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How to Write the University of Pennsylania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019: Part 1 of a 2-Part Brief

In 5 I's and 4 C's, How to Write About Penn's 5 I's and 4 C's, Ivy League Application Essays, Penn Application Essay, Penn Supplemental Essay, Uncategorized, University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019 on July 20, 2018 at 10:06 am

Back in Blue (and Red): The U Penn prompts are out. Of all the Ivy League applications, UPenn has the most elaborate contextualizing, and their prompts explicitly demand a level of research and personal introspection that is unique, even in the Ivy League.

Yes, Cornell asks you to explore your major and puts up an annotated list for you to study and then do research from, (please note the date and look for this year’s update on these Cornell prompts) and other schools throw up quotes and context that you really should research (Princeton, Harvard, Yale) but Dean Furda, at Penn, has always done more–and asked for more.

This also means that Penn expects more in terms of time and school-specific knowledge. Furda was one of the first college admissions leaders to set up a blog, and he has continued to use it vigorously. The current iteration of Furda’s admission blog is a full-on multi-page website that bears the name Page 217, a title taken from a well-known app essay prompt in which you had to write page 217 of your 300-page biography.

They don’t use that Page 217 prompt anymore, but it does reveal the philosophy of their approach— to think of a biography  required you to think about the direction of yor own life, as well as to fit in something that indicated how Penn would fit in that biography. This Page 217 prompt demanded a sense of where your life was going and implied that you should have a sense of what Penn offers that would help you get to page 217.  This is still the spirit of their essay prompts.

So there needs to be a sense of your past, as well as of your vision for your future, along with a good  understanding of Penn, all rolled into one essay. But today,  Furda has gone way past the creative riffing of the original  Page 217 prompt. He has come up with a framework of things that he wants you to think about as you write an application essay.

This framework starts with his “5 I’s and 4 C’s.” Yep, nine  things to look at right away, involving both introspection (the I’s) and research on Penn (the C’s.)

This is all about Demonstrated Interest, (also known lately by the more scientific-sounding “Interest Quotient”).  Furda has found a way to roll D.I. into application essays. He wants it to be hard to reuse some boilerplate from other essays for the Penn app.  Demonstrated Interest is increasingly important to elite schools, because they have to find a way to choose among the thousands of similar looking 3.9-4.3 GPA students with high SAT/ACT scores, two pages of activities, and who swear their devotion to  . . . . fifteen different schools.  Or more.  If they offer you a seat, they want to have some certainty that you will accept the offer.

To meet their needs and to write a good Penn application for yourself, your essays have to show something about you personally, but also have to show your interest in Penn by dealing with Furda’s uniquely complex framework for writing.  So let’s take a look at it:

The 5 I’s

A very cute idea, the 5 I’s are focused on you.  Yes, in  the country that has made defining yourself a lifelong project, Penn wants you to define yourself now.  I list each of the I’s below, highlight the important buzzwords and phrases and discuss what the prompts are telegraphing in terms of content and focus.   Notice this as you read the explanation by Penn (and my commentary):  in their explanations, the good people at Penn are quite literally suggesting some areas–topics or subtopics–that an essay could focus on.  But before I look at the “I’s” individually, let’s look at the actual essay prompt that the “5 I’s” address:

University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019:

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). The essay should be between 400-650 words.

Basically, the 5 I’s are the focus of the first sentence in this Keeping that prompt in mind, let’s take the 5 I’s one at a time; here they are, with Penn’s explanation, followed by my commentary and analysis; the bold font is mine, to identify key phrases and words:

Identity–To figure out this piece, you must ask yourself who you are as an individual. How do you see yourself and how do you think that others see you? How do you drill into–essentially, unpack–the definition you create for yourself? Forget putting a name to a college now–don’t say I have to get into Penn or any other school. That comes later. Think about who you are without connecting yourself to anything external, such as brands, people, grades, etc. Think about who you are at your core.

The explanation on this one is not super helpful. How can you know yourself  without connecting to anything external?  Of course, their point is that they don’t want you listing accomplishments, etc, but we all define who we are in a relative way by comparison to who and what is around us.    My suggestion:  shrug and return to this one after doing some work on the other I’s, below.  So let’s do that.

Intellect–How Do You Think and Approach the Acquisition of Knowledge?  The explanation here is a bit more helpful.  Again, I highlight the key phrases:

Part of your identity is your intellect. How do you think and how do you take in information? We want to know about your mind. Pretty simple, right? As educators, we know that all students have a unique intellect with different strengths and learning styles. Recognize that your intellect comes into play in a range of activities, not only while you are in class or doing homework. The problem solving skills that you utilize during club meeting, your perseverance during track practice, and the public speaking ability you employ while running for leadership positions are all positive manifestations of an intellect that is alive and growing.

