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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

The Harvard Supplement: Or, How to Write About Books Part 1

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Influential Experience Essay on October 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This post specifically addresses a Harvard application essay about a book, but this discussion is on writing about books in general.   The advice here is also good for the 2015-2016 Princeton prompt on books and for other colleges asking you to write about a book in some way. I continue this thread for several subsequent posts, and cover everything from writing about a quote to step-by-step suggestions for how to write about multiple books in a single essay.  If you intend to write about books that have influenced you, these and a set of new posts coming out later in 2015 will be very helpful to you.  

Books are a perennial favorite for college app prompts and even when the prompt does not directly ask you to address books, prompts directed at intellectual experiences or influences or ideas that shaped you can be addressed through an essay on books.

For the 2011 application season Harvard took an approach similar to that of Stanford.  They suggested that, while they have more than enough information to evaluate you already based on other parts of the application, you might just want to consider adding a wee bit more to your application file by submitting some groundbreaking art or your Great American Novel or, what the heck, writing just one more essay.  Here are the topics suggested for their supplemental essay that year:

• 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

Like you, I noticed that the book thing comes up twice in a fairly short list, so let’s start there.  It appears that Harvard is hopeful that its applicants have vibrant intellectual lives and read avidly.  It’s also  likely that you only have time to do assigned reading, what with all those A.P. classes you need to take in order to be considered for an Ivy League school, but even if your reading has only been for classes, you must have read a couple of  intellectually stimulating and interesting books in the past twelve months, and you certainly should be able to bring some books to mind that have affected you–if you can’t think of any, what Harvard  may be saying to you is that you aren’t the kind of gal or guy they are looking for. They want masters of the universe who are well read if not downright bookish.

If that bums you out, no time like the present to start reading–a journey of a thousand books starts with the first.

But let’s assume that you  have read some books which have had an impact on you.  The first thing to notice is that either of the suggested book essays will require you to write about multiple books–and, therefore, Harvard is challenging you to do something which you probably have not done before or which you have not done often, for few contemporary English classes in American high schools asks students to evaluate or compare works of literature which they have read.  Most of the time high school students write about their personal response to a book or they do an analysis of some particular kind of theme–the river as a representation of nature,  in opposition to the corruption of civilization which is represented by the towns and people on the river banks in Huckleberry Finn, for example.  This kind of cycloptic essay is not what you want.   Yes, I did just coin that word to capture the narrow focus of these essays.  Single eyed, if you will, as opposed to the broad view you need for this Harvard essay.

In a way, this supplemental essay  will make an unstated argument of a narrow sort, which I may sum up thus:  What an interesting mind I have and what a well-read person I am!  You should admit me to Harvard!  Yet in order to succeed in this unstated argument, you must convey the capaciousness of your thought and the variety of your interests by writing an essay which makes some sort of sophisticated primary argument about a selection of books.

So let’s look for some aid.  To start with, you need to read some examples.  You need to find a publication which frequently features articles on not one, not two, but three or more novels or nonfiction works–yes, they said only books, not just novels.   You need . . . the New York Review of Books.  Like many publications, the NYRB is increasingly protecting their content–meaning that they put up a firewall and you have to pay to get at it–but in the issue online as I write this post, the NYRB has articles on energy and Alexander the Great which both reference, discuss and analyze multiple  works on their respective topics.  It’s a fine lesson in How To Do It.

If you follow my link to the NYRB and it seems a bit too high-falutin and stuffy for you, may I suggest that you check out their recent article on Stieg Larsson?  With the caveat that his would be a daring choice of books to write about, but one could do worse, as this article shows.  Just don’t plagiarize this or any other article, first on ethical grounds and second as there is an above-average chance that your Harvard Admissions officer also reads the NYRB.  It’s de rigueur for all us folks with intellectual pretensions or accomplishments, and for good reason.

Another place to look for examples is the New York Times Book Review (whole different crowd, confusingly similar titles).  Go to the nytimes site using my link and you can find some of this week’s articles there–scroll down.  You might want to see if you can access a review of a bushel of mysteries–this would provide a valuable contrast to the kind of extended comparison and analysis you find in the NYRB–these thumbnail reviews are fun and useful, but are probably not what you want your Harvard Supplement book essay to be.  They wittily summarize and evaluate a pack of recent mystery or crime novels, but are not very worried about linking the discussion into a coherent argument.  These are user’s guides for mystery and crime fans. Have a look at this recent example.

