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Writing the Princeton Application Essay for 2016-2017

In Princeton Admissions, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Application Essays, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Quote Essay, Princeton Service Essay, Princeton Supplement, Uncategorized on September 19, 2016 at 1:59 pm

The post below contains information from last year’s admissions cycle–some of it still applies, some of it does not, depending on which prompt you will use.  For posts on this year’s Princeton application prompts, check these out as well:

Princeton Essay on a Quote (from an essay)

The 2017-2018 Princeton Application Prompts

Who should read this post:  Anybody who needs to write a Princeton Application Essay this year; Anybody writing a college application essay dealing with social issue or experience.

This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2016-2017) 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), essays about social justice, particularly racial and economic matters,  and essays about personal beliefs.  Much of the content therefore, applies to these topics in general.  Some of these topics can lead to highly emotional responses, so keep in mind that this is a college application essay, not a protest speech.  Of course a really great protest essay could be good . . . just don’t patronize or insult your audience.

Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  This is 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 Google Doc or 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.  I will ask you for some information upfront as part of that, but add that I never outsource or share your information with outside entities.  Sooner is better than later, as my open spots will book up in the coming weeks.

Preview and Analysis of Princeton Supplemental Prompts for 2016-2017

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this :

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

If you have a specific person, event or experience that clearly relates to any of the prompts, just sit down and start writing to see what happens, with a few caveats here: Avoiding Essay Doom.  But if you struggle with finding that hook to hang the essay on, I would point out that if you feel connected to something, you are connected. What do I mean?  That these days a person who influenced you does not have to be in the same physical space.  As one example, I see reading as an experience that connects me to other things, and I definitely choose to read things that connect with my experiences.  Therefore,  I have a connection  with the writer and public philosopher (my term for him) Ta-Nehisi Coates–through his writing.  He is often referrred to as an activist, but he sees himself, first and foremost, as a writer (and a dad).    I see him as a public philosopher.  

So what I am advising here is a flexible interpretation of potential topics; as long as you explained that you feel a connection to the writings of Mr. Coates,  which is an experience, or even that you feel a connection to the author himself, through his writing, you meet the topic’s letter and spirit.  As long as your essay shows or demonstrates that this changed your view of the world, of course.  

Your takeaway here is that, in terms of defining what an experience is, I think almost anything goes–we all live in that global village now, created not just by “the media,” but by our connection to social media.  Through it, most of us can be directly exposed to any event, good or bad, in real time, whenever someone streams video.   And we can keep reliving these experiences simply by clicking a link or going to Youtube when a video has been posted (Or Vimeo or whatever platform we choose).  Viral experiences, that’s us.

In this spirit I include quite a few links, below, to articles and arguments about the Princeton essay topics–and these articles and arguments connect to people, in the end. People like  Woodrow Wilson or Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So I begin here with a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for the Atlantic Magazine, where he is national correspondent:  Coates at The Atlantic. 

My purpose throughout this post is to help you get a wider perspective and new ideas for focus as well as for content in these very socially aware Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

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

This aligns with an old  Common App prompt, which I discussed over the last three years–you can see my archives, or to use this link to see how to write about an  influential person:   Prompt Three of the Common Application, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.

Princeton Essay Supplement Prompt 2

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

This prompt has a clear potential overlap with prompt 3, below, where I include discussion and links for a variety of social justice topics in relationship to the Princeton ideal of Service.   Princeton’s prompt 2, however,  suggests a more direct focus on inequality than does Prompt 3,  though both prompts provide an opportunity to discuss a range of social justice issues.  Economic inequality is obviously an important topic possibility for the disparities identified in prompt 2, and you can see it referenced in our current political campaign, as I am sure you have noticed (If you haven’t, you can go here to get a primer on how income and poverty are playing out so far in the election:   spotlight on poverty).  And Ta-Nehisi Coates talks a lot about disparities that are hard to resolve as well, so go back to the link above for more, if you wish.

The Challenge for Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 2

One problem for many of you addressing Princeton’s prompt 2 is that you live in an American suburb, and while there is plenty of stress in the ‘burbs about finances, work and life balance, life in a place like Danville, CA, or Scarsdale, NY, is relatively good to great overall.  So if you live in a place like this, you won’t be face-to-face with the kind of economic troubles that millions of people are facing everywhere from declining Midwestern manufacturing areas to the Central Valley of California, where five years of drought have pushed many out of houses and into tents.  You do need to have an awareness of the big picture of any problem, which you will get through reading or watching video or hearing interviews, but be sure to remember that your awareness is mostly second-hand.  So have a look here:  Fragile Economy and here: Poverty and Drought.   Notice how varied the causes of disparity are as you read the articles–a topic in itself. And be wary about appearing patronizing as you discuss the suffering of others.