This prompt seems to suggest that one of the more hackneyed topics, student government, could actually work here, but I think something else is better, as the typical high school leadership thing is now just a class, rather than being something you ran for and won.  Something like taking the lead in the robotics club as you redesign your submersible, troubleshooting the design through reading in theory while tweaking various paremeters, persevering as it sinks, malfunctions and swims in circles,  and almost drowns a teammate in the pool with it, and then, after an all-nighter of hands on problem-solving, fixing a leak and tracking down an electrical short while improvising with a butter knife due to   the fact that a teammate left all the philips head screwdrivers at the airport, and delivering your personal Saint Crispin’s Day Speech, at three a.m., as your team was ready to quit,  then winning that Navy competition (or placing third, or even competing at all–hey, it was a miracle your ‘bot even made it into the pool) –that might be better essay. subject.   

My message here is to look at everything you are doing for inspiraiton. It is not just okay to have a bit of overlap with your activities; if an activity is your passion, you actually need more space to talk about it.  Just don’t make your essay a pure recap or list of actities and accomplisments. The example above is probably for a person with engineering in mind, of course.

Note that my summary of a particularly interesting activity, focused on an example, shows a range of things, with hands-on learning, problem-solving skills and leadership. Also notice that if you put it in first person, you would have an essay subtopic of about 185 words, leaving hundreds more available in this Penn essay.

Ideas–We want to know what you think about and why. When you have time to hang out, what are your ideas? What do you think about big issues like global warming? What do you think about local issues right here in your backyard? What are your ideas and what has informed those ideas? Ideas are what make college communities really interesting. When diverse students with unique intellectual paths share their thoughts with one another, it results in a great synergy. Students who work together, crossing traditional academic boundaries, have the potential to make waves in their community and world. So yes, your ideas, even if at this point they don’t seem realistic, can help you get into college. We are interested in the intellectual innovation you will bring to campus. We are interested in your spark.

So this is great: what a wide field of ideas!   But my warning is to beware of the “Beauty Queen” essay, or the “Dude, have you every thought that the entire universe might be, like, an atom on the fingernail of a God” ramble.  Read my link on the Beauty Queen and click around to read more of my posts on the problem essay–the subjects may have changed, but the basic ideas are the same.  Warning:  be sure that these big ideas are things you have connected with at a deeper level than Pinto, in my link above.  The best ideas to discuss are ones that you have not just thought about in your spare time but that you have also done something about in your spare time, even if that just means chasing down more information on the idea.  Assuming you have spare time, of course.

Interests: What do you like to do? What do you like to do when someone is not telling you to do it? What are your hobbies? This is one way that I think about interests: If you could pick up three books or three magazines, what would they be? Sometimes we need to pick books or magazines up because they feed into the courses that we are taking; other times it is a reflection of our natural acclimations*  and interests. You can do the same exercise with films, or museums. When you walk into a museum, what is the first section that you go to? All these things are going to be interesting to you and they’re going to interesting to the community that you are looking to be part of in college. *(I think they meant to say inclinations here.  Hey, it’s a blog, not a dictionary . . . I guess.)

Quite a few schools ask you to write about things you read, mentioning books more often than magazines. However, when you write about books, you may feel you have to fall back on the literary analysis or argument format that you were taught to use in your English class.  This is more a first-person interest essay.  There are ways to work in some level of analysis however, and I have posted advice and analysis on writing about books a number of times–have a look at this as an example: How to Write about Books.   As always, the purpose in writing about books is to show what you are like, not to interpret what the river means in Huckelberry Finn.  So this is a bit like that old-fashioned art of choosing which books to put on the bookshelf in your living room, so that they make a statement about you.

Haven’t had time to do anything but the “required reading?  No time to start like the present, and since you are likely a super-connected post-millenial person, why limit yourself to paper?  There is such a thing as an online magazine or journal.  In the areas of literature, the arts and politics, you  could take a look as sites like n + 1 magazine (comes in printed form as well), or for a more purely literary slant, Tin House. There are, of course, still the old-school but excellent mags on culture, politics and art from the days of paper, like The New Yorker,  Harpers and The Atlantic, or for more political slant, the liberal Mother Jones, which also does quite a bit of investigative journalism, or The National Review for you young (but traditional) Republicans out there.  Breitbart–give it a  pass for this one, unless you are showing how you like to see what the lunatic fringe is thinking.  A couple of hourse of reading and looking around while taking notes can set your foundation as a budding intellectual–no time to start on that like the present.

As for visiting museums, well let’s just say that this really telegraphs more about the person who wrote the prompt than anything else, and conveys the assumption that you live in an urban core with parents who encourage museum-going, or that you are in an upper-middle class suburb, with access to a city, and ditto the parents.  Of course if you do like to visit museums–I have clients who are artists, or into paleontology, or like to visit the Tech Museum, etc, etc–go for it.

Next (and last up for this post):

Inspiration-What really motivates and inspires you? We can sit down for forty-five minutes and you might not be sure how you want to answer this question or you might be thinking too hard about it. But then, there is this point in the conversation where I ask you something and your eyes light up and your arms start to move about. You are inspired; something really moves you. Tap into this power source and build on it.

When in doubt, look at your responses to the I’s above.  If you have not talked about ideas and activities that inspire you above, then you need a do-over on those.  And any discussion of your passion needs to have some concrete stuff that you do to show it.  

