Were.

And as a final, tangential recommendation, check out this article, about an attempt to get a copy of every physical book and preserve it:  An Ark Full of Books.

That should be enough to get you started on an essay about how libraries (or a librarian) have influenced you, or why they are important, or how their diminishment and destruction is a local, national and international problem.  Keep checking back as I will be adding  posts which provide new topic and source materials, and I will be addressing this year’s prompts as they are released–most universities will release their essay prompts between now and August 1st.  As an example, I expect to see something from Stanford in the next week or so.

Starting A Book Or Intellectual Experience Essay: An Example Of How To Look Deeper

In Brown University Application Essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay on July 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I have previously put up posts with detailed information on  intellectual and book essays–see the links and table of contents in the first column/post of this website.  These posts will also appear under categories and tags  for Harvard, Princeton and other University names, as well as under the essay about books,   the essay about an intellectual experience and under a couple of the Common Application prompt topics.

In this post, I will be looking specifically at one area of genre literature and even more specifically at one series of books as an example of how to go about addressing the book or intellectual experience essay.  The first lesson is this:  don’t just read the novel(s).  You will need to find give the novel(s) a wider context and meaning.   The way to do this is to gain a wider perspective and put it to use to express something about yourself as well as about the books that are the stated subject of your essay–as I will show in this post.

Writing About Books

The genres of literature which I will discuss here include Dystopian, Near Future and Science Fiction.  See this link for more information on those.  You might also want to see my entry last year in which I established a system for categorizing novels and gave specific suggestions for writing about the novel categories. (This link is a protected sample, available in full to subscribers and clients)

Let’s start with this assumption:  an essay about well-written genre fiction  can be every bit as good an essay about so-called serious or literary fiction.  For many of you, an essay about a supposedly pop novel will actually be better because you won’t feel trapped by the need to be as serious and weighty as you would in writing about, say, Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch.  It can be very difficult to write about greatness, especially when it takes the form of classic novels.

I enjoy reading the serious literary fiction of both Dostoevsky and Mary Anne Evans, but I equally enjoy reading a work of genre lit like Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Jonathan Letham’s Gun, With Occasional Music, and  if you understand how to frame novels like these last two, you can write an essay that is effective and interesting.  These aren’t  highbrow works of realism–the  Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in a parallel-universe Alaska and features a detective investigating the death of a possible Messiah, while Gun is set  in a near future Bay Area with a detective following a trail of criminality through a world populated by genetically manipulated creatures, including an evolved kangaroo-thug named Joey–but these novels have a lot to say about what we are now and where we are going.

Let me explain by way of example and provide further arguments for genre lit as a subject of a good application essay.  It’s all about the context and the archetypes, people.

Fantasy literature in its various guises has become the best-selling narrative form in the world.  In fact, the last two decades have seen half a  dozen trilogies or series that have been extremely popular.  I have little expertise on strigoi or other of the blood-seeking living dead, so I will skip the vampire stuff to focus on near-future dystopian lit.   One of the best written and most popular examples is  Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games is interesting in many ways–it features a nightmarish, near-future setting, it is a cautionary tale, and it is an archetypal forbidden romance.  You can find elements of The Hunger Games in literature ranging from Norse epics up through Shakespeare’s plays and Orwell’s 1984,  and on through American culture, in novels like The Great Gatsby and in movies like Rebel Without A Cause.

Due its popularity, there are rich resources and conversations available for The Hunger Games,  many of them by  journalists and academics who provide detailed and well-written analyses of different aspects of HG and of the genres into which Collins’ series fits. I will give you a set of annotated links as we move on in this post, where you can find everything from character analysis to social commentary–these links often discuss more than just HG .  Some of them are excellent examples of what an intellectual experience essay can be, albeit at much greater length than your typical college app essay.

First up is an excellent piece analyzing recent “young adult”  dystopian lit, by Laura Miller, Salon’s book editor, who has been a heavy hitter in the book world for years.  She compares  The Hunger Games to similar works past and present, and she makes the kinds of connections you will want to make in an intellectual experience or book essay.  Miller provides  fine-grained analysis based on specific quotes from HG and other novels, and she uses this to support a broader set of arguments about both HG and some of the other recently popular dystopian “Young Adult” lit; here is an example from Miller’s article:

. . .  dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.

Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.

 Of course, this is only one way to look at The Hunger Games, but it’s persuasive, and it doesn’t exclude other readings–you can read HG as an analogue for the competitive viciousness to be found in(at least some) American high schools, or you could read it as a warning to today’s increasingly oligarchical America  about the dangers of powerful elites.  Or it could be about the dangers and seductions of consumer culture–Katniss seems to get a real kick out of some of the perks of the Games, while claiming to hate all of it . . . or HG could be read as a more traditional, science fiction cautionary tale about the dangers of the technologies we already possess.  After all, something ugly happens to America on the way to Panem.

Even if you have not read any of the The Hunger Games, I would strongly recommend that you read the rest of this analysis by Miller, in the New Yorker’s  Critic At Large feature  here.

I’m going to be writing more specifically about the Archetypal Criticism of literature soon, but as another example of how to analyze characters and meaning, I offer a link to an article a  New York Times article which is also focused on Hunger Games, but which gives you another set of ideas about what an archetypal analysis can offer as you grapple with an essay on a book or series of books.  So go here for an archetypal discussion of dystopian film,centered on Suzanne Collins’ characters  (this post is specifically about film, but you can “read” a film in much the same way you can read a novel, and similar themes can be developed in each form–which is one reason why so many films are adapted from novels.  Need I mention that a good film is an intellectual experience?).

Lest I give you the impression that the NY Times isn’t giving the written word adequate attention, also have a look at this link, in which John Green also points out how a number of  futuristic tales are really about the here and now.

Part of the requirement for the genre of literature called Realism is that it be an imitation of real life, that it hold up a mirror to the world; in contrast, a widely held view of fantasy holds that it is simply a form of make-believe, and so it is often thought not to reflect much about the “real” world, much less to be “serious.”  However, if you’ve read much fantasy or even if you’ve only read the material I’ve linked so far, you should be reaching the conclusion that, while science fiction and fantasy by definition are not “realistic,” they do indeed hold up a critical mirror to the here and now.

Let me offer another example, a New York Times opinion piece looking at the current rage for dystopian lit as a phenomenon that is linked to much of the “Tiger Mother” style self-help lit  out there, the idea being that economic competition and the ferocious struggle for the admission to the right schools  lies behind everything from the Hunger Games to Bringing Up Bébé.  (This could also be a good subject for the Common Application’s  essay on an issue of national importance, if you think about it–have a look at the NY Times article Hunger Games Parenting to see what I mean.  It’s a pretty persuasive take on where we are as a nation and what this kind of  lit is really about though, as with the links above, there is more than one way to interpret any of this stuff–which is why it makes such a great essay topic.)

And finally, I’d like to recommend this blog post by Stanley Fish, one or our great literary and cultural critics, in which he links The Hunger Games to the ancient literary form known as The Pastoral and its beautiful but melancholy momento mori.

What I am hoping you realize at this point is that it is legitimate to develop your understanding of whatever you are reading by looking at what other people have to say, especially if those other people have some expertise and genuine insight.  You can, indeed, access rich and diverse discussions of literature online, as well as cute kitten pictures, and looking to sources like those I cited above can be helpful to you as you set about creating a book or intellectual experience essay.  The idea is to read critically in order to  shape your own views, sometimes with the help of and sometimes by resisting what other readers and critics say.  Just be sure to use my examples and anything else you find as inspiration only, though a short quote won’t hurt if you give it context and it makes sense in your essay.

In addition to blogging about archetypal readings of books in upcoming posts, I will also be discussing further the role of form, of genre, in shaping meaning.  Stay tuned and come back soon (a word of warning, however:  some of my upcoming posts will only be fully available to subscribers and clients.)

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.

How To Write A 500 Word College Application Essay–An Exercise In Editing

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

One of the greatest challenges in writing an application essay is the length demanded by the Common App and most universities:  500 words  (or less).  For many applicants, this is akin to writing a perfect Italian sonnet about their lives–or boiling their lives down to a haiku.  But if your initial essay has “good bones,” meaning a good central narrative or description and good structure, you should be able to  pare down your language to come up with an excellent final draft.

