How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay for 2020: The New Word Essay

Also known as the essay for students who wish to absquatulate to the University of Chicago, or if you prefer, to skedaddle, or  for those who are in a real hurry, to skidoo.  

Always suckers for a punny response and for innovation, the University of Chicago is taking aim directly at your ability to innovate this year:  not only can you make up your own essay prompt for the 2018-2019 application, you can also choose to write an essay in which you make up your own word, as shown in the prompt:

University of Chicago Essay Option 3

The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

Some Rules for Neologisms

So first, let’s get our tools in order here, which in this case means let’s look at a few useful words about words.

What you are being asked to do is to create a neologism, which means to create a new word, and therefore some kind of new idea–so start by looking around to see what new things need a new word, or what old things seem to have mutated in such a way that a new word is in order to describe the new strangeness.

This brings up a second term, etymology,  which is the history and usage of a word, or if you will, the biography of a word.  Yes, words have lives–they are born, they live, and if they do not die they do fade away.  So think of your new word as being alive, and think of your essay as explaining the birth and life of your word.

Here, for example, is the etymology of floccinaucinihilipilification:

“action or habit of estimating as worthless,” in popular smarty-pants use from c. 1963; attested 1741 (in a letter by William Shenstone, published 1769), a combination of four Latin words (floccinaucinihilipilifi) all signifying “at a small price” or “for nothing,” which appeared together in a rule of the well-known Eton Latin Grammar + Latin-derived suffix -fication “making, causing.”

[F]or whatever the world might esteem in poor Somervile, I really find, upon critical enquiry, that Iloved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money. [Shenstone, letter, 1741]

The kind of jocular formation that was possible among educated men in Britain in those days. Just so, as in praesenti, the opening words of mnemonic lines on conjugation in Lilley’s 16c. Latin grammar, could stand alone as late as 19c. and be understood to mean “rudiments of Latin.” The entry above comes to us courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which for me is worth ten Wikipedias).  

Obviously, Chicago is revivifying an old and obscure word in citing floccinaucinihilipilification  (Notice that the word is composed of a series of Latin words used as a repetitive root that basically restates the same meaning, followed by the suffix ification, so a certain amount of nonsense is clearly okay when making up a new word, as long as the nonsense in your word is aimed at skewering some real nonsense out in the world.  

This alone should give you some ideas about how to proceed, among them the careful selection of an existing word or set of words which you then combine and add prefixes and suffixes to, as needed for effect. You could start our search by going to the Online Dictionary of Etymology to look up the suffix just mentioned (ification) and then just click around  to find ideas, notebook at hand:  Etymology and Examples of ification.

Why We Make Up Words

People make up new words in order to describe new realities or situations and/or because making up words is fun.  Just look at the etymologies for the words I started this post with to get an idea of how new situations and the need for fun can promote linguistic creativity:  skedaddle, absquatulate.

Being in the midst of the Civil War and wishing to be elsewhere, plus the long periods of boredom between battle promoted the invention of many words, it seems, though there was also a fad through much of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for coining new words using Latinate roots, because they sound great and meaningful while conveying silly or lightweight ideas, mostly.   Some of these 19th-Century neologisms live on, partly because they capture an idea well, but also because of the way they sound.  Bloviate  is an example, which conveys what it means partly by how it sounds.  So sound really does matter.  Say it out loud after you coin it to see if it passes the fun sound test.

What New Situations Need New Words Today?

Your new word should also, hopefully, describe something you see going on that, as of yet, has no single word or simple phrase to describe it.  As an example of a word that was created to describe a new situation, you can look at the idea of “buggy” software or a “computer bug,”  though the source of “bug” as a word for a technical problem is actually quite a bit older than that, as shown in this OED blog entry:  Buggy

When we are not making up words for new situations, we often simply borrow them from other languages, either directly or by slightly repurposing them, as can be seen in words like monsoon and tsunami (extended discussion here), so you should also consider looking at foreign languages for ideas–but do not simply borrow the word straight from the other language, lest you offer your frenemies an opportunity for schadenfreude when your application is turned down for lack of originality.

If you find an interesting foreign word, tinker with it a bit.  For example, if you take a noticeable stand against certain public figures these days, say on Twitter, you might face a Trollnami of attack Tweets.

Which brings up some additional advice:  I thought I was pretty clever in coming up with trollnami,  until I did a search and found multiple examples, and saw that trollnami already has its own hashtag on Twitter.