As for who you are at the core, same thing:  your passions should tell you that, as should all the other “I’s.”.  But some broad questions may help–are you a thinker?  A doer?  Political or not?  Do you analyze and break down or does your mind leap to an answer?  Do you learn through the physical world or navigate the e-realm more?

Come back soon; I will post again about Penn, this time looking at The Four C’s, which means researching Penn in more detail

Demonstrated Interest, indeed.

You can follow my blog to see when I post on this again, or just contact me for help with college essays.  My editing and essay development is the best in the business.

 

 

 

July, 2014 Update On College Admissions Essays (With Current Listing of Available Essay Prompts)

In 2014-2015, Boston College Application Essays 2014-2015, College Application Essay Example, Mantis Shrimp Essay Prompt, Penn Application Essay, Penn Supplemental Essay, University of Chicago Application Essays 2014-2015 on July 21, 2014 at 11:31 am

Update and How to Use this Blog

First a caveat: my blog has detailed entries on college admissions going back about five years, at this point.  My current policy is to keep most of my posts up, as a kind of archive of college application information and also because there are only so many essay types that the colleges can offer. Certain kinds of prompts show up every year, and in many cases, I have already written about the prompt type.  This kind of analysis continues to be useful.

I mention all of this because I can see what people are reading on my blog, and there are a number of you, Dear Readers, who are reading last year’s essay prompt from, for example, the University of Chicago, on the mantis shrimp (Note:  unlike the NSA, I do not see your metadata, cannot access your e-mails, am not storing information on you, and can only see the number of people who look at my posts, per day.  So no, I am not spying on you.  I just know, in aggregate, what you are reading.)

I think the mantis shrimp  is a fun prompt, and if I do say so myself, my  post on the mantis shrimp is also informative and high-quality; it just doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s University of Chicago essay prompts.  I have started discussing this year’s Chicago’s essay prompts in the two posts that precede this one, so have a look at those here:

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post One on Essay Prompt Two

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post Two on Essay Prompt Two

We are currently in the 2014-2015 application cycle, so use caution when visiting college admissions websites–at least for the next two weeks (I am writing this on July 21st, 2014; August 1st, 2014 is the date most app sites go live, with this year’s prompts and information).  Only a limited number of universities have so far posted this year’s prompts, or have confirmed that they will be retaining this year’s prompts–look below for more on these.

On the other hand, I have dozens of old posts on topics like writing about books, or on how application essays are evaluated or on how to write essays that don’t look like the typical, boring, five-paragraph essay format taught in high school.  These posts are still useful, so they should be read, by anybody who has to deal with an essay on a book or idea that interests them, or who wants to know how essays were and still are evaluated, or who wants to write a good essay that isn’t a rote exercise.  By all means, read and use posts like these; just don’t send Chicago an essay on the mantis shrimp this year.

Developments in Application Portals–Universal vs. Common App

The 900-Pound Gorilla Tag-Team of College Admissions includes Naviance and the Common Application.  This is due to the large number of colleges using both, and the fact that Naviance currently operates in coordination with the Common Application.  This tandem has become somewhat controversial, partly because it starts to look like a racket when so many students are directed to third-party organizations when they apply to college–organizations that take a cut of application fees–and partly because the Common Application web portal was such a disaster last year.  I hasten to add that I am sure the Common App people have their act at least somewhat better organized this year, but the trouble last year went on, literally, for months, and forced a number of big-name colleges to extend application deadlines.  In a way, this actually benefited some students, who were able to keep working on essays and other information, but at the cost of considerable stress.

One side effect of last year’s Common App fiasco has been an increase in the number of colleges adopting the Universal Application, which has the advantage of being simpler to use and generally easier to navigate.  Unfortunately, Naviance has not yet incorporated the Universal App into its system, and the Universal App does not have as many colleges using it as the Common App does–but many more have signed up in the last year, and I expect Naviance to adopt the Universal App by the 2015-2016 application season.  Here is an example of a college that adopted the Universal App this year:

Published February 18, 2014

uchicagCollege applicants next year will have more application options as the University of Chicago is joining the Universal Application.

“We decided to announce we will join the Universal College Application for the next application year now because we want applicants, families, recommenders, and the Higher Education community to know of our commitment to providing them with an application option that is easy to use, reduces stress, and simplifies the process,” said Jim Nondorf, Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Chicago. “We have been very happy with how easy it has been to work with the Universal College Application team.”

And here is a link to the Universal Application:  Universal Application Portal

Getting Started Now:  Some Application Essay Prompts are Already Available

The Common Application is using the same essay prompts this year as last year, which I will link below; some schools have posted early or are keeping last year’s prompts–University of Chicago has posted new prompts and Penn, for example, will be using last year’s prompts, so there are essays that can be worked on as of right now.  I also e-mailed Berkeley and was told that they will be using the same prompts (though, in a typical bureacratic maneuver, my contact also said that if anything changed,  I should see their website?!  Because this seemed a bit equivocal to me, I will not link the U.C. application portals yet.)

