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 Supplements for 2016-2017: A Quick Sample on Vestigiality

Greetings U Chicago Want-To-Be’s. Welcome to a look at the University of Chicago application essays for 2016-2017. Our topic today:

Essay Option 5.

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.

—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

So there are plenty of vestigial artifacts in the world.  Take the internal combustion engine for example, or pull back to look at how we generate energy, and you will realize that we haven’t made all that many changes since James Watt perfected the steam engine in the 18th Century.  Seriously:  what is a nuclear reactor but a giant tea kettle?  So looking at technologies we really should be replacing is one way to go at this prompt.

On the other hand, I would point out  that our ideas about vestigiality are often  wrongheaded.  Do we not call many things useless because maybe we just don’t get it?  A short history of science shows that–and the most up to date science suggests that even your appendix still has a reason to be. (More on that in a moment.)

To me this question says more about our idea that the latest and greatest is always the best than it does about the usefulness of our appendix. So to turn this prompt against itself, which is often the best way to approach a UChi prompt, I would use the question  to explore how we define vestigiality. Most interesting of all is how each age has all the answers until the next age comes along to mock it, failing simultaneously to recognize its own blindness about other things.

Tiffany Kim may be a member of the class of 2020, which means that she graduated from high school with the latest and greatest that an uber-achieving youth could learn in AP Biology,  but her question is pretty 20th Century when it comes to her example:  the appendix. Those of us keeping the pulse of the newest and best in science learned recently that the appendix does indeed retain an important function, to wit: it appears that it is a refuge for all the good bacteria we need when our guts get disrupted and flushed by illnesses (think Montezuma’s revenge). It is to your body as a country estate was to somebody in early Renaissance Italy who retreated and closed the gates to wait out the plague, after which they would safely go out into the world again.  One pictures bacteria telling stories and engaging in libertine pursuits while they wait out whatever ailment is purging one’s guts.  (That’s a Decameron allusion, for those who want to know).

To justify my claims,  I quote one of only many sources for the new view on the appendix, here: Dartmouth says au contraire on the appendix. Of course,  we can lose the appendix and go on, though armed with modern science we might want to grab some probiotics any time we have an intestinal bug, but we can lose a lot of things it would be better to have and go on. Like our legs. I don’t find any of my body parts vestigial, even using my tailbone when I sit.

So much for vestigiality.  That’s your first lesson on how to look at a U Chi prompt from another point of view.

On the Other Hand

On he other hand, keep the idea of the prompt; instead of arguing that vestigiality itself is outdated, you could look at many contemporary and seemingly cutting-edge ideas as out-of-date.  In particular I think of all those ideas that are memes bouncing around in everyday speech, used by people who want to seem techno-hip and tres moderne.  Let’s face it:  once a cutting-edge idea filters out into the world of talking heads, you know it’s already a cliche.  In keeping with that spirit, let me offer my own short list of  cutting-edge pop-tech concepts that are already vestigial ideas:

Humans uploading their brains into computers to live forever

While I deeply admire the thought experiments about this concept from science fiction writers, (check out Solar Lottery by Philip K Dick, in which a man’s consciousness becomes trapped in a rapidly decaying robot-and that’s just a subplot), I think that the current guru peddling this idea, Ray Kurzweil, has painted himself into a corner, philsophically speaking, because he views the brain itself as a kind of computational device, which it isn’t. It produces its results in a way that relates only to computers in certain outcomes, but the processes are not alike:  No one’s and zero’s are being manipulated in circuits in the brain, and the brain in fact has no circuits.  We are using and analogy or a metaphor when we say the brain has circuits.

Before even wondering what a human being’s memories would be as data stored in a computer (hint:  not human memories)  Just ask these questions to check on how silly this idea is:  What does it mean to have a human mind without a human body, anyway? And when computers do “think” will it look anything like what we do? (No).  Can a computer can think about sex, hamburgers, how to catch the perfect break on a wave and wonder why its ankle itches? Does a computer fear death?  Does it like kittens?  Does a computer  have any emotions or need them? And conversely, is human thought in any way separable from emotion? (Last one has an easy answer:  Nope. ) That’s just a short list. For more reading, start here: Your Brain is not a Computer and vice-versa.) The real deal here is that people like Kurzweil and Peter Thiel fear death and are in the midst of creating their own techno-religion in which really smart rich guys can buy eternal life while they meanwhile tinker with how to construct AI systems that would not so much replace us as render us redundant.