A word about Princeton Supplemental Essay Prompt 3:

At the least, I see quite a bit of overlap between the idea of service in Prompt 3 and the issue of disparity raised in Prompt 2, and you could write the same essay for both.  In addressing either prompt, avoid the  black/white simplistic ideas that people tend to float in response to social problems. App readers are not too interested in being harangued.  Try to be thoughtful as well as passionate. See below for ideas on Princeton Prompt 3 and more ideas that might help with Prompt 2.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 3

“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 Gandhi 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.

But wait, you say–don’t we have a problem with racism?  How can I volunteer there?

I leave that to you to figure out, but I would also have a look at the Black Lives Matter movement for some ideas for a social justice theme.    Just type in the search term and start clicking, or follow my lead and have a look at this article, which does a great job giving some perspective on the BLM movement:  Black Lives and the Police.  Of course, if you have had not interest in this in the past, or do not have some kind of feeling about it, it is a terrible topic for you–app readers do not like the essays that leverage somebody else’s suffering to get into college, and the BLM movement would not exist if not for a lot of suffering.  So you need to have some genuine interest and find the right angle that does not seem too self-interested but is more interested in the topic.  Avoid lecturing about the obvious.

In keeping with that, I  would add that you also want to think outside the box and perhaps avoid the kind of binary opposites that have developed around the movement–try to find something original to say.  As an example, I look not just at the idea of racism, but at the idea that the police have become militarized–in particular, I have pondered, but not researched, how many police officers have done tours of duty in occupied cities and had to shoot at people who look like civilians . . . whatever you do, try to be thoughtful.  People will have strong emotional reactions that are not entirely predictable.  Take my last statement–some veterans (and friends/family of vets) might become instantly irritated or angry at it; others would nod their heads and say they knew what I meant.  Remember that this essay is for admissions to a university, not to a protest group.

For  other topics in the realm of social justice, I  start with economic justice–as seen in the fast-food strikes, 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 in recent years.  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.  This may seem like ancient history to you, but aspects of Occupy are in the other movements of the last few years.

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 Prompt4

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 backgrounds.  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 sauerkraut 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 5

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

I have written about how to write about books a whole buncha times, so I will bounce you back to this post on Harvard prompt about books and then let you click around there and elsewhere in my archives:  How to Write About Books.

You will notice that the New York Review of Books comes up in links, which I would use.

 

Scoop! Princeton’s Application Essays for 2015-2016

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

Otherwise known as application essays for the class of 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing About Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.

College Counselors, College Application Services and Test Prep Companies: An Overview and Evaluation

In Brown University Application Essay, college essay, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay on June 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

There are four main categories of individuals and businesses currently offering college advising and application essay  services.  I will take them in order to describe what they offer and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The first category is individuals and companies offering themselves as “College Counselors” or “College Application Advisers.”  Many of the individuals running these businesses have degrees in Psychology and credentials in counseling.  In general, their focus is on the application process as a whole and essay development is generally left largely to the applicant, beyond some brainstorming and a generalized response to the final essays.  In some cases this is because the counselor feels that the essay should show the student’s own skill level and thinking without significant editing help; more often, in my opinion, the student is largely on his or her  own because most college counselors don’t have the writing chops to be of serious use.  This doesn’t mean that the overall package offered by your typical college counselor lacks value, but I have worked with many students who already pay a college counselor but who still need more help with their essays.

I include my own services in this first category because I offer college advising and selection services, but I also focus on developing persuasive and superior supplemental materials, particularly in working with supplemental activities and in developing superior essays.  This is partly because of my background, which  is academic and editorial and which gives me a highly pragmatic approach,  and partly because most of the people I work with are Juniors or have completed their Junior year, and  by that point, your GPA has taken shape and so has the trajectory of your coursework. You can’t make a big improvement in your grades other than finishing strong as a Junior and maintaining your GPA as a Senior, but you can still make a big impact through supplemental materials, particularly your essays and any activities associated with the essays.