While you do get a strong sense of the author’s voice in the roundup of recent mysteries I link above, the purpose of this article is different than the purpose of your Supplement essay. You want to use a selection of books to make some sort of argument, as the NYRB articles do.  This could mean that you use fiction–a set of novels, for example–or nonfiction to develop an argument or to explain the effect the books have had on you. I leave it up to you to do some homework now to prepare for this topic, to which I will return soon.

The Stanford Supplement Essays For 2011-2012

In Autobiographical Essay, college essay, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Stanford Application, Stanford Essay on October 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Stanford uses both the Common Application essays and what it calls The Stanford Supplement. If you are reading this, you probably already knew that. Bear with me while I establish the basic rules of the Stanford game for this year.  I will then expand  by analyzing the specifics of the prompts. When you have one or more drafts ready for feedback, you can send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com for a sample edit; this is risk-free for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries, please. Your work and information remain confidential.

Update as of July 8th, 2015–Stanford has been using the same three short answer prompts since 2011, but this is no absolute guarantee that they will not change one or more of them this year.  Feel free to read my posts on Stanford, but remember that until they go live officially ca. August 1st, with the opening of the Common App website for 2015-2016.   Until then, or until I can confirm and post this year’s prompts separately, you should tread carefully.  The Common App and other current prompts offer enough to do without risking wasted time in the event that, say, the Cardinal drops its letter to a roomate prompt.  Okay, you have been warned–read on and click away to your heart’s content.

Here are the prompts that Stanford adds to the Common App:

The Stanford Supplement Short Essays

Candidates respond to all three essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided.

  1. Stanford students possess intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  2. 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.
  3. What matters to you, and why?

Let’s compare these to the Common App prompts Notethese are no longer the Common App prompts, but what I wrote about these and the Stanford prompts will still apply for the 2013-2014 app season; you will find, however, a some anachronisms along with my nuggets of wisdom.  Read carefully, Thx.)

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

If you are thinking that there is a considerable overlap between Stanford’s prompts and the (old) Common App prompts, I agree.  This is amplified by the fact that such a large percentage of young people share both the archetypal experiences of high school and a certain homogeneity that comes from growing up in suburbs and bedroom communities.  This may not apply to you, but the majority of my clients are technically or effectively suburbanites.

The prompts themselves further heighten the chances that students will write  similar essays. Take a look at prompt 1 of the Common App–Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. Given that so much of a young person’s intellectual development takes place at a school or in a relationship with a teacher figure outside of school, certain essay topics, such as how Coach Smith changed my life, or how my piano teacher inspired me, appear again and again.

What to do.  One approach is not to worry about it.  If you care about your topic, it will show in your essay, so write about what you are passionate about, then polish, polish, polish.

If your passions are very focused–on a particular intellectual pursuit, or on a sport, for example–consider how to write some related essays but have them touch edges, so to speak, rather than overlap.  You could, for example, write about an English teacher who inspired you as you address either Common App prompt 3 or Stanford App prompt 1–the teacher would be the person who influenced you for the Common App, while in the Stanford prompt, the class is the intellectual experience.  You could then, in a second essay, write about a character in a novel–say Tom Joad or Scout Finch–and turn the focus to a specific novel and individual in that novel, without mentioning the teacher.  Or a novel  could have inspired you to care about social issues (Stanford Prompt 3) and of course Common App Prompt 4 asks directly that you write about a fictional character or work of art (Keep in mind that a novel is a work of art).

There are other ways the topics suggested by the different application prompts can overlap–in telling your roommate about yourself, for example, you might be discussing issues of local, national or international significance which you are passionate about.  Most engaged and curious applicants to a place like Stanford are interested in politics and world events.

So my most important advice to you is this:  write what you know and care about.  Try to write multiple essays for some of the prompts.  Then choose the best from these; if they overlap, work on revising them to separate them as much as possible.  If you are going to Stanford and you want to major in science,  and you write one essay about scientific thinking as the thing that matters to you and you write a second essay  on a specific science project as a significant experience . . . and its impact on you, the similarities of the essays may help you more than hinder you.

How much you care and how hard you work at the essays will be more important than their similarities.

I will be writing again to address issues raised by the Stanford App this year, but will end this post now by pointing out a specific problem with Stanford Supplemental Prompt 2:  you are writing a note, not an e-mail or a tweet.  The fact that this old-fashioned mode of communication–WTH?  Paper?– is your model should caution you to avoid too many colloquialisms and–OMG!–watch the use of abbreviations and acronyms.  You might work some in for humor, but use caution and consider your audience.  We old geezers may not get it.

Remember:  always consider your audience and purpose.  Your roommate is not the real audience for this essay/letter.  An admissions officer is.  See my Welcome to the Jungle post for links to general posts on addressing audience.