The Humanities Don’t Matter

Speaking of A.I., when the robots take all our jobs, the only thing left for humans will be the humanities. And appreciating beauty and food and sex and looking at the stars and telling stories and painting. Oh, wait, that all is or is tied into the humanities. Poetry, anyone?

Tech will save us

It is necessary but not sufficient. Tech has changed many industries, but the fundamental social arrangments are still the same, and its the social agreements, like money, how it is made and who controls it that are the real deal.  Even with 24-7 online connectivity, the United States is still a capitalistic, commerce-driven representative democracy that provides most of the electricity keeping the internet real by burning fossil fuel, with all the externalities that comes with, like climate change and ocean acidification.  We are all connected all the time, but look at something like food:  even with drone delivery of food boxes, you’d still be dealing with a largely centralized  industrialized agricultural system with farmers or corporate farms shipping product to markets largely through middlemen, while  all those personalized, home-centered high-tech hydroponic wallgardens are pretty much what my old Italian neighbors used to have in their backyard (but used les energy to grow the stuff in the garden, which was in the ground, soaking up free solar energy from above, no constant water pumping needed).  Also notice how any technology with the power to transform and redeem also has the power to destroy. So you could say it’s all about politics and activism, supplemented by tech, kids.

A supplemental vestigial idea is that all these transformative technologies are totally powerful and totally safe, simultaneously. For an amusing example of this, consult any interview in which Craig Ventner, he of human genome fame, talks about Frankenstein and by doing so shows that he has never read the book,  while he explains  how his bacteria will save the world by creating diesel fuel that recycles carbon out of the atmosphere.  Of course it is not actually getting rid of any carbon, and it’s not doing anything about the energy inefficiency of having most of us in 1-2 ton vehicles that waste most of the energy that drives them, but at least it feels like some smart guy is going to save us.  To which I add one more thing:  Whole lotta water needed for that project, Craig.  Whole. Lotta. Water. And land.


That college is unnecessary for smart kids

Seriously?  It is totally fascinating to me to see all these Silicon-Libertarians who went to elite schools trashing college.  Take Peter Thiel and his foundation and fellowship.   Thiel has two Stanford degrees but advocates against college for smart kids and to promote  his idea has created his own little tech incubator on the cheap via his foundation.  Yes, that is what it looks like to me.  Gather the smartest kids you can interested enough to apply and go through the process, get them to present an idea they want to develop, and then give a small number of them money and support.  That’s a tech incubator, right?  Or is it the Ivy League?

And of course any tech incubator will have some slice of the pie that is baked in it.   That Thiel foundation does not look so altruistic anymore, does it? As a comparison with the Ivy League, the admit rate for the Thiel Foundation’s first Thiel Fellowship class was 6%.  Not a good admit rate, a bit better than  Harvard and Princeton, but not by much.  Of course,  the kids who got in get 100 grand and access to all kinds of Silicon Valley mentoring and venture capital, but so far they do stuff like make caffeine spray and marginal apps.  It’s probably a good experience for these kids, but it’s a totally skewed take on not going to college–how many people does Thiel want to hand 110k and mentoring to?  How many can shape a life without formal training?

If you want an unbiased and one-stop place to see if college is worth it in the terms most people [Especially those aging hipsters who all went to elite colleges hanging out with young hackers whom they tell not to go to college—Hmm, I really need a word for old parasites feeding on idealistic young tech kids–Tech vampires?  Sugar mommas and daddies?  Somebody help me out here]. Have a look here for more: College and Income from People You Can Trust [The Pew Center].

So that’s a few ideas, and the kind of thinking that you need to show in a U Chi essay.  Your mantra:  Don’t follow the herd.

And here’s my final tip: make your own list then start clicking to find ideas for you to build a case in your essay for U Chicago.

All the best until my next post on, um,  I’ll get back to you on that. OR get in touch and let me know what you need a post on—I follow the wisdom of the crowd for some new topics. Vote early and vote often . . .at

Also contact me for editing assistance. ASAP actually, as sometime before Thanksgiving my calendar will likely be booked through January 1 (though the occasional spot will open up even then when a client misses a deadline).