The 500 word limit is not like a deadly force field, of course–your essay won’t be obliterated or cast aside if you are a few words over –but the fundamental rule is clear: the more words over the limit, the more you risk irritating the reader and the more they will expect from the essay.  As one app officer has said, it really “raises the bar” if the essay is too long, and the longer it is, the higher the leap, so to speak.

So don’t get hung up on every word as if there were only one possible version of your essay in the entire universe.  If you start your essays early, you will have plenty of time to play with them.  Once you have a good draft, good editing is paramount.  You want to create clean sentences, use the most precise vocabulary possible and cut out repetition.  One well-chose word can replace a phrase or even a sentence.

To show you what I mean, I will edit and vastly cut down the much longer essay we discussed in my last post.  It will be helpful to see the last post and read the essay before continuing.

To continue,  I will take that (very) long and brilliant essay linked and discussed in the last post and distill from it a small excerpt; this excerpt will be a mini-version of the original, but will still be hundreds of words too long (874 words, to be precise) so I will edit it again, showing my editing marks, and then end with a third version of 500 words.  This final essay could be used equally as well for an intellectual experience essay or a personal influence essay.

Tearing down and rebuilding a long and brilliant essay by a real pro may seem like a kind of party trick, but in reality this is what good editors do all the time for journalists,  essayists and novelists.

Version 1, below, is an excerpt from the original, longer essay; version 2 is the edited example of that excerpt; and version 3 is the result, in which the excerpt has been editing down to become a 500 word application essay.

Version 1

An excerpt from a much longer essay on the comic book superhero

This is a cut-down version of the original,  with no other editing changes.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by the telling of lies. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our moral failings for granted and, perhaps as a result, favored lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics. All nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us—at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic book was fantasy, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies, the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house.

These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, what struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof. For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comic books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, the tights, the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.

I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty Thor. I had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.

It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation.

Version 2

An Edited Version–You can see the version above under the editing marks, and you can see the 500-word version emerging.  

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by of the telling of lies lying. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our took our moral failings for grantedand, perhaps as a result, favored favoring lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethicsfor all nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, he tied  with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been   —at least one verifiable such a boy,boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic books was were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies., the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, and your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, What struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof:  . For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, Of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, or the tights  the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave allowed Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage, like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty ThorI had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation through imagination.

Version 3:  A 500-Word Intellectual Experience or Personal Influence essay.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we read a kind of modern parable and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm of lying. Mr. Spector took our moral failings for granted, favoring lively argument over condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. None of that seemed to have anything to do with the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics, for all nine-year-olds are sophists.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was such a boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that comic books were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies.  Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you  and your dreams. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality——but if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). What struck me was a profound recognition of the implicit premise of  the boy on the roof:   that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics which after all were only paper, staples, and ink. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

Of course, it was not the red cape any more than the boots or the tights  that allowed Superman to fly. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, and felt magically alone. I had imagined the streak of my passage, a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector: it was about personal transformation through imagination.

Writing About An Intellectual Experience Or Personal Influence: Post #1 on College Application Essays For 2012-2013

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 11:53 am

This is the inaugural post on the topic of books and intellectual development for the 2012-2013 application year.  I have previously written about this topic in a number of posts; for writing about books specifically, you should start at The Harvard Supplement; Or, How To Write About Books Part 1 , a post from last year.  I will add, however, that the essay we will examine in this post could equally be used for an essay on an influential person or experience.  Read on to see what I mean.

One of the problems common for my clients last year was making an essay about a book or intellectual experience a vehicle of personal expression.  If you are passionate about the topic, your passion will make your essay come alive, but some of those who worked with me on their essays were so enthused about the minutiae of the intellectual experience or books that they forgot about themselves.  Remember that your audience is an admissions officer and that you are really writing about yourself when you write about an intellectual experience or a book that is important to you.  I have discussed audience and purpose in this post from last year, and if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend reading it now: So You Want To Write A College Essay.

The remainder of this post will be aimed at an analysis of  a specific essay  one of our prominent contemporary authors, a man of wide-ranging curiosity who  has promoted the artistic and cultural value of such “nonliterary” forms as the comic book–make that the graphic novel.  He has written about the influence of comics and other pop art forms on his life.  While it may seem unorthodox or event totally inappropriate for me to start me series on intellectual experiences with an analysis of an essay on comic books, I think that you will find this post both informative and invaluable in opening up possibilities for the intellectual experience essay.