So back to the drawing board, but this does show you one of the elements of making a new word: it has to define a current phenomenon that does not yet have its own name, and the armies of trolls on platforms like Twitter is a reality that is creating new words.

If we ditch tsunami and look for some other words to combine to describe a situation that is new, we could come up with  Donaldangst, something that is plaguing some of my acquaintances, and many I know are upset by the Ubersqualidification of our culture due to social media (mis) use.  These last two neologisms use German word parts–one a root word, the other a prefix, so I will now point you to one of my favorite word books:  

Schottenfreude is a book in the spirit of this U Chicago prompt, in which a British man who speaks no German makes up fantastic new Teutonic words, like Schlagerschmeichelei, which means enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated, or Eisenbahnscheinbewegung, which denotes the false sensation of movement when, looking our from a stationary train, you see another train depart.  

For more ideas from this book, go here: Shottendfreude Op Art, and if you like that, support the arts, and buy the book:  Schottenfreude.

For some more inspiration in fearful times, as well as a supplemental discussion on making up words, have a look at the word of the month for June, 2018, from the Oxford English Dictionary:  Trepidatious.

The OED also has a blog that discusses neologisms and has basics on word roots, prefixes and suffixes–a good place to scan for ideas.

This ends my first post focused fully on writing the 2018-2019 University of Chicago application essay.  I will write about U Chicago again soon, and have written about them frequently in the past, as in this example. so come back soon.  You might also want to follow my blog as I continue to post on various essay prompts for 2018-2019, and if you need editing assistance on college essays, I offer highly detailed editing at a great price–you can find me here:  Contact Me.

The University of Chicago Application Essays: Prompt 2, Part 2

I gave background to U Chicago’s Application Essay Prompt 2 in my last post; in this post, I will provide some more specific suggestions and sources for essay inspiration.  Before I do, here is the prompt, again:

Essay Option 2.

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.

Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Alrighty.  So my first suggestion is not to accept Ms. Driscoll’s argument that some words are untranslatable, because they are all translatable.  However, even once they have been translated, a foreign person still may not really get it.  One reason:  culture, which includes language but also history, philosophy, geography, weather, technology, etc, etc, etc.  A concept like the Chinese idea of Chi is actually pretty easy to translate but not so easy to fully understand–it can best be translated as energy but also can have to do with a person’s temperament and mood, with the weather and time of year and its influence on the person, with the “energy” or nature of food a person eats–and the chi of food alters as well, depending on the way food is cooked.  A fever manifests a disturbance in chi, but is also  a kind of chi in itselfand a martial artist of skill will use a person’s chi against him.

Notice that much of this does not fit the western concept of energy, though electricity is a also a kind of chi.  A nonnative speaker of Mandarin can become fairly fluent in the language but would need to, for example, study some martial arts under a master, maybe do some qi gong and learn about Chinese cookery, architecture and art in order to have a decent grip on Chi, on its meanings and manifestations in Chinese thought and experience.  So looking at language as an expression of culture, and at culture as a kind of closed room that must be entered and explored before many words–many concepts–can be fully understood . . .  is a good way to approach this essay.  There are also personal and familial reasons why a person may not be equipped to understand a word–even a native Mandarin speaker may not have the understanding of Chi that, say, a Taoist master who is also an acupuncturist and painter would have.

My second suggestion is to look at idiomatic expressions.  You might want to start with your own language, Oh Native English Speakers. Of course, given the different varieties of English, it can be argued that we Americans are speaking a foreign tongue to those Brits.  Or vice-versa.  A famous Brit whose name escapes my data banks once claimed that American speech is slang.  Contrasting the Queen’s English and the Colonies’ English is a fun exercise in itself–you can start with those slang and idioms that do translate, pairing them, then find idioms that do not translate at all; for example:

American English/Queens English

a dust up/argy bargy

cock up/snafu

biscuit or bikky/Cookie


technical expert (or geek, in some uses)/boffin


opportunist, schemer or swindler/chancer

chat or gossip/chinwag

reconnoiter or check out/dekko

old man or boss or old and the boss (and dreary and annoying)/gaffer

The next step is not just to look at what the equivalent expression is, but to try to figure out why/from what the term came.  Again, notice that they are translateable, but there is a cultural flavor and flair with many slang expressions.  A good example is dekko, which is not English in origin; it comes from  British military slang and derived from the Hindustani dhek/dekho meaning “to see”. It is also less commonly decco, deccie, deek, deeks.  It is also an example of what I mean about language and culture.  The British Empire ruled over India for well over a century, and in the process of garrisoning India, it brought back more than chutney and curry. It brought back many words and forever altered British culture.   Given that many of British soldiers were also working class, you find quite a bit of this new language entering through more street or slang dialects, like Cockney, which also has a lot of Romany (these people are commonly called gypsy) words.  Like this: Put up your dukes, pal.  Look the last two words up for more.  They are Romany in origin.

