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Princeton Essays for 2015-2016: Getting the Job done

In Essay About a Problem, Essay About Culture, Issue of Concern Essay, Princeton Supplement, Woodrow Wilson Essay, Writing an Essay about a Book, Writing an Essay About a Quote on December 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm

This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2014-2015) and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about national problems, essays about ethical matters, essays about culture (and food) and essays about personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  

Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  This is an update to last year’s post on the same prompts, with some new links and other changes to make your essays relevant for this year.  It is also a very long post, because I address all the Princeton prompts in it, in detail, so you might want to scroll down to the one or two prompts that most appeal to you–or you might read the whole post and find an idea you had not yet considered.

If you need editing, contact me soon to guarantee yourself and editing slot:  Editing Services.

I will address the Princeton Supplement prompts one at a time, repeating each prompt so that you do not have to look it up again. After you have written a draft, you can send it to me as a Word attachment, to wordguild@gmail.com. I will give you a free sample edit and a price quote–but serious inquiries only, please; I’ll give you enough for you to judge what I can do for you.

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this admonishment:  In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Many people are choosing a “second string” Common App essay because of the way some of Princeton’s prompts overlap with the Common App prompts, and because of the very obvious way that the word count requirements fit the Common App this year.  Using an essay you opted not to use is okay only if you think it’s equal in quality to the one you chose or if you can work some more on it to improve it.  If this app matters to you, of course.  If it’s just a lark, don’t sweat it too much.

The rest of this post is for people who want to put in some work to have a great essay.  If that’s you, read on.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

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

I really don’t have anything to say about this prompt beyond what I have already said about the same prompt on the old Common App, which I discussed over the last two years–you can see my archives, or to save time,   use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, which is in the same topic zone, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 2

Using the statement below as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

Let me begin by suggesting that the Princeton admissions officer might be a bit more impressed by an applicant who actually showed that she had read the speech.  Try this link and give it a few minutes; I recommend taking notes:  Princeton in the Nation’s Service.

I will pause for dramatic effect while you read the speech.

Welcome back.  This speech will feel archaic  to most of its modern readers in its vocabulary and in its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ideals, but I would say that this is the point.  Hopefully you read all the way to the bottom of the page and read the footnote about the fact that Wilson had suffered  a stroke and struggled physically to finish rewriting the speech on a typewriter.  There is a moral message of a sort right there, folks, about Wilson’s grit as well as  his  sense of duty.  Compare the person making the speech and the content of the speech to many of our politicians and much of what passes for political philosophy today. The contrast is clear.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I would point out that  the last few decades have been notable for material excess and personal aggrandizement, often at the expense of others–the upper echelon of Goldman Sachs, for example,  has been wildly successful in the terms of our culture, meaning they made incredible amounts of money, but it’s hard to argue that much of their work has been a boon to our society or to the world financial system in general.  A quick review of their role in the European debt  crisis–they enabled Greek currency manipulation–and their simply fraudulent actions in the derivatives market in the United States makes this clear.   I would suggest to you that Princeton is taking a strong stance against the attitude embodied by people who act in the interest of short-term and personal profit over the long-term good for all.

You don’t have to be Anglo-Saxon or Protestant to have a sense of duty, of course–go look up Dharma if you have any questions about that–but clearly Wilson himself in his speech and in his physical situation while writing and giving the speech was embodying a certain spirit of sacrifice.  This is  important because a prompt like this tells you  what your university is looking for in its prospective students:  a future Lord of Wall Street needs not apply.

If I may quote from Wilson’s  essay, this section, by establishing what Wilson saw as the purpose of the university, also reinforces what the university still sees as its purpose:

“Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, –not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher sort of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted “a seminary of true religion and good literature” which should be after their own model and among their own people.

 It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen . . .”

It’s not an accident that this speech tweaks one of its rivals, Yale, and Princeton clearly sees itself as a liberal institution in the traditional sense of the word, producing people of wide-ranging  knowledge and overall excellence who will practice the Aristotelian virtues of service and thought.   So may I strongly suggest that your essay for this prompt show you as a thinking and active member of American society who is concerned with the state of the world and the welfare of his or her fellow citizens.  (To be fair to Yale, I think Harvard has more suspects behind some of our recent economic troubles.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as a hand-wringer or platitude fabricator as you demonstrate your sense of duty and your awareness of the Big Picture, and your essay should not fall into the trap of being too self-referential; its focus should be more on what you observed than on what you felt, on what should be done rather than on how to point fingers.