This is a sample of a much longer post with links to an excellent essay and detailed analysis of it.  To access this post in full, you may either pay the minimal subscription fee, receiving full reading rights to all of my college app and essay posts, or you may retain me for college application advising and editing.  This blog is a mixture of  free information, particularly for general analysis and advice, and protected posts which offer very specific advice and analysis.  See “Welcome To The Jungle” in the first column of this blog and the table of contents included in it  for more information, as well as the “About” window.


How To Write About Books III

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Princeton Supplemental Essay, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books, Yale Supplemental Essay on November 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm

This post builds on the last two posts and offers a  list of themes by which you can classify and discuss books.  This includes a detailed discussion of books and particularly of some  quality trilogies and  series that have been popular in recent years.  The post includes suggestions for mixing it up by developing a thematic comparison of  fiction and nonfiction.  Links to outside reading and examples are included.

I will assume that you have read my last two posts.  If not, start here:  How to Write About Books Part I.  In this post I will summarize the process I outlined in the previous two posts and offer a bit more commentary.  While some university supplements do not ask specifically about books, this discussion, and the two posts preceding this, may be useful in giving you a focus for a discussion of your intellectual development, or you might find useful information here if you wish to write an essay in which you discuss some aspect of life outside of books and relate it to what you have found in books. When you have one or more essays ready for feedback, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com as Word attachments for a free editing sample and job quote–in return for seeing what I can do for you risk-free, I ask for only serious inquiries. Thank you.

If you are like most readers of Non Required Books, you have picked up either a variety of books with no clear plan involved in your reading or  you have read with a very narrow focus.  The result is probably a pile of unrelated tomes or something like a stack of George R. R. Martin novels.  One heap will seem aimless, the other obsessive, neither of which are impressions you really want to make in your college application essays.  The challenge for the obsessive is to add something to the mix; for the aimless, to find common ground in the material.

Here’s the system I outlined in the last two posts, simplified:

1. Find the similarities in the books.

This post continues by explaining and elaborating on this system for writing about books.  This is an approach, not a formula, and yields individualized essays, not essays based on an outline.  The post goes on to discuss different thematic approaches, with high-quality and popular examples from both fiction and nonfiction, including links.

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How To Write About Books II

In college essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on October 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Most university application essays or supplements present at least the possibility of writing about books.  Several applications ask directly that you write about a book or a series of books.  If that sounds like you, read on, after you have a look at my last post which opens up the conversation which I will continue below. After you have one or more drafts ready, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com; I will return a sample edit to you and a bid for the job. You get a risk-free sample of what I can do for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries. Thanks and enjoy.

For most application prompts which you can or should use books to address, it is either required or advisable to write about more than one book, and it is also wise to refer to or use at least some books which aren’t part of the national high school or junior college curriculum.  You do not want to establish yourself as a person who simply does The Required Reading.  Our universities are not simple technical schools; they represent what is called the liberal tradition of education, which is rooted in a humanistic vision of the world.  If that isn’t making sense, they are looking for the closest thing possible to a Renaissance woman–or man–to admit to their schools.  They want you to have an active curiosity and to be reading about matters that aren’t necessarily part of a class.  They want you to desire learning for its own sake.

Perhaps you don’t.  Perhaps you feel a tad guilty, but the real deal from your point of view  is to get into college to make money.  Fair enough, but in writing this essay, you might just find that buried spark of curiosity and, if not, you can fake intellectual curiosity.  If you fake it long enough, it will become real.

But on to the books themselves, and to writing about them.  One immediate mistake is to assume that this essay can only be about a particular kind of book, such as the novel or the biography.  Nay, my friends!  In fact, I encourage you to consider how different books which you have read because you wanted to might be compared.  You may, in fact, be able to use a book (or two) which you had to read for school but which you also like or love, and relate it to other books you have read outside of school.

I presume that you have read my last post and hopefully clicked the link there to the New York Review of Books and did some reading.  Nobody expects you to write at that level of depth, which of course is not possible given the length requirements of the apps, but the idea and basic structural elements of the NYRB give you a good model.

The way to go about this is to establish some point of comparison between the books beyond the fact that you read them.  This most often occurs to writers as they survey the material and ask themselves how to tie the disparate material together.