Cockney itself would be an excellent place for you to look for inspiration, though you should keep in mind that Cockney has just about died out–the last true Cockney speakers were fading away by the 1990’s, pretty much as the East End of London faded as  a stronghold of working class whites/Cockneys.  Notice how slang evolution is tied into history and slang, as well as “proper” language evolves over time.   So slang and idioms are a great source for an essay like this, and you can use the wonders of the internet to look for ideas,  making lists of words and looking for ways to connect words and concepts that say something larger about culture.

To start working with idioms, try British slang, Cockney, and American slang as search terms and give it some time. There are many sites and posts devoted to this, and quality varies.  Make lists and double-check definitions against other sources and sites–I will provide some good dictionaries and other sources for looking up and crosschecking, below.  What makes you laugh would probably also make your essay reader laugh, which is a good thing (as long as they are not laughing at you.)

To recap and add an example:  the history of language and word meanings, whether they are considered idiomatic or otherwise, is  a great place to look for essay ideas and content–words do change meanings over time, just as words are born and words die.  In the 13th Century, the word gay   meant bright (brightly colored), cheerful, et al.  It had nothing remotely to do with sexual orientation.  Then, in 1890’s America, it gained a slang meaning–a gay lady was a prostitute (I guess somebody was happy.)   Then, in the 20th Century, the term, which already had a double meaning associated with being happy or bright, and with suspect or illicit sex, was assigned to homosexuals, then adopted by the homosexual rights movement; but this change in meaning then led to suburban youth by the 1990’s referring to something suspect or bad as “gay” –a change that illustrates the adolescent fear of being different,  especially sexually, and conversely, of punishing those who are different.  This is an example of a  psycho-sociological effect that is reflected in the change in a word’s meaning.  Words change all the time, but not always this drastically–fear and prejudice are powerful influences, even on words.  When you write your essay, your focus might be on how the history of language is closely tied to sociology and psychology.  Our words say a lot about us.

To close things out, I am going to recommend some source materials, and as part of that paste in a recent article that shows a good way to open an essay like this . . . Hello loyal readers.  This is the second post on this Chicago prompt, and you have to pay a subscription to my private blog to get full access to this post and quite a few other posts, past and future.  You have about half of the post available in this sample.  If this seems unfair, that’s probably because you have been taught to disrespect the value of written work, due to the parasitic nature of most of the big internet companies, which offer creators little compensation while essentially giving the creative work of others away for free.  A subscription for full access to all of my posts is available for the small price of $15.  You send me an e-mail, with the subject heading “subscription, please,” and I will send you an invoice for $15.   After you pay it, I will give you access to my private blog, which has all of my posts available in full, including the rest of this post.

One more thing–a caveat emptor–I do not delete old posts from other application years, partly as a matter of historical record, but also because many universities repeat the same prompts, or use prompts that are similar to prompts used in the past.  If you see that a post was put up during the last application season, you need to double-check to be sure about the prompts for this year’s applications at your specific universities–we are currently in the 2014-2015 application season.  The software of this site will link “related” posts, but they are sometimes from previous years.  Be sure to visit the university website to check on application requirements and timelines for this year.

Speaking of which, I am still accepting some college advising and application essay editing clients.  E-mail me soon to inquire and to secure a spot.  As of this writing, July 10, 2014, I am fully booked in early August, but can accept college application editing business in July and from the latter part of August on.  This will change in the coming weeks, of course,  as new clients take up existing space in my schedule, so it’s better not to wait too long.  I only have so much time. . . See you soon.

P.S.  The ads you sometimes see below some of my posts are inserted by the WordPress people.  Allowing them to advertise allows me to save expenses on this platform, and by keeping my fixed costs down, I am able to offer not only the most effective editing service you are likely to find, I am also cheaper than all those big operations you may have heard of.  I myself do not see the ads unless I access my own site via an outside search.  If you do dislike one of the ads, please let me know at the e-mail above, and I will have a look and contact WordPress, if necessary.  Thanks.