Links to some essay prompts that are already available below:

Common Application Essay Prompts, 2014-2015

Penn Essay Prompts

University of Chicago Essay Prompts

University of Georgia Essay Prompts

Boston College Essay Prompts

These are all prompts for this year, which is the 2014-2015 application cycle–this is your application cycle if you are a rising senior/will be graduating from high school in 2015.

That’s all for now.  I will be back soon with some thoughts on application trends and will be posting on a variety of essay prompts for popular colleges in the coming months.  If you need college advising or essay editing help, I am currently fully booked from roughly August 1st-15th, but will have editing slots open in the second half of August.  Good luck and good writing.

 

 

 

Ivy League Round Up: The Brown, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth And Amherst Supplemental Essays For 2013-2014.

In Amherst Supplemental Essay, Columbia Supplemental Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Essay on Literature, Essay on Science, Penn Supplemental Essay, Why Brown on December 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

This will be my final update for the 2013-2014 application season.  With the early rush over, I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have one or more application essays that you wish to have reviewed and closely edited, splice the following address into an e-mail and contact me with the subject “editing request:”  wordguild@gmail.com.

Include your name, geographical location, and a basic description of what you need.  I’ll be asking you to provide me some additional information to help me edit, but all information and work is kept strictly confidential.  My prices for a three-round editing package, with the last edit ready to submit, are $100-$150, depending on the essay length and prompt.

As for the Ivies, here we go:

The Ivies are using the Common App and a variety of questions in their supplemental sections; what they share, beyond the Common App essays, is one or more supplemental responses that are best restated by the question “Why do you want to go to school here?”  This is a question which you can and should research.

What you should not do is write an autobiographical incident or short essay on some experiment or program you were in–it’s fine and in fact necessary to talk about yourself and your specific  academic interests, but you should also be talking about and showing knowledge of the university itself.  Don’t just recycle part of a Common App essay.

Things To Research For The “Why Us” Prompt

Brown

So let’s start with Brown as an example; their prompt is pretty simple:  Why Brown?  You probably already knew that, but my advice–again, repeated throughout this post, with some different links and information about each school– is to do some research, specifically in the areas in which you are considering majoring.  The essay should be about your experiences and interests, but not just about you.  It’s about the school as well, and not just about how the school will be useful to you.  How will you be useful in the world?  To other people or creatures or the environment?  What will your contribution be?

Please think about that.  The admissions officer will be looking for it–it doesn’t need to be completely explicit and specific, but they won’t be impressed by an essay with a whole lot of “I’s” and “me’s” in it, or by an essay that is all about how they can do things for you.  See the Dartmouth admissions officer, below, and his comments on the self-absorbed.

Look outside yourself.  Study the university.  Find out about programs, then about professors as well as classes.  Know something about the research or work being done at Brown in your field of interest.  Follow links and information on the work of specific professors and schools or institutes or centers.

Be able to name drop with knowledge, but not just as a list of names the app reader already knows; this should be shown as something that fits with you and your plans, as something you can use, with a little explanation, in a meaningful way.  Be able to explain how Brown can help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve–which hopefully has something to do with helping other people out in some way, whether through innovation or services.  Then write efficiently and without hyperbole.

I recommend reading this article on the changes to Brown’s supplementals for this year :  Changes to the Brown Supplement.  And don’t forget to have a look at their mission statements, motto, and that kind of thing.

Brown is one of the Ivies that views public service as more than lip service.    Don’t forget:  Sincerity is a must, but avoid being preachy or a hand-wringer, and don’t come off as self-absorbed. See my links below to how to evade the cliché, et al.

Know What Your Major Entails/Understand the Hierarchies

To repeat:  research all things related to your major or to areas you think you may want to major in–you hopefully have already done some research and know the basics, but a quick recap here:  Majors are taught within a  “division,” “school” “program” and/or “department” and, in recent decades also within “centers” and “institutes.” Some of the latter have different structures than a traditional school or department, but for the most part the name game with centers and institutes  is a way to set up  funding, often around one or more rock star figures (they are not always professors by trade, but possess advanced degrees and outside experience that applies to the field in question) or around some hot, usually interdisciplinary new “field.”  There is a constant turf war for attention and funding which has driven this in recent years and this also reflects developing areas of study and technology–new stuff can create new disciplines.

Back To Brown

One example at Brown is the department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, formed in 2010.  How linguistics has joined Cognition and Psychology is a bit convoluted but will illustrate a point I want to make about the contemporary, interdisciplinary approach to education.

Modern linguistics really starts in the early 20th Century, with structuralism, and was  a field within philosophy and sociology and later within various language departments.  As the early Linguistics departments were founded at universities in the 20th Century, structuralism was superseded by new fields within linguistics, like generative grammar, and today everything from probability and game theory to computer science  and brain science plays a role within linguistics  (voice recognition software, anybody?).

The result of these developments (as well as politics and funding competition) is this new department at Brown.  It’s worth comparing majors and departmental structures at different schools–have a look at the Penn Linguistics Department, for example, which has a much less flashy website and which is embedded in a different structure– but you should also be looking at individual teachers, learning something about research and specialized programs you might be interested in, as well as about particular professors and their work.