Or you could approach a selection of books with a preexisting assumption or overarching argument and ascertain which of them could be used in relation to your argument.

Here is an example of such an assumption:  We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.   I know, I know:  all the ages of man are ages of unintended consequences.  Yet in making this statement,  you would be suggesting that this is the hallmark of our age above all others, and that this is clear in everything from financial markets to looming environmental catastrophe to wars and interventions which breed only more wars and interventions.  As an arguable point which you will use your readings to demonstrate, such a broad thematic statement is just fine.  Not only that, this rather classic theme of literature and history is widely applicable.  Ask yourself what you have read that in some way reflects the truth contained by the thesis that We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.  I would argue that most books deal with this in some way.

Most books on the common Required Reading lists qualify.   The Great Gatsby, check. It’s not like Jay is floating around waiting to be shot.  Grapes of Wrath?  With an interpretive slant, check (picture an army of radicalized Tom Joads ghosting through the land, intent on overthrowing the Powers That Be who, in the end, created him themselves, or created his righteous anger, which comes to the same thing).  Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Beowulf, check, check and check.  As for your history textbooks, check on pretty much every event.  Not that you want to write about your high school history textbooks, though if your teacher happened to use a wonderful stand-alone, such as Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (speaking of Tom Joad) or Egan’s other great book on 20th Century America,  The Big Burn, or Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a wonderful survey of Rome at the end of the Republic, well, you should definitely avail yourself of their contents for your essay.

Once you establish a broad theme, the next step is  how to conceptualize it, how to create a heirarchy and definitions.  What do I mean?  If we are looking at unintended consequences as our basic claim, we can define our own boundaries.  Perhaps we use the term Modernity to focus what we mean by the Age of Unintended Consequences; in other words, we may be claiming that The Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  Now we’ll have to explain further, and as we do,  conceptualize and define in such a way that we establish the structural principles for the essay.  If this seems like a lot of work, I would point out  that this might become the introduction to your essay.

In the spirit of showing rather than telling,   an introduction to an essay about  books based on the premise outlined above  might look something like this:

“If I were to draw a single conclusion from all of the reading I have done in my free time, it is this:  that the Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  I read widely, in many different genres.  I have found that in all genres, from popular novels such as the the science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games, to contemporary histories on our recent wars, such as Dexter Filkins’ account of the War on Terror in The Forever War to  the clutch of books recounting the roots and consequences of our financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’ Big Short or his more recent Boomerangour historians, journalists and novelists are preoccupied with our own failure to foresee the consequences of our actions.”

You would then go on to discuss these works in whatever structure suits you–you might work through them one at a time, with each book composing a subtopic of your essay, or you might discuss similar elements or themes in each, with the themes being subtopics.  You could create a very convincing essay using only  three “nonrequired” works like those I use in my example, but any good selection of books which you tie together clearly and convincingly will do.

Notice how you can bend a broad idea like the one I discuss above, reshaping and redefining it so that it fits a set of books; you can expand or contract the era you want to discuss; you can pick parts of works to highlight while downplaying or ignoring other parts; you can compare science fiction to contemporary history to biography.  You just need to establish the right categories and conceptual framework in your introduction.

Start by listing some “big ideas’ which might link a group of books, allowing what seems disparate to be comparable; then list books you have read and liked according to these ideas–look for common ground and make lists of books which have common ideas, problems, themes, outcomes, what have you.  At this point, you are on your way.

In the near future, I will be writing posts on both how to conclude an essay and on the Five Paragraph Essay which is so favored on high school campuses and so hated on college campuses.  In the meantime, Good Luck and Godspeed, and don’t forget, I offer editing services–though you’ll have to hurry if you want to use them. My calendar is filling rapidly as the deadlines approach, so you need to contact me soon if you wish to use my services.  See my introductory post and the About section of this blog for my contact information.

Nota Bene:
My blog is searchable and will show up on sites like turnitin.com as well as on the similar programs used by many universities to spot plagiarists.  Your essays should reflect original thought; while I believe that, if you tweak the idea I presented here to suit yourself,  you are doing original thinking,  you do need to rework the  idea for yourself and write the essay using books you know well.  Better yet, come up with a different idea about our times and learn from my presentation of how to approach the conceptual challenge without using my idea at all.  Remember:  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but copying is plagiarism.