University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 4: A Lesson in Invention and Homonymic Non-Sequiturs

This post ranges far and wide as it covers prompt 4 for the University of Chicago for this year.  Warning:  this is one of my few remaining “freebie” posts for this year.  Other posts will be available completely only on my private website, which is open to subscribers and college advising or application essay editing clients.

Essay Option 4.   “…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern   Present: pres·ent   1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.   Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.   Inspired by Jennifer Qin, admitted student Class of 2016.

This prompt, like the other U of Chicago prompts, opens up a vast space for invention and creativity by asking you  to respond to  what I will call a homonymic non-sequitur.  But even with a quote prompt that repurposes its source material, like this one, it is still a good idea to look at the source of the quote.  In this case you are more interested in understanding the weltanschauung of this prompt and in seeking inspiration than you are in getting some obscure information to use in the essay. You are, after all, going to be writing a work of fiction here.

The source of the quote in this prompt, The Rose Rabbi, is a near-future or alternate history novel, depending on how you look at it.  So we will begin with a quick look at The Rose Rabbi, then discuss other topics that are worth exploring before writing to this prompt, including  a thematic discussion  in which I reference lyrics by The Talking Heads.  This will be followed by   a quick assessment of the homonym and its origins in the history of the English language   and, for the first time this year, I will conclude this post by dashing off an example essay responding to this prompt.

I generally don’t use example essays for specific prompts because this tends to funnel people toward a particular response, but since I will be inventing a history for that great gift to civilization called espresso, I don’t think there is a danger that I will be coopting somebody else’s idea or, on the other hand, steering too many people toward my topic.  Especially since I will be claiming that espresso was developed as an adjunct experiment during the Manhattan Project.

The Source of the Prompt:  The Rose Rabbi and Its Theme

The Rose Rabbi is about a gent named Wolf Walker who tries to understand how he has arrived where he is in his life.  This after being tasked with discerning whether one the clients of his advertising agency is the mafia.  The novel is set in a New York and in a world which are both like and very much unlike ours, with political chaos widespread and the “Chateau Wars” engulfing Europe.  Employed in the world of  the huckster, of those who try to shape the reality of others, Wolf grapples with the great philosophical questions as he reaches his 40th birthday and tries to make sense of his life and place in the world.   The Talking Heads aptly summed up the existential situation captured in this novel in the song Once in a Lifetime:

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

So that’s Wolf’s problem.

Your problem in writing about this prompt is a little more Shakespearean, though I think your essay should be informed by the spirit of Once in a Lifetime.  What I mean by my reference to Shakespeare  (and those of you who come to English after learning another language are more sharply aware of this than are most native speakers)  is the fungibility of English vocabularity, the source of our rich tradition in puns and of this essay prompt.

The Prompt:  Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results

Ms. Quin, the author of our prompt, presents a literary non sequitur, conflating one definition of the word present with another.  She is, of course, also working with a pair of homonyms to define her prompt, and I emphasize that, in choosing a definition and therefore a word that the original sentence did not intend, she is using a non sequitur that emphasizes this prompt’s attitude as well as establishing parameters for the topic.  To put it more concisely, she’s inviting you to play:  Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.

Her homonymic invitation is deeply related to the nature of English.  We English speakers are citizens of a mongrel linguistic world, for English is a pastiche of languages, Germanic at its root, an offspring of Norse cousins, reshaped by French, injected with Latin and Greek and borrowing from most major languages in the world.  Even something as seemingly All-American as a cowboy riding up to a bunkhouse and asking, “Who’s the head honcho around here,” shows the mixed nature of English.  Honcho comes into English  from Japanese, and appears in English for the first time in the years after World War II, as a slang term interchangeable with “boss” .  In Japanese it means “Master Sergeant,” and it became the term G.I.s used during the occupation of Japan when they wanted to find out who was in charge (noncommissioned officers are always in charge–ask any officer).  The very history of this language is nearly as strange and convoluted as any imaginary history you could write.

As a result, we have a language composed of many languages, with words  from completely different sources sharing the same space. Many of these words,   jostling elbows as they find a place in the language, come to sound and look like existing words.  Thus you have a rich supply of homonyms both native and imported.  In this prompt,  present, that point in time between past and future, and present, a gift.  Think about this phenomenon  as both a philosophical matter and as a source of material.  In this way, the language itself is a gift to all of us.  In fact, word etymologies are a great place to start considering where anything comes from, even if you are going to make up a history for the object or metaphor in question.