There are many other interesting developments over the last ten-fifteen years in “cross curricular” programs–check out the Brown sociology page, where you can see their links to things you would expect, like the Social Science Research Lab, but also their links to the program in Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship.

The message is that there is no time like the present to start defining a course of study for yourself, and these newer institutions do offer many opportunities to craft your own program and not to be stuck in a narrow field of study–this may also help you get a job.  On the other hand, I always argue that you should study what you love, and research the major that is in the area that most interests you, then look for ways to make it “practical,” if you do not want to stay in academia. An English major who can search databases with his own algorithms, for example, would be very employable; you could get there with a major in English and a minor in a computer discipline, or a minor in psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, with computer classes added to learn how to construct databases and mine data.   I’ll come back to that later.  For more at Brown, start here:

Brown Majors, Departments and Programs

For more ideas on things to research and write about on the “Why Us” prompt, read on.

Penn

Penn wants basically the same thing as Brown; here is the prompt:

“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals.”  400-650 words

As with the Penn or any “Why Go To Our School” prompt, you want to drill down to find specific information–and maybe to find out what you want to do, as well.  Here is Penn’s Majors page:  List of College Majors. In one example, if you are interested in both business and international relations, you’d want to check out the Huntsman program (listed on the Penn Majors page) and start following links on the Huntsman home page:  HuntsmanThe point is to become informed and follow information that interests you.

Columbia
Columbia has three prompts that roughly translate to “Why Us,” or why you fit them.  Here they are:
  • Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.
  • If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.
  • If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.
As with all of these questions, this prompt is a good place to mention a campus visit.  The people, both students and faculty,  and physical setting of the school are, hopefully, something that has influenced your decision, and this is the time to express your enthusiasm.  Specifics help, but don’t get carried away in your descriptions of the ivied walls and eager scholars.
Back in the day, research was the purview of grad students, but these days undergrads are often involved in the cutting edge stuff– as I pointed out above, “even” an English major might be doing research, and the cutting edge there might be looking at evolving responses to a work of literature over time, Huckleberry Finn, for example, using those databases of, say newspapers and periodicals  I mentioned and writing algorithms to define searches that reveal how attitudes toward  Twain’s magnum opus have changed, or looking at the incidence of a word and how its meaning has changed, and thus engaging in a kind of English-department driven sociology.  This is quite a bit like market research, by the way, and the same basic skills can be used on other databases, looking at health in various human populations, for example.
So what I am saying is, you could use this required app essay to start thinking in an innovative way about your own future, and you might even find a way to convince your parents that the apparently impractical subject that you love could actually be practical, after all.  With a little tinkering.
Have a look at the research opportunities in the school of psychology at Columbia, here, and start clicking for some examples of the interdisciplinary possibilities offered in one field:
Or go to the general research page, which has links to various fields and institutions within the university and find the sites that you need:
Dartmouth
As you probably know, Dartmouth uses the Common App and a College/Major specific essay.  So everything I said above about Brown, et al, still applies, but I’ll add a bonus:
an excerpt of some quotes from an interview with a Dartmouth admissions officer, published on Business Insider; the “insider” tips offered by BI are not really anything new, and officials who are quoted as unnamed sources always have some kind of ax to grind–this guy sure offers some complaints as well as reveals some of his own biases– but his statements  on the admissions essay itself are worth perusing; here they are:

Essays 

“The essay is very important. It’s when you get a sense of what the kids about. We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness. The biggest mistake is when they aren’t very self-aware and write standard sports essay where they talk about the big game and that hurts them in the end. Not standing out is a big mistake for kids who are from demographic groups that are historically well represented.

But even an amazing essay can’t save a bad application.

“It’s difficult to see an app like that because every aspect of the application needs to be pretty strong, especially in the numbers driven game, it’s hard for a kid to stand out if not strong academically even if he writes this amazing essay. It’s a question of the marginal case.”

“Many kids write adversity essays. Some cases are more contrived than others. I remember one essay about a girl who struggled with a broken family in the ghetto, who lacked nuclear family structure at home. It was well-written, not case of pitying herself, but written matter of factly, very powerful.”

Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays. There’s a way to do that and still be tasteful. You don’t want to highlight a negative personality trait. Like if you’re a complete narcissist, if that comes across in tone even though the essay is creative it will put off admissions officer. I do think kids need to think more about what they want to present.” (My addendum to this:  use good judgement if you want to be daring.  Many “risky” essays actuall do come across as self-absorbed or in poor taste.  So be wary of what I would call stunt essays.  Notice also that the app officer specifically liked the simply factual essay by the girl from the broken family in the ghetto.  Notice in addition that he uses the word ghetto, which sounds quaintly like what those suburban middle class kids, whom he seems to both pity and sneer at in the article, might say. Instead of ‘hood, for example.  It’s additionally interesting, because these days the “ghetto” is more a pocket neighborhood than the vast and largely, to the middle class and upward,  unknown area of a city where poor people and immigrants live.  We often have urban professionals and hipsters on the same block or a block away from what this app officer would think is a “ghetto” neighborhood.  So, he sounds a lot like an older version of the kids he seems to address most directly here.  I’m just sayin’).