You should also not offer simplistic solutions to the problems which you  discuss–just look at the Occupy movement, which morphed into all kinds of weirdness, especially in places like Oakland, as various violent elements like the so called black-maskers and so-called anarchists infiltrated the scene–they were not always the same people– and caused trouble.  Seriously, smacking with a hammer a waiter who’s trying to stop you from breaking the window in the restaurant he works at is not fighting the Man, and the  Eat the Rich slogans do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change.

Anger isn’t a solution, nor are platitudes.   Though anger is necessary to get a movement for change started.   It just has to be channeled into something other than violence.  Ask Nelson Mandela, or Ghandi or Reverend King.  So try to avoid both overt anger and platitudes  if you write about economic justice and social well-being.  And keep in mind that in this country, having a shot at a decent income and quality of life is intertwined with that line you likely  memorized about the pursuit of happiness.

I would add to this that if you are writing about  social and economic justice, you wouldn’t want to appear as if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week.  A sense of commitment should be clear in your essay, and not just clear in the nice things you say. Hopefully you have either a track record in some sort of work or volunteering, and the best thing would be if it were in addition to your required community service hours.

For recent background on economic justice and its history in the last few years, I would start with this month’s fast-food strike, in which workers in hundreds of cities walked out of their jobs or took their day off to ask, en masse, for a living wage.  Start here, for information:  Fast Food Strike.  Then there is the Walmart food drive–for its own employees.  Probably you have heard or read about it, but here’s a decent summary:  Food Drive.  

I must add at this point, that these two items would be nice examples for an essay, but they don’t offer much in the way of solutions to the bigger problems, though I would say that a higher minimum wage would be a good start.  I add that I am aware of the argument for inflationary effects, but many economists see no problem for the greater economy with a national minimum wage somewhere between twelve and fifteen dollars an hour.  I don’t have time to get into the whole we-are-competing-with-the-whole-world/race to the bottom thing in this post, though you might want to bring it up in your own essay.

Did I mention that many fast food workers have trouble getting a second job because  fast food joints–the big corporate ones–expect their workers to work a varying schedule, filling in wherever they are needed in a given week?  Makes it tough to fit a second job in when you can’t schedule time more than a week in advance.

It is also worth looking at the Occupy movement in its early days, for the spirit of the thing and the reasons for anger–have a look at this link in the New York Review of Books for a good discussion of Occupy if you are interested: In Zucotti Park

A few other things to remember about this speech involve  Woodrow Wilson himself.  He was an internationalist who believed strongly not just that the United States participate in international affairs, but that we be, well, a bit Arthurian, a leader yet seated at a Round Table–he did want a League of Nations, after all . . . so if you are an isolationist or  tend to speak like the more hysterical members of the Tea Party movement, Princeton seems to suggest in presenting Wilson’s speech that you might want to go elsewhere for school.  Yale, I guess.  Or tone it down.

In concluding our discussion of this prompt, I mention my view that the Tea Party and the Occupy people share a fundamental American concern for fairness and equality, and that I look forward to some sort of shared agenda arising from these populist movements, especially if things get worse.  If you do prefer tea to coffee, so to speak, you might explore that kind of common value, which would prevent you from coming  across like, well, Sean Hannity.  Woodrow Wilson would not have been a fan of the Tea Party; in using his speech, Princeton is taking a stance that is both principled and political.  Keep that in mind.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 3

Using the quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life.

“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”

Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University

Pretty stuffy-sounding phrasing, but this is a great prompt, and not just for people from specific and clear ethnic bacgrounds.  Music, architecture, dance, literature, all the artifacts around us represent culture.  Cars are culture (and also capture the often paradoxical nature of it, the good and the bad:  with the car, independence and mobility, really the entire American way of life, set against urban sprawl, traffic deaths, pollution and climate change.)

Clearly, culture is an enormously   broad subject, so I am going to focus in this post on one area of culture everyone shares:  food. (I’ve already written about books–about writing about books, about books as culture–elsewhere, both in my links for Princeton this year and in other examples in my archive).