The University Of Chicago Application Essay Prompts For 2014-2015: Let The Games Begin

This post will focus on some background for the very interesting but  contradictory prompt two of this year’s University of Chicago application essays–the language prompt, probably better named the Whorfian language prompt.  This post is Part 1 of two posts on this prompt.  I will cover some background and get into a few ideas for approaching this prompt, then follow up with more specific ideas in the part II post on this prompt.  Who should read this:  Anybody applying to U Chicago in 2014-2015.

And we are off to the races, as U Chi gets their prompts out the door. Hopefully they establish a trend with this.

I say this because, in recent years, the Common Application has been going live right around August 1st, and increasingly, so have most universities, even those that do not use the Common Application.  This has meant that most students have not had any certainty about essay prompts or short answers or anything else until they are just about ready to go back to school for their senior year.  Students are often faced with five, ten or more essays, beginning in August.  This  has seemed odd and unfair to me, given the writing requirements for some university apps and the way most schools emphasize putting significant time and effort into application essays.  So kudos to Chicago for breaking away from the peleton, so to speak, and hopefully establishing a trend toward earlier application and prompt releases.

And now, in the intuitively nonintuitive spirit of U Chi, let’s skip prompt one (for now) and go right to prompt number two.

Essay Option 2.

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”.  In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

This prompt, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that it is based on,  represent a pretty simple idea, which is this:  the language we speak shapes how we think.  This idea is identified with a stance that is usually called Linguistic Relativism.   Beyond those basic statements about what seems a common sense idea, there is an enormous amount of debate, from whether the idea is true at all, to  whether Whorf’s ideas were hijacked and oversimplified to create a theory he would not recognize as his own. Neither Whorf nor his mentor Sapir every concocted their ideas as a formal theory in the way that, say, Einstein did.

I add here the observation that  the way this U Chicago prompt is phrased suggests that Ms. Driscoll is really rehashing a very dated version of linguistic relativism, which is no longer really espoused in the doctrinaire way this prompt puts it, even by those who accept the basic idea.  Language reflects culture which shapes  thought, to a degree, but the idea that separable chopsticks is untranslatable is a bit silly.  I mean, you get the idea, right?  Even if it takes two words to get there?

I think language does reflect a view of the world and habits of thought, and sure, you can do experiments with things like color and provide evidence that language shapes how we view color, but how can you separate language from culture?  Among other things.   But I quibble too early, for I have yet to provide you with some background to the theory behind this flawed but fun prompt, and I don’t want to discourage you from writing about it.  This prompt, even if it is a bit half-baked, should inspire some great essays.  I just want you to be prepared.  And at the least, this theory–and its misinterpretation–has helped supply plenty of college professors with employment sufficient to pay off their debts–or Schulden, in German, a word that also means guilt or shame–more on that later.   And now this theory offers you the chance to get into U Chicago, so I guess it’s a good thing.

So let’s begin.  It’s always wise to know a little bit about the topic area of any essay prompt,  so here is a brief background on Whorf, then on “his” theory:

Benjamin Lee Whorf lived from 1897-1941.  He was not originally a linguist, having studied Chemical Engineering at M.I.T.  His day job was with the Hartford Insurance Company, where he was a fire prevention engineer and inspector, and after researching  language and anthropology as a pastime,  he went on to study linguistics under Edward Sapir at Yale University.  It may seem odd that someone who did pioneering work in linguistics and anthropology worked essentially as an insurance executive, but  the avante garde composer Charles Ives was also an insurance executive,  and the poet Wallace Stevens also worked at Hartford insurance.  Maybe it’s like Flaubert said,  “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In any case, studying people and their languages Whorf did.  He was profoundly religious, and he started with Biblical Hebrew;  hoping to reduce the conflict between religion and science, he began to pursue what he thought were similarities between ancient Hebrew and some Native American languages.  It was while investigating Aztec that Whorf began to study under Edward Sapir at Yale.  Sapir encouraged Whorf to study Hopi, which he did.