You can read more at the link below, though I hasten to add that some of this unnamed admissions officer’s complaints deserve a response from somebody, and a good journalist would have gone and asked other Dartmouth officials, on the record, for responses.  A really good journalist would probably capitalize the personal pronoun “I” as well, even in a blog format article.  Having offered those qualifications, here’s the link:   http://www.businessinsider.com/secrets-of-dartmouth-admissions-office-2012-10#ixzz2nwiWxswn

Amherst
I like Amherst’s supplementals the best of this bunch, so I saved them for last.  I won’t discuss all of them, but there are a couple that I think are worth looking at; here they are, so you don’t have to go back and open another page up:

1) “Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”

Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

This prompt is interesting on a number of levels in its definition of what a good physical scientist is like–that’s what it is, in essence.  And since the topicc is about the workings of the world, human artifacts and ideas like ethics can also be featured in this essay.  I think the best source of inspiration for this prompt that I can give you this late in the game is a podcast from a wonderful radio program, Radiolab–listen to this episode, about the scientist Fritz Haber, who was brilliant, made amazing discoveries, but who also . . . caused great harm.  Showed a certain lack of foresight, of some degree of common sense and personal responsibility.  Here it is:  Fritz Haber.  

In all of the Ivies, there has been some soul-searching due to things like the financial crisis and recent Great Recession–most of the major players in finance responsible for this fiasco came out of the Ivies, the best and the brightest, as it were, and while Professor Jagannathan seems to intend a more specific emphasis on empirical common sense, ethics itself, forseeing the potential outcomes of scientific work, in every sense, is also important.  As the Haber episode I linked shows.  So don’t write an essay focused entirely on some experiment you did; try to have a wider view into which your experiment might fit, a view of how your work might be of wider benefit, of an ethical dimension as well as a practical dimension.

2) “Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He’s the happiest man on earth when he’s performing, but when the show is over, he’s sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my name.”

Ilán Stavans, Professor of Spanish, Amherst College. From “The Writer in Exile: an interview with Ilán Stavans” by Saideh Pakravan for the Fall 1993 issue of The Literary Review.

Well, there’s nothing like reading the interview as a whole to prepare for this question; here it is: Ilan Stavans Talks.

Then you might read my posts on writing about books, some of which are linked in my previous post, on the Princeton prompt.

As for the third prompt for Amherst, I think you could also  look at my post on the Princeton prompts for insight–here is the Amherst prompt:  3) “It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest…unless the graduates of this college…are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion… then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”

John F. Kennedy, at the ground breaking for the Amherst College Frost Library, October 26, 1963

And, to conclude, If you have a Social Justice class, or personal experience with stereotypes and overcoming obstacles, prompts four and five might work for you–notice my excerpt from the interview with the Dartmouth admissions officer, above; he seems to be advising you just to tell your story, if you do have one, without all those autobiographical narrative tricks designed to pump up the suspense and excitement (starting with a dramatic quote or scene, for example).  Straightforward is probably better for those with real drama in their essays.  You might also want to visit some posts I wrote long ago about ways to get prompts like these wrong.  I’ll put those links below the final Amherst prompts; here they are:

4) “Stereotyped beliefs have the power to become self-fulfilling prophesies for behavior.”

Elizabeth Aries, Professor of Psychology, Amherst College. From her book, Men and Women in Interaction: Reconsidering the Difference.

5) “Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals

General Advice/How Not To Blow It On Your College Application Essay

How to Evade the Cliche In Your Application Essay

Evade the Cliche Step 2

How College Applications Are Evaluated

Seven Rules For College Application Success (They Aren’t Really Secrets)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Essays: The First Prompts For 2012-2013 Are Out

In Colgate Personal Statement, Colgate Supplemental Essay, Essay About A Quote, Penn Application Essay, Penn Personal Statement, Penn Supplemental Essay on July 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Who this post is for:  Anybody who needs to write an essay about a quote; anybody applying to Colgate or Penn.

Note:  some of the links in this post are samples of full length posts available to my clients and subscribers.  Subscriptions require that you create a WordPress account and pay me a small fee, or that you retain me for editing or college app services.  See the “About” section for more information.

An increasing number of universities are timing their own release of supplemental prompts to coincide with the Common App rollout. The Common App posts a “draft” form by early summer, but the website for the Common App is taken down in mid to late July and then goes live on August 1st; this year, the site goes offline on Friday, July 13, at 11:59 PM.  I have the common app prompts available on this post:  The Common Application for 2012.

Colgate and Penn are among the few universities that have already posted their 2012-2013 supplemental prompts, so let’s take a look at their offerings.  I will follow some analysis of each prompt with a discussion of approaches to each prompt.

Colgate’s prompt asks for what I would call a fictional travel essay.  Here it is:

At Colgate we value global awareness and the diverse perspectives of our students. Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  If you had the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world during your time at Colgate, where would you go and why?

