Archive for the ‘Harvard Application Supplement’ Category

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.






How to Begin Writing College Application Essays for 2016-2017: The Harvard Supplemental Essay and The University of California Personal Insight Statements

In Common Application Personal Statement 2016-2017, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application for 2016-2017, Harvard Application Supplement, Uncategorized, University of California Application, University of California Application for 2016-2017 on September 16, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Who should read this post: Anybody applying to Harvard; Anybody applying to Harvard and the University of California system; Anybody applying to a Common Application School; Anybody writing more than one application essay.

 So step one this year is not to just sit down and write an essay.  And why not?

Because most of you will write essays for multi-college portals like the University of California system and a slate of colleges through the Common Application or Coalition application. If you are just getting into the app process and thought you could write your Common App essay and be done, sorry: most Common App and Coalition schools also want their own supplemental essays—and when a super elite like Harvard offers even the chance to write an additional essay, you need to do it lest you appear to be a slacker. All things being equal, you are likely to lose out to another applicant who looks like you in terms of data and other material if they wrote the extra essay and you did not.

What this means is clear: too many essays, too little time.

So assuming you have ten to sixteen essays to write, too much schoolwork and not enough time: what should you do? The answer is also pretty simple, but does take a bit more time up front: find a double or triple use for essays when you can. Sure, you thought of that, but have you done it yet? If not, read on. Actually, read on either way, as I will do some prompt analysis for Harvard and the University of California, along with a shout-out to Stanford, with a bonus of some helpful links.

How to Start Your College Application Essay

Back to step one, which is now to print out the prompts for your top target schools and set them side-by-side, along with a few safety schools, and engage in a comparison/contrast exercise. The more times you can reuse an essay as is, or do a bit of editing and reuse it, the better. Of course, you do have to avoid stretching too much when you try to make one essay work for another prompt, and you should definitely do a close read to make sure you did not leave in the name of  college x in your essay to college y  (Seriously: people really do miss details and end up sending an essay addressed to one school to another. For an amusing example of this and some other major boo-boos, listen to the introduction to this episode of This American Life: How I Got Into College.  It only takes a couple of minutes and is good for a laugh, at least.

Getting back to getting started,  if you are entirely new to this game, please dive in and start selecting your schools of interest in the Common App or Coalition portal (or Naviance, if you are using it). You will find that most Common App schools also want some kind of supplemental essay, or essays, or at least some quick responses about yourself. To learn more, get registered, select schools and  then click on the supplementals and essays.  Copy all prompts of interest into a document.  Then come back here  for a lesson on doubling up on essays and so not going crazy (completely) or burning out (utterly) by Thanksgiving.


The Harvard Optional Essay and the University of California Personal Insight Prompts:  A comparison

Many students will apply to some University of California campuses as an alternate or backup for one or more Ivy League applications, so let’s look at a comparison of the U.C. essay prompts and Harvard.

Here’s the University of California Prompts, bare-bones version (on the U.C. site, they append quite a bit of commentary to the basic prompts):

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  
    2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
    3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
    4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
    5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
    6.  Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
    7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
    8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

 You choose four of these eight prompts and write them (Caveat to junior college and other transfers—you have a required essay and choose three of these four prompts; here’s a link to the required transfer essay: U.C. Transfer essay).

And now we turn to the Harvard prompts, comparing each to the University of California personal insight prompts, with Stanford’s roommate letter thrown in for fun:

Harvard College Application Essay Prompts for 2016-2017

Essay optional (Hint, hint:  Optional only for those with a scholarship in hand.)

You may wish to include an additional essay (You should)  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—Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could pair with the University of California’s prompt 8 (UC 8: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates if that thing is some unusual circumstance in your life.
  • Travel or living experiences in other countries— Analysis and comparison: This prompt overlaps with the UC prompt 8 as well, if your unusual circumstance is living abroad. Of course just attending an international school does not make you all that unusual—thousands of American students in international schools, as well as thousands of foreign students apply to Harvard and the U.C.’s. But if you start by visualizing how your life is abroad is different from a suburban American teen (your major competition overall) and then think about how you have some unique view of experience within your living abroad experience, then that is your angle.
    • Oh, and a caveat: In all cases, whether writing for U.C. or for Harvard, please avoid the clichéd essay on a trip. Have a look at this link for some advice on how to write (or not write) the trip essay for either U.C. or Harvard (or anywhere else): Evading the Cliché Step 2.
  • What you would want your future college roommate to know about you. Analysis and comparison: Well this does not actually line up perfectly with any U.C. prompts—but it does overlap nicely with the Stanford letter to a roommate and hey—if you are applying to Harvard (with its 5.39% admit rate), why not apply to Stanford (with its 4.96% admit rate) as well—so let’s digress here to Stanford, which is still using its “letter to your roommate” prompt. You wouldn’t want your Harvard essay to look too much like a Stanford letter, but the usually more cheeky or informal tone of a letter might work for Harvard as well. Here’s a link to the Stanford prompts: Stanford Short Essays.