Whorf came to believe that the Hopi people had a whole different mental construction of the universe, and did not think in terms that an English speaker would recognize as past, present, and future. Whorf came to believe that  Hopi language and thought divided the world into what he called the manifested and manifesting.    In the first category, manifested, Whorf included  the physical universe,  and in the latter category, manifesting, Whorf included the future,  which makes sense to English speakers, but he also included other conceptual categories, like  desires, processes, power,  intelligence, and life forces. I say Whorf included these things because these are his categories, which he used to describe Hopi language.  Whorf thought that  the structure of the Hopi language itself contained a  different philosophy and view of reality than that of English speakers–so you can see the connection with the U Chicago prompt now.

The problem lies in both Whorf’s understanding of Hopi, which now appears to be flawed, and with his view of the power of language to shape thought.  There are clear differences between Hopi and English; for example, Hopi has relatively few nouns, and tends to express  concepts that would be nouns in English as verbs. The word”wave” in English is actually a simplification of a complex phenomenon and would in Hopi be expressed in words that more or less say “plural or multiple waving occurs.”   Whorf argued that Hopi was in some ways superior to English and that the way Hopis viewed the world was in some senses better than the world view of English speakers.



But Whorf was mistaken about a number of features of Hopi.  I add that Whorf was also one of the scholars who proposed, largely mistakenly, that the Inuit have multiple words for the single English concept of “snow.”  You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about how English speakers have only one or very few words for snow, but Inuit (eskimo was the old and not very accurate word used for these people) have literally anywhere from seven (Whorf’s number) to dozens of words for snow.  This sounds plausible until you start asking anybody who speaks English and lives in snow country or just likes skiing (Powder, corn snow, Sierra Cement. . . . ), then you realize that we have many English words for different conditions of snow, and researchers into Inuit have largely debunked these claims.