Whether your mother (or father–things have changed) makes saurkraut or brews beer or has kimchee fermenting away or simply cooks anything with regularity, you are in touch with culture as food.  Just look at holiday meals, how they are used to  pass on traditions, and not just in the form of recipes.  This is a rich source of personal experience for essays.

I’ll start my links with Roi Choi, who is a pioneer of the new-wave food truck industry, and who recently published a cookbook that is more autobiography than recipes; here’s an interview with him:  L.A Son.  The early part of this interview pretty much shows what I mean about food and culture as Choi talks about kimchi and how his native Korean culture is, for him, rooted in food.

Also roaming the greater L.A. area is one of the great food writers of today, Jonathan Gold, food critic for the L.A. Times and fanatical hunter for cheap and interesting ethnic food.  Here are a couple of appetizers that give a good taste of his writing–pay close attention to his use of detail and the casual but tightly written style he has evolved:

Jonathan Gold on Tacos

Jonathan Gold on Udon

And consider your own family’s food traditions as an expression of culture and get writing.  I recommend starting when you are just a bit peckish, to stimulate your descriptive skills, dining only after the first draft is done.

 

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

1.Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.

“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?”Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.  

This prompt asks for a very personal response.  I am revising this post in the week after the death of Nelson Mandela; though imprisoned when I was in high school and college, he was still a presence in my life, here, in America, and in addition to your own experience, I’ll just add that there is no better model of how to address this prompt than Nelson Mandela.

The book Conversations with Myself is a good introduction to his life, and if you have seen the recent movie, you really should also read this, which shows even more clearly  how he lived the idea of racial equality, moving from his involvement in often violent resistance to apartheid to his stance against revenge and violence when he left prison.  It shows both his incredible will and discipline and his humanity, his quirks and foibles.  A good, quick  introduction to the book and to Mandela’s life is in this review, from The Guardian: Conversations With Myself.  

Princeton Supplement Prompt 5

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

Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form, also initiated many of his essays with a quote that conveyed an idea which he would develop throughout the essay, and he would weave in more quotes as he went, so this essay prompt harks back to the beginnings of the form.  Too see some stuff from him, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays,.  Montaigne himself is a great source of quotes.  By the way, if you read an essay, say, today, and really liked it, and could use it, that fits the prompt’s requirement that you have read this in the last three years.  That’s called inspiration and it’s totally authentic, if you do it right.

Now to the central problem of this prompt:  starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point.  And don’t force the book and your experience together.   You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way.  See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life.  Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.

If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are.  If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap.  An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay.  My view is, it depends on what you do with it.  Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.

Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs.  Be sure not to  make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.

The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay.  It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes.  This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.

I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.

In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you who believe in the idea of economic justice, or even if you think our financial system should be run in a more ethical or simply open and clear way–the article linked here is a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt.  Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing.  It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.

Here are two  more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500 word essay but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes.  Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.

“Goodbye To All That”

“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going.

That’s all for now, folks.  Good luck and good writing (and reading).

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.

Writing The Essay On A Local Issue

In common application, Common Application Prompt 2, Common Application Prompt Two, Issue of Concern Essay on July 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm

This will be my final post on The Issue of Concern or Problem Essay, which has been Prompt Two of the Common Application in recent years.

In this post, I will focus on writing about a local problem.  I recommend that you read my three previous posts for in-depth discussion of other Prompt Two topic areas.

Let’s look again at the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

This topic lends itself more to narrative than do the the topics of national or international concern, though if you lived or traveled in a place with problems of hunger, for example, you could use a narrative strategy in addressing a problem of international importance.

This topic also lends itself more to humor than do the topics of national or international concern. I will handle the serious approach to this topic first, then deal with humor.

The famous advice given to fiction writers–write about what you know–applies here. I have had essays on a wide variety of topics which address this prompt in the last year, including essays on: teen suicide by a student involved with an outreach group and suicide hotline; restoration of a local creek by a student who had worked on the project; traffic safety and bicycle safety in a suburban setting by a student who was working on making his community more bike and pedestrian friendly; and an essay on urban forestry by a student who worked with an organization which planted and restored trees in human environments. You might think of this as the Eagle Scout Project topic.

Each of the essays above were successful because the writers were intimately familiar and involved with with the local problem which they addressed. Don’t expect to suddenly leap into a local issue now and come up with an essay next week.