This prompt is  an alternate to the  classic “My Trip” essay, in which generations of high school students have bored readers by summarizing a trip to a foreign place and describing the odd habits they encountered there.  It is possible to write an interesting essay about a trip, as hundreds of books on travel show, but more often than not students generate not particularly interesting descriptions or end up appearing arrogant in their descriptions of foreign places and people.

Colgate’s prompt is an attempt to avoid the typical “My Trip” essay by having you invent a destination.  This means that they are trying to evoke your imaginative abilities as much as your cosmopolitanism,    so you should avoid simply describing some place that you have already been.  An exception to this might be if you  have a commitment (in a Peace Corps kind of way)  to a foreign country, and you intend to  continue it.  I have  had clients who have gone on missions or service trips to do everything from constructing housing and water facilities to assisting with medical services; if  you’ve done something along these lines and you are committed to doing it again, then you might want to write about this place–but keep in mind  that Colgate asks you to imagine a future trip, so make clear an abiding commitment which you intend to deepen during your time at Colgate.  Also make clear what it will allow you to bring back to the Colgate community and what new things you might learn or do.  It might help if this relates in some way to your major.

In addressing this Colgate prompt, you  need to consider what your audience is looking for–if you are a first-time visitor to this blog, you should look at some of my earlier posts, like this one:  Evading the Cliche.  Colgate telegraphs the values they seek throughout the prompt:  we value global awareness and . . .  diverse perspectives . . . Through travel, students are able to experience different cultures and take advantage of new opportunities that can make our community richer when they return to campus.  

In addressing the ideals established here by Colgate, try to avoid simplistic, Social Justice class responses.  I don’t have a beef with the Social Justice curriculum as an idea, but increasingly I am seeing a kind of social justice cliche, or set of cliches, in response to prompts about international problems and in response to prompts which, like this one, are motivated by the university’s desire to create more aware and cosmopolitan people.  I call this the reverse of the cultural superiority fallacy, which I will discuss in a moment.  Before I do, please see my earlier post here, where I address some of the cliched responses elicited by problem essays, cliches which this prompt may also elicit.

Keep in mind also that this Colgate essay prompt is aimed at a communitarian as well as cosmopolitan ideal–whatever you learn will bring something back to the Colgate community and so, I guess, help Colgate deepen the cosmopolitanism of America at large.  You are the point of the essay not as an isolated individual but as part of a learning community.

A major risk of writing a travel essay, even a fictional one,  is the cultural outlook we all carry.  It’s almost impossible to avoid viewing and describing other places and cultures from the point of view of your own, and many well-intentioned travelers past and present come across as patronizing or arrogant in describing the places they visit and the people they see there.  I would say that this risk is not mitigated by the fact that Colgate asks you to invent a trip.  If you haven’t been to the place at all, it is nearly certain that all of your information is  second-hand  and without adequate context.  So be wary of passing judgements, especially about people and places you have not experienced or not experienced in depth . . . and even if you have, try to be aware of your own assumptions and how they shape what you say.  Try starting here for a serious examination of this problem:  ethnocentrism.  Keep in mind the fact that Romanticizing a place or a people is nearly as ignorant as being dismissive and can be just as patronizing.

You could make stereotypes and cultural myopia the explicit  topic of your essay by writing about a place that many have preconceptions about.  Pick an easy target, like the French . . . it wasn’t so long ago that some Americans took to eating something called Freedom Fries instead of french fries . . . and more than a few Americans are intimidated by the mere idea of trying to order from the archetypal Arrogant French Waiter.  The archetypal Arrogant French Waiter does exist, of course, but he’s just as easily found in New York or San Francisco as he is in Paris, and he may not even speak French.

It will help this essay  if you have a fascination with some aspect of another country or culture–maybe you are into Anime in a deep way, or maybe  you are really into  some form of dance,  like Flamenco.  Why not  go to the source–or do some research and make a plan to go there?   This would definitely help you avoid sounding like a condescending twit-as long as you aren’t faking your interest.    For more general comments on the risk I describe above, along with some other things to avoid, see my post from last year:    College Essay No-No’s.

If you are in an international school that follows an International Baccalaureate curriculum, I suggest that you consider some of what you have learned in your Theory of Knowledge class and essay.  The cosmopolitan philosophy of IB fits this prompt; how might a trip develop what you already know about different ways of knowing?  The IB philosophy matches up well with the ethos expressed by Colgate in this prompt.

If you are daring and creative, you might write a true work of fiction, even write about a place that does not exist but which is in some way an analogue if not an allegory for some aspects of the modern world.    In this case, you could take a cue from Jorge Luis Borges, who is often called one of the world’s great short story writers, though it might be more accurate to call him a writer of fictional essays and memoirs. Borges creates places that never existed but might have,   labyrinthine libraries that sprawl endlessly across some parallel universe, fragmentary detective stories set in vaguely familiar  lands that have never existed, encyclopedias of things that might be . . . Borges spun out fantastical and science fictional tales and treatises that always say something about the here and now.  Check him out in that Borgesian realm, the internet:  a good Borges website.