A second category of service providers is the large test prep companies, such as Kaplan, which focuses on standardized test prep but which has, over the years, developed a college advising package.  The overall quality of the services they offer is decent to very good, but again the essay and supplemental materials side of the application is more an add-on to the services they traditionally offer and you will be in a setting more like a distance learning  or on-site class for most of their services, rather than in a truly individualized setting–unless you want to pay a lot of money, that is.  The quality of instruction varies quite a bit and there is a fairly high rate of turnover as they often hire folks who are recent graduates or may be picking up money while completing an advanced degree.

In addition, these are generally for-profit companies, and their college prep packages, even those offered in a class setting, can run into the thousands of dollars.  While they are cheaper than the more pricey college counselors in the most expensive places, like New York, these companies are still an  expensive option and can be unsatisfactory due to varied instructional quality and  those looking for a program which is individually tailored.

In addition to these, you can find plenty of cheesy sites promising an essay “review,” which will amount to about a paragraph offering an overall evaluation and a few suggestions for improvement,  supported by what amounts to some margin notes.  They are not personalized services but are businesses which farm your essays out to low-paid and usually inexperienced editors. If getting a cheap review is your only concern, go ahead, but you will get what you pay for here.   Some of these same sites also offer ghost writing “services,” which is the final category I will discuss.

Ghost writers do have a place in the world, such as when a ghost writer helps an inarticulate celebrity put out a biography, but ghost writing has no place in the writing of college application essays.  The business model of ghost writing sites involves offering essays, often very cheaply, (as little as twenty dollars, in some cases) written by someone else who pretends to be you.  This is, of course, unethical.  While nobody will put you in jail for  this kind of fraud,  you would be kicked out of school if this were ever revealed and your life could be badly damaged if not ruined.  But the main reason you should avoid these people is that it’s just bad for you to fake your way through life, and it’s bad for those around you, too.

Turning back to the legitimate businesses and individuals, my main criticism  is that they give the most help in easiest areas of the college application process and the least help in the most difficult.  Sure, a traditional college counselor  can save time and family strife in walking parents and students through college selection, but they generally treat the application essays as a kind of adjunct project, largely up to the individual inspiration of their clients.  It is my view that your college application essays are too important to be left for the last stage of the application.  You should be developing them no later than the summer prior to your Senior year, and you should seek help in shaping and reshaping them.  They can sway a reader if you are in the gray area created by the rubrics which admissions officers use to judge you–for a detailed explanation, see this link–and as admissions become increasingly competitive,  essays have increasingly become  the deciding factor in whether many are admitted or not.  And if you are put into a classroom setting, be it online or at a physical location, you are another face in the crowd–it’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not optimal.

Don’t forget, the holistic universities (those who require essays)  are intentionally emphasizing subjective factors and human judgement–the gut reaction of your admissions reader does matter.  So don’t settle for a merely decent effort in your essays or for someone who sees their duty as complete after making a few margin notes or giving you a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on your essays.

I will close this post by presenting a simple comparison.  Below I will show you both an example of my editing and compare my package of services to one of my current competitors–Brown University, which has decided to make money off its own college applications process by putting the college application essay into an online class for which it charges a lot of money.  (Is this cynical of Brown?  I don’t know, but it does suggest that they have accepted the reality that most students who apply to Brown use professional editing help, and are using that fact to promote their own general essay writing class to high school Juniors.)

My clients’ essays are always kept confidential, but I offer here an example of how I can edit as I take a long and somewhat convoluted essay by a well-know contemporary author, paring it down and focusing it so it is a 500-word essay suitable for a college application.  Have a look at what is on both links to see how I can reshape a piece of writing into something that fits into the five-hundred word limit imposed for most undergraduate applications.

The editing I will do on your essay will be even more detailed–you will  find considerable commentary along with suggested additions, corrections and deletions.

In order to make a more detailed comparison of what’s on offer and what it will cost you, let’s have a look at Brown university’s online class in preparing for college writing, where they include the college application essay; go here for the tuition and then use the tabs to look at the course description.

This is Brown, so this is a good class, but  they want well over 1,000 dollars for this course  and only one college application essay is included in the curriculum, which is primarily meant to prep you for Freshman English and writing research papers at Brown.   Read the course description closely, using the tab at the top, to see this for yourself.  Keep in mind another important difference from the personalized services I offer:    the instructor will be dealing with the equivalent of a huge lecture hall, so your essays will generally be graded either by a graduate assistant or an adjunct, and the detail and quality of their responses can vary widely.  I edit all of your work personally and communicate with you directly.