To be fair, neither Whorf nor Sapir actually presented the ideas that bear their name as a cohesive theory, and reading Whorf, in particular, can be a bit like reading Nietzsche–what  you think he means depends on which of his works you happen to be reading and where you are in it.  Whorf is not as self-contradictory as somebody like Nietzsche, but he does present his ideas in relatively strong and  in more relative terms, and the “theory’ itself really didn’t gain currency until after Whorf’s early death.
Here’s a brief summary of the fundamental idea, then a quote from Whorf himself  to give you the flavor, then we’ll get to the problems with a rigid application of Whorf’s ideas:
A quick recap of the main idea of Linguistic Relativism, courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  “Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after the linguists who made it famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf’s views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, contains a sampling of recent literature on the hypothesis).”  For more on this, have a look here: Linguistic Relativism.
And now here is Whorf himself:
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” -Whorf (1940:213-14)
Despite this passage’s apparent claim that language shapes how we think, Whorf was not really a Linguistic Determinist–notice how he uses words like “largely. ”   Whorf’s  claims are limited and qualified, and this idea in the Chicago prompt that there are ideas that are  untranslateable doesn’t really hold water.
The body of his writing shows that Whorf considered language to be fundamental in shaping thought, but that language was not the only way to think, and that the effect of language on thought was not absolute.  This is something that both his critics and the proponents of the so-called Whorfian ideas about language tend to miss, and that now brings us back to the University of Chicago Prompt, and how it is self-exploding.
I say it is self-exploding because the examples it provides  of non-English words seem to translate pretty easily.  I think any person of high school age understands the concept of fremdschämen, of feeling embarrassed for somebody else–and while we may not have our own single English word for separable chopsticks, we all know what they are–the  phrase separable chopsticks is an admirably clear “word” for this utensil.  The French example, in which the English conscience and consciousness are the same in French is more interesting, but also not really accurate.  Based on context, a French speaker would understand very well that former president Sarkozy should (though may not, given his immense egocentricity) have a very guilty conscience for taking money from deceased former Libyan chief of state Gaddafi.
Having said all this,  I do think there are several excellent ways to approach this prompt, despite  the apparent obliviousness of the prompt’s author to the contradictions in her prompt.  Here is one way:  language reflects culture as much as it shapes culture, and words like fremdschämen reflect a particular view of the world–you can see what is important to a culture in words like this, words which quickly allow people to identify and discuss a phenomenon or experience that may take a phrase or an involved explanation in other cultures.  The words are translatable, but the fact that a more convoluted description or definition is needed to capture the essence of a single word says a lot, both about the culture that has condensed so much meaning into a single word or phrase and the culture that has not done that.
Which brings me back to the German Schuld, the word for guilt, shame, fault, blame and debt, among other things.  Have a look here, at my favorite online German-English dictionary for an idea of the mental landscape represented by this word:  die Schuld.
And then consider the German response to the Euro-Crisis.  Okay, I know, this started when you were in,  like, 8th or 9th grade, but Germany  profited immensely from selling its goods on a one-t0-one monetary basis against southern countries, where German goods were significantly more expensive prior to the Euro lifting the buying power of citizens in places like Spain and Greece.  This meant a lot of profit for German companies and workers, who steamrolled southern competitors.  And German banks, who were every bit as reckless as everybody else’s banks, and most German citizens and business people, have acted as if the massive Schulden of the southern countries and the debt crisis were a huge moral failing of those Latin types (I’m representing the view of much of Germany here, not my own view), and that hard-working, frugal German citizens should not have to pay more to bail out their feckless southern neighbors.  Again, this is not my view, but this does represent the view of much of Germany.  This after massive profits and massive speculation by their own banks, which stood to lose a lot of money until Americans paid the bill.
And while part of this is a natural reluctance to take on more debt and pain (they did a lot to reunite with East Germany, after all) some of this is also a narrow kind of moralism inherent in the culture, a not-my-problem moral prudishness which is divorced from the realities of how finance actually works, but which is clearly embedded in the moral categories of die Schulden, as you can see in a translation of the word.  Selbst Schuld (Your fault, guilt, problem), as they say.  But the Germans have some Schuld themselves, having let the U.S taxpayers bail out their banks  during the financial crisis, banks who made very bad bets on our side of the Atlantic and which should have shared the pain with us, if we follow the same reasoning that has dominated in Germany.  Our banks paid out on default swaps the German banks had on the crappy speculative bets and trash bond buys, which then helped push our banks off the cliff.  But ask a German banker or citizen, and most will say it was the other guy’s Schuld.  Denial is built into this conceptual framework, due to the moralism inherent in the term Schuld.  And we can translate this easily enough, and even share some of this way of thinking, but it’s still more heightened in the German.
So I think the Sapir Whorf thing is a bit backwards–language affects thought, but you cannot separate language from culture, philosophy, history or psychology.  It reflects all of this, describes all of this, and both shapes and is shaped by all of this.  And I  would argue that all ideas are in some way translatable.  Whether you understand them, however, is a matter of experience–many concepts cannot really be understood only by way of words in the dictionary.
The thing to see in language differences is how language allows some cultures to discuss some ideas, or to capture some attitudes, more easily than other cultures, and to see how this reflects an outlook on the world.  A world view.  Which is why the Japanese have a word for those disposable separable chopsticks one gets with take-out foods.  While we have plastic forks at the deli.
My most important piece of advice on this prompt is to challenge its assumptions, but then to look at how certain word capture concepts that show habits of thought–how a culture looks at the world.  Weltanschaung, the Germans call it.  A great word, and worthy of an entire essay by itself, I might add–have a look here, if you are curious:  Weltanschauung, the biography of a word.
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The University of Chicago Application Essay for 2013-2014: The Joke’s on Whom?

Getting Started on Your Chicago Essays:  We Begin with the Joke Prompt

Before reading this post, you might want to look at my earlier  post with all of this year’s U of Chicago prompts–scroll down this linked post,  past the Penn essay, to view all of the Chicago prompts: Start Your Essays.

So you do not have to click back and forth between windows, here is Chicago’s joke prompt, which is the topic of this post:

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

Hmm.  It seems that  the joke is on the University of  Chicago when it comes to this prompt, for they have misattributed it.  While it is possible that Winston Churchill did, at some point, requote Charles Churchill, there is no record I can find of Winston actually saying this.  The original quote is from an obscure satirical poem of  the 18th Century, considerably before Winston’s time.  To see the details and the origin of the quote, go here:  Charles Churchill. 

It looks like a Wikipedia moment for Chicago, which likes to crowdsource prompts from their own students.  Ms. Fine didn’t do her homework and neither did the university.  Which inspires my own knock-knock joke:


Who’s there?


Otto who?

Otto know what yer talkin’ about.


Okay, dumb, but I do think it’s a good to know what you are talking about, so in that spirit, let’s look at humor a little more seriously.

Some Things to Think Consider

There are two basic ways to approach this prompt:

First, you can do what the prompt asks in a straightforward way by writing some sort of explanation and analysis of a joke.  This is the obvious response, but possible variations are many–a joke might be just a jumping off point to discussing  something the joke brings up or is based on–status, sex, values, ethnicity, all play a role in  jokes, and our expectations and our world view are almost always in play.  This is why so much humor is culturally specific while slapstick tends to cross cultures.