If  this topic intrigues you but you are having trouble getting traction, I would suggest that you  start by having a look at both the word gift and the word present.  Try a good dictionary, like The American Heritage Dictionary or a good dictionary app, like the free Merriam Webster app through the App Store.  Be sure to consider the etymologies of these words and to check out the synonyms and usage discussions.

Next, think of gifts broadly, listing objects that were gifts to you or discovered by you in one way or another,  and then move on to substances, ideas, places, traits, and accidents or coincidences that you could now see as gifts.  Eventually you will find a suitable “present” for which you can invent a history. Need I say that a gift may have been given intentionally or simply stumbled upon?  A trait received from a parent or an answer to a question?    A work of art (a poster facsimile counts here) or a bridge over troubled water?  (Note that the latter is a metaphor, per the prompt.)

Start  brainstorming.  Don’t forget:  you are inventing a history, so if you know the real history of the “present,” you need to make up some sort of alternate history that may include some facts but which should, to some degree, be your invention.  Feel free to use your own non sequiturs.

And now I will, in keeping with the spirit of the prompt, and name dropping the U of Chicago in a wink-wink kind of way,  fabricate a history for one of the great “presents” offered us by modern culture:  espresso.  Look below the essay for links and explanations that show how I mix fact with fiction in my “Secret History of Espresso:”

Espresso: Ah, the nectar of the gods, the elixir of invention, the quintessence of the coffee bean.  Espresso is perhaps the greatest gift bequeathed to us by the marriage of nature and technology,  and it is itself the father of more inventions than can be counted.  How many late-night cram sessions, how many tech start ups, how many moments of artistic insight can be attributed to its influence?  How many millions stand in line each morning, awaiting its benediction?  Yet its true history is almost unknown.  In fact, dare I say, I alone possess the true secret of the origin of espresso.  And now I am, for the first time, going to share this tale with the world.

It all began in the dark days of World War II.  Scientists assigned to the Manhattan project needed a version of coffee in keeping with their theoretical work related to  the relativistic universe, and not wanting to master the engineering challenge presented by creating sub-atomic-sized  cups of coffee, they settled for the demitasse holding an essence of coffee distilled at high speed and drunk slowly.  They used a prototype nuclear reactor to heat the water and high pressure pumps to force the atomic water through a fine grind of coffee.  All well and good.  But then, after an experiment with time travel via wormholes went wrong, espresso was introduced into turn-of-the-century Italy.  

This occurred when a scientist named Luigi Bezzera, having just distilled a fresh cup of espresso from the experimental, reactor-driven espresso machine which was located in the lab under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, trotted directly into a wormhole time-travel experiment being conducted by Enrico Fermi.  Bezzera found himself suddenly transported to his grandfather’s village in Italy in the year 1899, still holding the freshly made espresso.  The villagers, attracted by the enticing  odor of the pungent extract of the coffee bean wanted to know, “How did you make that?”  Lacking a nuclear reactor but able to utilize the mechanical and metallurgical talents of the extended Bezzera  family to whom he was thus awkwardly introduced, Luigi perfected the first espresso machine in 1901.

It was as a result of this that espresso  is widely but incorrectly thought to have been invented  early in the 20th Century, in Italy, where it changed history by providing energy and inspiration to generations of espresso-drinking philosophers and rebels, and also established the paradox called the Doppio effect, a little-known corollary of both the Grandfather Paradox of time travel and the Twins Paradox of relativity.  This was illustrated when Luigi visited the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904, with a portable example of his new espresso machine and, demonstrating it to a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, provided the inspiration for Einstein’s insight into the relativity of time by producing a beverage distilled from coffee beans at near-light speed.  The rest is scientific history. 

This is, of course, also an example of the Mobius-strip pattern of history as it is Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity that led  to the moment under the bleachers when Luigi wandered, espresso in hand, into a gap in the space-time continuum, which then led to the transplantation of espresso technology to an earlier time and Italian place which led to . . . me having the gift of espresso-fueled inspiration for this little history, as I plot my own journey through the space-time continuum,  from high school to  the University of Chicago, where espresso was really invented.  

Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:

On wormholes, time travel and what Al Einstein has to do with it:

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago (I presume that Enrico did drink espresso, but would have picked this habit up in his native Italy where it actually was invented.  No pets were hurt in my little experiment in fictional history and many of my basic facts were true)

Fermi at U of Chicago

For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:

Einstein in Bern

Last but not least, I offer my apologies to the great Luigi Bezzera, who actually did invent the first espresso machine, though he was not transported half a century back through time to do so . . . I add that the modern pump expresso machine  can be traced to the Faema machines from the 1960’S. Here’s an espresso timeline

Espresso Past and Present

And if you happen to by touring San Francisco, you can check out a couple of early-20th Century tower espresso machines still in operation at Tosca Cafe, then go around the corner to Trieste for a modern espresso in a classic environment, or across the street to Cafe Puccini or visit Roma (Warning:  Tosca uses boozy additives to most of their “espresso” drinks.


And finally, note that this blog post, including my example essay, is copyrighted material, available for use by individuals but not to be shared or used commercially without my express, written permission.  (Need I add how dumb it would be to copy my essay and present it as your own work?  Also note that this essay is 587 words long and so would need to lose about a paragraph of material to fit the 500 word limits imposed by the authorities. If this were your essay, and you asked me to edit it, I’d eighty-six the last paragraph.)

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 3: The Dark Lady

This post will discuss Ms. Sontag and her quote at great length, but I will also focus on the broader problems of responding to quote prompts, particularly the context issues that quotes raise.

The Lady and the Prompt

Here she is,  in Essay Option 3:   Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.   Anonymous submission.

Part 1:  Watch Your Context

With a U Chicago essay, pretty much anything (that works) goes, but  I always like my clients to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues that might be traveling with it when they  write a response to the prompt.  Yes, your essays could follow the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt as you slap together thoughts, letting each pararaph set up an unexpected leap to the next.   But of course, most good essays that have that  sense of freedom and experimentation been also been carefully written and revised.  

But still, if you can’t have fun writing for U Chicago, you may not have any fun at all while writing college essays.  So try out that wild,  ad hoc and inventive essay.   However, before you submit, think about  trying  a contrasting option so you have a couple of very different essays to consider.  And maybe do some planning and even some research for option two.   That means stepping back to look more at the quote and its context.   Consider, for example, how you could respond to this long-time Sontag prompt with an original idea, and how you could relate your essay to the quote.   

But how do you know if it’s original?  And how do you know what to make of the quote?

One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is.  Even if you have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it, and here you are, introducing it into the world for the first time.  Like  Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with a great and revolutionary idea that nobody else had, so he sent a description of his idea, and his findings about it,  to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here. 

Returning to 21st Century America:  because literally thousands of people will be responding to this prompt, you can expect that a seemingly original idea may have a twin or even an extended family out there.  Alfred Wallace was still a brilliant and original thinker, even if you didn’t recognize his name.  His application file would definitely be stamped “admit.”

So my advice is paradoxical:  Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.  The key is the way in which the essay expresses your world view more than it is to discover some secret sauce never yet seen in the recipe for a UChicago essay.  You are the secret that the essay reveals, whether through your clever tropes and skilled writing, or through your original thought or the passion that you show, a passion which might change the world for the better.

There are some basic mistakes you will then avoid. As an example, you don’t want to invert or reverse a quote’s intent and meaning unless you know you are doing it and have a reason for the reversal.     It’s pretty easy to take a quote out of its context and get it badly wrong.  Even though our app readers will understand that you are reacting to the quote from your own particular place and time, they will also not be able to help cringing if you  get it totally wrong and seem blissfully unaware of it.

This is a pretty common problem, and not just in application essays.  For an example, just look at what Justice Antonin Scalia did to poor Robert Frost–In support of a ruling about separation of powers, Justice Scalia quoted Robert Frost thus:

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

Scalia was considered a giant of conservative legal thought, but if you know the poem “Mending Wall” well, you also know that he is misreading the poem–inverting it, in fact..  This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spent all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say, but he’s had a lot of company as this quote has also been used to support fencing the U.S. border.  You can argue that, but you should not do so by quoting from a poem that equates walls with darkness and savagery.