On the other hand, I had a few very funny essays which were on topics such as Weeds in Local Lawns as a problem and Early Onset Senioritis as a problem. Being funny is great, but it is also a risky strategy. The weeds in lawns essay could made the writer sound like another suburban kid looking for a clue. However, the lad who wrote it presented it as a kind of quest and a scientific treatise and, instead of advocating the application of massive amounts of herbicide, he argued that our ideas about perfection were dangerous. He included good narrative and descriptions of weeds and of himself battling weeds under the hot sun for low pay–a very funny paragraph of description, which was followed by a seemingly ironic proposal that we let (many) weeds grow.  The irony slowly receded as this student made his argument that weeds are a class we create in order to destroy things we don’t like, often for misguided aesthetic reasons. The essay succeeded in being funny but serious at the same time.

Beware, however, of casting yourself in a negative light while attempting to get laughs, and use caution if writing what I call a metaessay, a college ap essay which is about writing the college app essay and which is usually tongue-in-cheek. More about metaessays later.

More Thoughts On The Problem Essay

In applying to college, common application, Common Application Prompt Two, Issue of Concern Essay on July 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm

The last couple of posts have dealt with strategy for Common App Prompt Two and have analyzed several topics in depth. I recommend that you have a look at them. I think of Prompt Two as the Big Problem prompt–though if you are involved in a local issue and well-versed in it, a “small” problem can be a brilliant choice.  I will address the local problem as a topic in my next post.

In this post, I will more briefly consider a number of additional topics which I have seen used recently to address Prompt Two.

Some global considerations for this prompt: first, remember that you are developing a form of argument which certainly includes an analysis of cause and effect and which should have a solution to the problem discussed. If you prefer narratives or don’t have an existing interest in and basic knowledge of a topic of local, national or international importance, move on to the other prompts. See my previous posts about other risks of this prompt, such as the “beauty queen” trap.

Remember that the prompt is one thing, the topic you choose another. The number of topics possible for an argument addressing Prompt Two is as large as the number of problems in the world. This is as good a thing for an essayist as it is a bad thing for the world at large. Therefore, try to be sensitive–you are writing about something that may be a very real source of suffering for others.

Below is  a list of essay topics addressing this prompt which I have seen in the last year, along with questions and considerations for these topics; keep in mind that Prompt Two more than any other Common App prompt demands knowledge, the marshaling of empirical facts and, most likely, some time spent researching:

1. The problem of food shortages and famine

Hunger, like poverty, has always been with humanity. Keep that in mind. Any solution you come up with can improve things but don’t try to end world hunger forever in a 500 word essay. There are always complicating factors to consider. In recent years the U.S, one of countries which is an important grain exporter, has devoted more and more corn to fuel production. The policies and economics of this are complicating food production around the world.

In addition, many food experts say that we are leaving an era of surplus for one of shortages. Political and economic disruptions and, more importantly, weather–or changes in climate–in the last few  years have caused regional crop failures. Russia, another country which exports grain, last year suffered a record-setting heat wave and fires which caused it to curtail exports.This year the grain belt of the United States is suffering under its own record-setting heat wave, and as I write this, corn is set to pollinate in several states but the heat lingering this weekend will severely hinder this process and possibly decimate this year’s corn crop. Some agricultural areas of the U.S. are facing a drought as bad and long as that of the Dust Bowl Era.

In short, we face a period in which agriculture will have to adjust rapidly. Don’t naively assert that simply making distribution more “fair” or tweaking a few genes will make everything better.  Starvation-driven migration and political instability is likely to become more common in the near future and hunger itself could complicate the problem of feeding the hungry as it disrupts social structures and distribution networks.    Sorry to be a bummer, folks, but it’s just so–so you don’t want to oversimplify.

2. Renewable Energy

It isn’t easy being green. All human energy production has negative consequences–weighing alternatives is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Wind turbines, for example, consume no fuel as they produce electricity, but they do kill thousands of birds a year in the large installation at the Altamont Pass area of California, which, as it turns out, was built on a major migration for raptors. Oops. That’s the point: think critically and research possible problems–unintended consequences are those we don’t foresee or take seriously enough.

Know about your topics and subtopics. Solar power takes different forms–primarily, it can be dispersed (on rooftops, for example) or centralized (like the large solar installation near Barstow, CA). Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, though both will require that our power grid be restructured. In addition, some sort of production must occur independent of sun and wind for times when they don’t produce energy.