The second approach is, in effect, not to explain the joke–instead, you explain explaining.  Or the limitations of explaining.  Think of it as an exploration of the epistemology and ontology of humor.   I know this second option doesn’t necessarily directly address the topic,  but this is the University of Chicago; thinking outside the box is pretty much what they do (or what they think they do). If your essay is well done, they will not only welcome an unconventional response, your originality will give you a leg up on the competition.

Joke Taxonomy

Regardless of the  approach you take, you might want to start by considering how jokes appear as variations using similar parts, scenes or characters.  This is true of many folk literary forms, from fairy tales to epics, and the technical term for variations on shared situations or characters is a cycle–possibly the most famous cycle of all is in the Arthurian Romances, but the knock-knock joke is considered a joke cycle by American academics.   It’s useful to turn to an explanation of this, both as an example of how to explain a joke and to see how the explanation–the academic approach to explanation–can change a good joke into . . . something serious.  Go to the book at this link and start at page 69: joke cycles

So now you have the academic approach, in which jokes are taxonomized like plants and animals.    There is a lot you can learn from books like this, but while this is informative, because it is more about classifying and describing, it could be a bit dry  for a U Chicago application essay. Paradoxically, I think you need to avoid losing your sense of humor as you analyze your joke.  And do try to set the joke into a frame that provides a bigger picture.   Your focus may include a taxonomy of the joke, but then you’d want to turn toward looking either at what the joke’s humor says about us (or about those who find it funny) or at how the joke itself offers a criticism, social or otherwise.

You can also turn for some help to the pros, not in academia, but in comedy.  While most comedians do not like to explain individual jokes, many comedians will discuss the craft of telling jokes, and boning up on what they have to say can help you as you prepare to write a joke essay.

A good place to do some reading on the art of the joke is in a recent article on Jerry Seinfeld, (Pardon tbe interruption, but now a word from our sponsor:

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Or at least some of them are out early.  

This post will introduce some of the essay prompts for Ivy League and elite universities this year.  We are off to an earlier than usual start for this year’s prompts, probably due to the increased number of early applicants; many of the important schools are not, however, posting yet, but I will introduce some of those that are online now, below, with a quick overview and a few of the new prompts themselves spliced in below that.  Keep in mind that this post is being written on July 1st, and the application scene will change rapidly over the next two to three weeks as many of the colleges get their sites up to date.  Some will not put up prompts until the beginning of August, speaking of which . . . 

The Common App is planning to open for business on August 1st.  If you visit the Common Application site before August, you will find last year’s downloads and pdf’s.  However,  the Common App’s new essay prompts have been released as a “beta.”  Unlike beta software,  these Common App prompts will not be modified and you can start working with them.  This split presentation, with both an out-of-date website and an early release of up-to-date essay prompts can be a bit confusing, but it’s their way of helping applicants start the essays early while not opening up the website itself until they are ready for business.  

I have the Common App essay prompts for 2013-2014 here:  Common Application:  What’s New for 2013-2014.  Then read on below in this post for information on U Chicago, Yale and others, including the complete U Chicago, Yale and UC  essay prompts for this year.  

As a threshold matter, let’s establish our position in the calendar: if you are a rising Senior, you are going to be applying for the 2013-2014 cycle, as a prospective member of the Class of 2018.  I say this because of the volume of page views I am getting in recent weeks on my posts about last year’s  application essays; last year was the 2012-2013 application cycle.  I know, it should seem obvious, but it can get confusing as old posts linger on and many universities have the old prompts listed under “2013.”  It’s also true that some of these old prompts are going to still be in use this year–I have one example below, with the U.C. system–but most will be changed, so be sure that you are working with the right prompts before investing any time and effort.  And no, I do not believe in practicing with old prompts.  This is not the SAT.

So now let’s turn to this year’s prompts: U Chicago got an early jump on some of its Ivy League competitors, having posted its prompts before June even ended, but  Yale has also posted its essay prompts and UPenn has, um, publicized its prompts. Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and  other Ivies are  still stuck in last year as of this post on July 1.  Princeton is with the rest of the Ivies who are not yet up to speed, but I expect to see information on their new essays in the next couple of weeks, given their history.