And finally, keep in mind this: nobody is going to check  that you  follow through on any commitments you might make in this essay, though it would help your essay if you felt committed while you were writing it.

Next up are Penn’s prompts for this year:

Penn

Short Answer:
A Penn education provides a liberal arts and sciences foundation across multiple disciplines with a practical emphasis in one of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Wharton School.

Given the undergraduate school to which you are applying, please discuss how you will engage academically at Penn.

(Please answer in 300 words or less.)

Essay:
Ben Franklin once said, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”

Which are you?

(Please answer in 300-500 words.)

I am not going to do an analysis of the short answer prompt as it is specific to the different schools and majors offered by Penn.  You’ll want to spend some time thinking about the major you intend to choose, and if you don’t have one, start researching before responding to this prompt.  The Penn website is a good place to start.

Let’s have a look at the Ben Franklin prompt.  The first thing I will point out is the obvious–this is an essay about a quote, and as with most of this class of essays, there is  little in the way of background for the quote, particularly since, in this case, the quote is an aphorism-by definition, an aphorism should distill wisdom, not provide an explanation of how it was reached.    I discussed writing an essay about a quote in several posts last year, so you might want to take a detour to explore some of that before moving on to my specific discussion of Ben–try this link on last year’s Princeton prompt, among others:  Writing an Essay About a Quote.

Penn could have used a more obscure source for their aphorism; the fact that they chose one identified with Ben Franklin is suggestive. To me what it suggests is politics.  Whatever you do with this quote, knowing something about Franklin himself is helpful, and about his times– Ben Franklin was  a scientist, a printer, a successful small businessman, a lady’s man, a drinker and gourmand,  a Founding Father of the United States as well as our most important early diplomat  . . .  and therefore a politician, a word which seems to have become dirty of late.  Perhaps this has something to do with Penn’s use of this aphorism, as it can be read as a fundamentally political observation.  Franklin himself was also  a master of the art of compromise,  repeatedly assessing and persuading assemblies  and individuals at home and abroad.

Franklin’s aphorism offers a way to classify and divide any group, but it is also very open to interpretation, and how you interpret it will say a lot to your application reader.  I mean by this that you have to assign values to the categories Franklin establishes–it’s hard to create a classification system for human beings that does not also create a hierarchy, and in creating hierarchies, you are at risk of seeming self-righteous or narrow-minded or naive.

One example of how to use Franklin’s triptych might be to argue that, in any given group, you have people who are inflexible, even fanatical,  people you might call The Immovable; then there are people who are compromisers, whom you might call the movable, and finally there are those few people who move,   the leaders.  If you examine the U. S. Congress using these types, you might find that politicians who claim principle may not look so good in contrast to those who are willing to compromise.  If you set it up this way, you obviously would want to be one of the leaders, those who move, though  you would praise the movable for being practical.

On the other hand, if you went in this topical direction, you would want to keep in mind the danger of oversimplifying the nature of politics and conflict–when real and important issues are at stake, compromising may actually be surrender of important principles.  I think that one way to read the current political impasse in the United States is to see it as a real conflict over real ideals, both practical and theoretical.  When faced with fanatics or ideologues, even compromisers may become immovable in response.  Perhaps those who otherwise might be movable become immovable when facing radicals or fanatics, and so save the Republic . . . after a long and ugly political fight.

As you can see, answering the question “Which type are you” depends completely on how you define the terms, what qualities you assign to them.  Maybe Franklin’s three types are  just a description of people who are more or less peripetetic, or more or less inclined to changing channels on the television.  I’m sure you could have some good, satirical fun with this one, but use caution, as always, when relying on humor in an app essay.

You need to think about this one, and you might ponder deeply what your audience, the Admissions Officers, are after in asking you this question in this most political of years.

I also suggest that a little research and reading may lead you to a good idea for this essay, or may help you develop a good idea into a powerful essay. One way to do this would be to read one of the good biographies of Ben Franklain.

Another way is to find other philosophes like Ben–Franklin’s aphorism is of a kind with the tactical and political aphorisms of many great thinkers–Macchiavelli, for example, or Sun Tzu,  the great Chinese strategist who said that in any conflict you must first know and understand yourself and then know and understand your opponent–which might also be a way to look at the meaning of what Franklin says.  See this site on Sun Tzu’s Art of War or find a good print translation, looking for one with an introduction that puts Sun Tzu and his work in meaningful context, such as this one by Thomas Cleary.  For some advice from Machiavelli, try this site:  excerpt of Machiavelli’s Art of War.

In keeping with this analogous approach, you could  write an essay focused on  “dueling aphorisms.”   This could be either a serious way to explore what Franklin meant by looking at other words of wisdom, or  as a humorous exercise in contrasting.  Get your hands on a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in the reference section of  a library, or look here for the 1919 edition online.  At the least you can amuse yourself by finding quotations that contradict with Ben’s, or that can be combined with it to go somewhere interesting.

My closing advice is this: Necessity is the mother of all invention and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Just don’t plagiarize.