Don’t forget that all technology requires resources–batteries, for example, are a way to store electricity for windless times and nighttime, but lithium batteries require . . . lithium, among other relatively rare or difficult to produce elements. Check up on its availability. How big is the supply of materials needed for alternative energy technology? Think big but look at the details. I recommend the book Out of Gas for its brilliant discussion of our current energy conundrum, including the physics of various alternatives and of our environment. It is concise and brilliant.

3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems

Tsunami in Japan. That’s what comes to mind, right? Up until a couple of years ago, nuclear was making a comeback as a Big Solution to Big Problems, but the toxic nature of nuclear fuel and the necessity to store waste for periods of time longer than human civilization has so far existed make nukes look a lot less attractive these days, especially  given the surprises that the universe has recently reminded us it can throw at us. Take Diablo Canyon, on the California coast, for example. It will be relicensed soon, having run through most of its originally planned life span, despite the fact that it lies within a few minutes drive–or sail–of multiple potentially dangerous earthquake faults, none of which you have ever heard of but any of which could damage this plant and the infrastucture around it. What, Mr. B, are you a no-nuker? Yes and no. What I am saying is that this is a difficult topic, at least for this year, unless you happen to be interested in nuclear physics or in engineering in the nuke field. This means that this could be an interesting challenge for you.   Maybe you even have some ideas for big changes or an idea that might crack the problem of cold nuclear fission. Great! Go for it. Do not be dismissive of those who disagree or fear this technology, though–they have a lot of evidence to justify their fears, at the moment.

4. Sovereign Debt, aka National Debt or Just Debt in General (Hello, Detroit)

A hot topic among the politically minded. In later posts, I will discuss the uses of analogies at more length, but I will point out some problems with tendency some have of comparing our national budget to a family budgetThe analogy makes the assumption that all families do balance their budgets every year.  Without even looking at whether the United States Government can be compared to a family, we can see that this analogy has problematic assumptions.  Many families in this country have had economic troubles lately, and many have used credit cards or borrowed money to get through the rough times as opposed to, say, automatically foreclosing on their house  because a breadwinner lost a job.

Looking at the other side of the analogy, what would a country with cap do if, or example, it were experiencing income problems like the family above and at the same time it were attacked by another country?  Should the country surrender instead of borrowing some money?     Unless you are very serious-minded, have studied this at length with someone who has  expertise (an excellent Gov or History teacher as well as a good Econ class would be advisable), and are committed to deep and nuanced thinking, stay away.

Find John Lanchester’s IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay–reviewed in this link–if you want to read up on this.  Then again, maybe that would turn this into an intellectual experience essay. . .

5. Immigration

This is a favorite of the louder voices on both sides of the opinion pages and in both camps of the land of talking heads, which should already be a warning to you. Who is your college reader going to be, anyway? Do you know what the political outlook of this person is? Unless you are well-versed and can present a very balanced discussion which looks at not both but the many sides of this issue, Stay Away.

6. Terrorism and Extremism

Terrorist acts are a result of extremism and, as the news this week from Norway shows,  both of these phenomenon are universals–that is, they appear across cultures and historical periods.  Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th Century  committed terrorist acts and assassinations in the United States, across Europe and in Russia.  The September 11th attacks had precursors in the decades leading up to this century, including an attack by nominally Christian American, in Oklahoma City.  The use of violence and the threat of violence to spread fear is as ancient as agriculture and the causes of this in the modern world are many.  Read up and think long if you want to tackle this topic.  The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman, discusses the Anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (among many other things); The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright gives an excellent overview of so-called Islamic terrorism.  The content of these two books provide and interesting contrast between anarchy, an essentially areligious, even anti-religious movement which spawned terrorist acts and the ostensibly religious terrorism of Al Quaeda and groups like it.  Balance and a historical perspective are requirements for an attempt at an essay on this.

8. Social Justice Topics

Some of the topics above could fit under the umbrella of social justice, as could topics which I have discussed at length in earlier posts.  Social Justice is a recently coined phrase–justice is clear, but the idea in social justice is  to create a more just society.  This requires action by organizations and governments.  Social Justice curriculums are becoming common in high schools and have been established for years in many universities.

You can write an essay on a “social justice” topic without using the term social justice.  In fact, I recommend doing this for a number of reasons, one of which is tha common topics many social justice classes share and the common answers these classes tend to propose to these problems.  You want to show original thought and writing; you do not want to regurgitate a packaged answer to a problem you studied in class.