Let’s start with  UPenn.  The Quakers had this year’s Common App prompts up, but directly below this, Penn still had last year’s supplementary essay . . . The Ben Franklin prompt.  (Yep, that’s their mascot:  a Quaker; and yes, the Ben Franklin prompt is from last year.)  But wait, Penn Admissions Dean Furda put the new prompt up on Penn’s Insider’s blog . . .   Confusing, Penn.   To clear up the confusion, see below in this blogpost for this year’s UPenn admissions essay.

And Penn is not the only school with a blog by the admissions office that is more up to speed than their official admissions portal.  This has to do mostly with the rise of the Common App itself and with the move to electronic submissions.  The Common App effectively sets the date that admissions start for its colleges, and there is a disconnect between this date and when students try to start working on applications–the Common App itself advises starting early on the essays it requires, both in its prompts and in the supplements that the universities post on the Common App site, but August 1st is not really very early, given that more and more students use early applications and some students will be done with apps as of October 1.  In steps the blogs and insider pages for many universities, to fill that gap and help you get going before August–which is what Penn offers, but they should also take down the Ben Franklin prompt.    

Over on the left coast, the University of California is using the same prompts as last year, so you can get started on those now.  I will also copy their prompts into this post, below, and I wrote about these prompts last year.  The Stanford prompts and short writing responses are not yet up–you have to go through the Common Application website to get their supplement,  but I will be perusing their admissions blog and will put up their prompts as soon as I see them.  In the meantime, I’d get working on the Common App prompts and any others I post below that interest you.

As for the Common App itself:   forget about registering and setting up your account on the Common App website before August 1st; they will delete any accounts that were set up before they go live on August 1st.  I would suggest that you  visit the Common App to check out the site format and to search for information on the schools, which will include variables that each school considers when it evaluates applicants.  Go here to search for application information, by school:

( I repeat, do not register.  Yet.)

In my upcoming posts, I will begin addressing and evaluating specific application prompts, with advice on what to do and what not to do, but be warned:  I offer in full only some posts on specific prompts here, on the CollegeAppJungle.  Full access to all of my analysis and posts, including my advice on individual essay prompts, is only available by subscribing to my private blog or by retaining me to edit your work or to help you with a full package, including college application advising.  I offer quite a bit of general advice as a public service, but this is also a business.  Business requires payment, which is a point that has become somewhat obscured in the age of the “free” download.

If you want access to my private blog, or you want to inquire about editing services and college advising,  e-mail  me with either “college advising/editing” or “subscription” as a heading and send it to this e-mail address; I will send you an invoice and grant access to my private blog after you give me a payment:

And now, here is a look at some of the prompts that are already up for this year, including U Chicago, Yale and the University of California (Expect to see me start writing about how to approach the U Chicago later prompts this week):

U Penn Essay Prompts for 2013-2014Penn Supplement Essay Prompt for entry Fall 2014:

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

Clearly, Dear Reader, UPenn expects you to know something about their programs; get started on your research . . . before writing. 

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see by the attributions, some of the questions below were inspired by submissions by your peers.

2013-14 essay questions:


Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016


In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).

You are you and your..?

Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016


“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010


The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp:

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016


How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Inspired by Florence Chan, Class of 2015


In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun

Yale University Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

Yale Writing Supplement – Essay Topic

Please note that the Yale freshman application will be available on the Common Application website sometime in August. The Yale-specific questions will include one additional required essay for all applicants, and one optional essay for prospective engineering majors. The essay prompts for the 2013-2014 Yale Writing Supplement are as follows:

Yale Writing Supplement required for all freshman applicants:

  • In this second essay, please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits.We ask that you limit your essay to fewer than 500 words. Before you begin, we encourage you to go to, where you will find helpful advice.

Optional essay for prospective engineering majors:

  • If you selected one of the engineering majors, please write a brief third essay telling us what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you.

University of California Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

As you respond to the essay prompts, think about the admissions and scholarship officers who will read your statement and what you want them to understand about you. While your personal statement is only one of many factors we consider when making our admission decision, it helps provide context for the rest of your application.


All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.

  • Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
  • Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.

The essay prompts

Freshman applicant prompt

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Transfer applicant prompt

What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Prompt for all applicants

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

That’s it, for now.  Get a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  I recommend doing some writing every day, as ideas occur to you and also just to record where you are at or just what you are doing.  This will give you a large repository of information to fall back on as you begin to write your essays.  You would be–or may be–amazed to discover how easy it is to forget a good idea if you do not write it down promptly.