Okay, Back to the U.C. . . . . and Harvard:

  • 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. Analysis and comparison: This lines up best with the U.C. prompt 6 ( . . . favorite academic subject and its influence on you) as long as you frame it with a specific focus on a book, project, research topic, etc. It might also work for the U.C. prompt 4 (Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity).
  • How you hope to use your college education. Analysis and comparison: This does not line up well with any U.C. prompts. A number of Ivies have this kind of question (Cornell, et al) but the problem with doubling up this prompt is your need to show some knowledge of the school. So you could write about your ambitions and show why you have them, then do some reading and clicking on specific programs, professors and research, etc., at Harvard, and then write this one. Then cut off the specifics about Harvard as you use it for other schools, swapping in research on their programs, etc.
  • A list of books you have read during the past twelve months. Analysis and comparison: This is, again, a question with no overlap for the University of California prompts; it is also not really an essay prompt. On the other hand, I would not just list books here. No, I would present an annotated list, with a brief reaction to each book—a few sentences at most.
  • 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. Analysis and comparison: Notice that this could be a leadership issue if you took some kind of initiative in relationship to integrity or honesty—which is, of course, prompt 1 for the University of California. But handle this one with caution. If you waded into the morass of plagiarism or cheating, you have to figure out if you can get into that without hurting yourself by talking about it. You don’t want to present as a cheater, nor do you want to present as a snitch. If it was a big deal, possibly you have to, however, since if it was a big problem, it likely has a presence on social media. The last time I looked at a study, over 40% of application officers look at social media, and any serious stuff about you online will require some damage control.
  • 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? Analysis and comparison: If you wrote an essay for the University of California’s prompt 7 (What have you done to make your school or your community a better place), that could work as the basis for this essay. Notice that they want to know what you will do at Harvard, which means what you will do in the future, but what you will do in the future won’t be very convincing if you have not done something in the past. So as I said, you might be able to use your UC 7 essay and add to it here to show how you will continue your commitment to world peace or whatever. But do some research on what is already in place at Harvard (and your fav U.C. campuses).  Why?  Because saying you want to start a World Peace Club at Harvard won’t be very convincing if they already have one. It would just show that you did not do much research, which suggests a lack of interest. Oops.

Some tips on Editing

Keeping in mind that to cut a 650 word essay down to 500 words, or a 500 word essay down to 350 words is actually to create a different essay, try to match up prompts, and when possible, match up prompts in a similar wordcount range.

To see what I mean, use my link below, and then read down into the post and you will see a very simple but very useful editing exercise I do on a brilliant essay by Titi Nguyen that will show you how you can cut a much longer essay and have a very good (if very different and much shorter) essay: How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples. After clicking the link, save time by searching the post for this:  My Wonder Years.

If you can use a technique like this to cut a Common App essay down to a U.C. 350-word essay, you can save some time. In addition to the editing trick, which would require only some work with transitions to make a great, new essay out of Nguyen’s long essay, notice the topic: television shows, and from what I would call a lost decade in terms of culture.  Nguyen’s use of what should be not just a mundane but a mindless topic allows her to get at the meaning of her life and to show her unique experience.

Hey, how has media shaped your life? Or how does it offer a lens into your life? Follow her lead and something good may happen (just don’t copy her. Inspiration is okay, plagiarism not so much.  You should go with things that are important to you.  Maybe it’s food, or shoes or something else nobody else would think of as a serious topic).

So that’s it; that’s how I would go about doing a comparison of U.C. to Harvard prompts and thus look to save time and verbiage (Yep, that’s both a thesis and a summary).

My next post will do a similar comparison for the University of Oregon, a good, large state university that has become a fallback school for many California applicants—with an app data profile similar to U.C. Riverside. Call it a safety comparison if you will, or just call it a look at a solid university to double up with the U.C. (or some other fine institution).   See you soon. (Oh, and yes, I will be doing more Ivy League analysis, as well as having a look at U Chicago and other elites, later in the month of September on into early October, as time allows.  Editing on client essays has to come first, but Stay tuned for more).











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.


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.

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.

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.