I have also found that these essays too often read like homilies and  don’t show enough critical thought.  They often take the form of “if only would be recognized, discussed, changed, then y would be resolved/solved and justice would reign.”

While it is more likely than not that a college essay reader would be sympathetic to a social justice argument, you need to do good research and show an understanding of complexityand the difficulty of change in a social justice essay.  Too often essays on social justice problems offer simplistic solutions to complex issues, most often as a result of assuming that individuals and groups can easily change their thinking through education (becoming more enlightened, confronting history, etc) or through some sort of legislation.  Change is difficult and slow, particularly in cultural shifts and remedying poverty and inequality.  See the history of African Americans for more . . .

9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

Many kinds, many reasons, and we are all part of the problem.  Think of this as like an original sin of which we are all guilty and you will avoid the Soapbox of Self-Righteousness.  I think of an essay I read long ago by Alice Walker in which she described communing with trees.  The essay represented humanity, and specifically industry and technology  destructive of nature.  In the essay,  Alice recounted an attempt to commune with the trees, to show them that she was not part of all that. She loved trees, she felt with them, she became one with them.

I had a strong negative reaction to this essay which was written by a person who has been responsible for the murder of more trees than any anti-environmentalist politician.  She is a writer, after all, with most of her career in an age when books were printed.  Not only that, I suspect she was a passenger in or drove a car to visit this grove of trees she describes in the essay.  I tossed the book across the room and didn’t read more for a long time.

While Alice is one of our major 20th Century writers and a great battler for the environment–and for redwood trees specifically–her essay struck me as naive and self-righteous.  It’s nice to be aware of the dignity and value of trees as a class and of individual trees you know, but we all use paper made from trees.  We all use transportation which was built using and which propels itself with  fossil fuels, even if we plug in our cars.   So beware of your own sense of righteous indignation if you choose this topic, and be aware that solutions to environmental problems are usually complex.  Climage Change seems to have finally fueled (pun intended) a movement and, as of this summer, you could even show some commitment to this by going to a rally or event.  Check out 350.org if you have an interest . . .

10.  This is not a new topic, just a final thought:  you should care about the topic you choose.  Don’t suddenly decide you have an interest in justice,  hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, extremism, or any other of that devil’s alphabet of problems troubling our times.  If you read and keep up with such things and like analysis, this is a good prompt for you.  If not, move on to the others.  Good luck and Godspeed!

The Issue Of Concern Essay

In 2011-2012, Common Application Prompt 2, Issue of Concern Essay on July 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Many of my students and clients are the kind of people who are interested in and highly aware of problems in  the world around them, particularly regarding issues of social justice and conflict resolution, the impact of technology and the increasing environmental problems we face.  This prompt has been on the Common Application for years now, so if that sounds like you, give this prompt  a try.

Prompt two on the 2011-2012 Common Application  specifically challenges you to do the following:   Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay.   While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by  a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown.   This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.  While any essay you write for a college application is about you, in the end, in an essay on this area, you are showing aspects of yourself by displaying your level of awareness and engagement with issues beyond your own, immediate concerns, and you are showing the ability to think and analyze.

If you  aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end:  “its importance to you.”  Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems.  If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment.  These things are hard to judge.  Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two?  Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class,  that may not be enough.

Consider this:  the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that  resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising.  We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change.  This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that  you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper,  or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length.  This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area.  Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that?  Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis, or they summarize the author’s deep feelings about a problem without ever talking about the problem in any detail.  Your essay should have elements of both, of analysis and feeling, but the focus should be outward, not inward (or down, as in focused on your own navel).  An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem.  The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example.  I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic.  As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular,  to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here:  you identify a problem,   explain the cause of the problem   and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution.  For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit  prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food?   A few of the essays were superb.  Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car:   batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple.  Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity,  the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution.  Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing  and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants.  Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way.  The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib.   Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on  your essay readers seeing  complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions.  Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car?  Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations?   If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you  would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources.  How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical?  You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this:  the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and  the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.

On the other hand, if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.  See the link in my previous post for the Common Application site.

In future posts, I will address a series of specific essay topics which could work well for Personal Statement Prompt Two of the Common Application for 2012 and I will address the other prompts as well.