And most of you will want to write three to five essays for your college applications, not one, yet you will finish this 1,395 dollar class with only one college essay ready to go.  This is not a terribly efficient or cost-effective way to approach your college essays this summer.

In contrast, if you use my services, you will end up with multiple essays, each of which I have edited line-by-line, with detailed commentary, and each essay edited through three total drafts, ending with a polished final product that is ready to submit; in addition, everything we do is specifically tailored to you.  In fact,  for a little over half what Brown charges you in their online course, I will help you write five application essays to Brown’s single application essay, and I will take you  from your first draft through a third, polished draft.  If you want to write fewer essays and spend less money, I can work with you on a single essay at a time.   I assist you step-by-step, and you can be proud of an excellent final product that really represents you.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am available for personal consultations and assistance, or we can use Skype if you live further afield from me but want a more conversational approach.  Othwerwise, we will use e-mail and phone communication as we develop and exchange drafts until you are satisfied.

Send me a draft of a college or other essay for a free sample edit.  My calendar will fill rapidly from July on, so don’t wait too long.

E-mail to:  wordguild@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Writing an Essay About a Quote

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Experience Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Supplement on December 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm

This post discusses a previous year’s Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts  and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about ethical matters and personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  Please note: I have updated the information in this post in a new post  dealing  with all of Princeton’s prompts for this year, as well as updating some of the links and information for the old prompts.  Click the link above to access it.  I have also added more posts on writing about quotes for this year’s prompts by Princeton and others–Start here for that:

Writing an Essay about Quote from an Essay

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 again that some of these prompts are different for this year, but my discussion on the others still applies).

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. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Given that prompt 1, below, is essentially identical to Common App prompt 3, you shouldn’t do both of them.  With that said, it’s on to the individual prompts.

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 Common App.  My suggestion:  use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, 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 Greedhead 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 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– a number of essays I have seen recently deal with the Occupy movement, but you wouldn’t want to adopt Occupy’s slogans as policy positions.   If the Occupy Movement is an inspiration for you, you will need to describe it within a larger context of justice and define a practical focus more clearly than the movement itself has.   Eat the Rich and Tax the 1% do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change, though the energy behind this movement does.  Try to make any values you promote more concrete than a slogan for a poster or bumper sticker.

I would add to this that if you are writing about this movement, you would want to show that you have been concerned with social and economic justice prior to Occupy–you wouldn’t want to write this essay if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week, but perhaps the inchoate nature of Occupy has inspired you to focus your own goals, to rethink  your values . . . If you do want to write about this movement it would help to note that  a profound sense of duty  has caused many of these people to camp out in our cities. . .  even if some of them seem eccentric or seem to be professional demonstrators.  Of course, if you had actually spent some time at an Occupy site that might help you in an essay on this topic.

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 following quotation from “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society” 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.

“Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

Cornel West, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

It appears that, while they ask for some verbiage to demonstrate your commitment to Action to Change the World, they also want some evidence that you are actually doing something about it.  This, by the way, is  a social justice prompt, so you want to avoid the kinds of problems I have discussed in social justice topics before; have look here at my entry on the Problems essay for the Common App, which treads similar ground: Common App Prompt Two.

Since your essay here is supposed to be about a personal experience which defined your values, you might think you were inoculated against the Miss America essay I discuss in the link above, but  it’s a truth commonly acknowledged that it’s hard to write about yourself without looking self-absorbed.  I give more advice on this here as I discuss how essays on a variety of recent world and social justice issues come off as too self-referential: More Thoughts.  By the way, I note for the record how modest Princeton is as it quotes its own profs, both the quick and the dead.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

4. 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.  

First let me digress yet again, to Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form and who also initiated many of his essays with a quote which conveyed an idea that he would develop throughout the essay.  He  quoted from classical authors frequently, both to frame his own arguments and to bolster them.  Therefore, 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, though I hasten to add that he was sometimes better in theory than in practice–his disappearance to the countryside during an episode of the plague has been questioned by more than a few–but his essays are great and we should, I think, use caution in judging others.

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 with Occupy sympathies–it’s 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.   I’ll be addressing this again for the 2012-2013 app period.