To be more specific,  Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in that poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman.     The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence (the neighbor carries stones in each hand, like some cavemen returning with skulls) .  Read it and see, here.    And as for being true to yourself, great idea, but that quote above is from  Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius in Hamlet.  He’s speaking it to his son Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword.  Using this line as a positive aphorism to assert your own, or somebody else’s right to carry on as they wish is a good example of philistinism.    (Bonus activity:  Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)

The point is this:  You should assume that your app readers are  literate in the older sense of the word, in the sense of having read widely and deeply, and that they know something about the quotes you respond to.   So before writing in response to the Sontag prompt, I would suggest knowing something about her and about the specific source of this prompt.  Try looking at the links I annotate below; after the links, and hopefully after you have taken some time to read them, I will turn to some of the many ways you might interpret this quote without mangling it.

To begin with, the quote is from one of Sontag’s essays called  “Aesthetics of Silence” which was published in her collection “Styles of Radical Will,”  a work available on Google Books here:The Aesthetics of Silence  You should read the whole essay, but she cuts to the chase in Part 2 of the essay, beginning on page 5, where she details retreats into silence.

Next, you should have  a look at this link, at what I suspect is the efficient cause of this prompt–the Sontag essay is on this U of Chicago Media Studies page devoted to . . . silence:

This includes a rich discussion of exactly what the prompt asks for.

Then it might be wise to learn a bit more about the author,  Unfortunately, one of the best places to get a quick overview of her biography, work and  influence is in an obituary, as she died in 2004.  Try this obit on Sontag in The Guardian:

If you want to keep reading about her and want to check out more of her work, the New York Review of Books has this page with links to her writings and writings about her:

And finally, one of her best essays, called Looking at War, in which she analyzes “Photography’s view of devastation and death” was published in the  New Yorker in 2002.  This essay is particularly interesting as she talks about how the viewer of a photograph forms the meaning of a photograph. You, of course, are going to take a quote and make meaning out of it.  We’ve got what you might call an epistemological parallel going.

The text of the article is not behind the New Yorker’s paywall but, sadly, the incredible photographs published with the article are not included here–due to some copyright issues, I’m sure.  These are all shocking photos; in one example, a militiaman in a neatly pressed uniform,  with his sunglasses pushed back on his head, his  Kalashnikov dangling from one hand and his cigarette daintily raised in the other, is swinging a boot to kick  the head of a woman lying face down on the pavement.  The woman appears to be dead or dying.  Sontag had a commitment to seeing and writing about what she saw, whether it was horrifying or beautiful.  You can read the article here Looking at War(Late Addendum–I have, since writing this post, found the article posted as a pdf, with the photos, at the following link; the image quality is a bit compromised, but worth a look; copy and paste this address into a new window in your browser: )

Part 2:  Some Approaches to the Quote

Approach 1

Whoa, heavy and serious, you may be thinking.  Well, yes, Ms. Sontag was very serious about her work, and the quote does present a serious argument for the value and meaning of silence.  Specifically, as you know having read The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag was looking at artists who renounced their work or retreated into silence, and to other ways that silence can be both a haven and a statement.  This makes sense for a writer who focused with some regularity on the grotesqueries and philistinism to be found in our consumer culture.  She’s after an aesthetic for the artist and thinker, and her tone was often critical, detached, and paradoxical–note how she asserts in this same essay that   “Art becomes the enemy of the artist.”

So you might be constructing an essay that follows the lead of Sontag.  If you are, you need to know something about paradox.  (If you’ve looked at my posts on the other U of Chicago prompts, it’s deja vu all over again.) You might want to write about a time you used silence constructively, or as a shelter, or as a renunciation or as an assertion of the self,  in an act of authentic resistance to shallow blabber.  You could build on what you’ve learned about Sontag and the source essay directly.

Approach 2

On the other hand, the two most important requirements of the prompt are that the experience be personal and that silence play a role in your response and in the outcome.  You could go in a completely different direction.  For example, silence is often assent. This can be a good  thing  or a bad thing.  This can be an intentional affirmation through silence or  it can be acquiescence.

You might follow the example in another famous quote, that of Martin Niemoller, speaking of the response to the Nazis in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Here we have acquiescence, silence as an act, out of fear.  All of us have been silent out of fear or apprehension at some point, so this could be fertile ground for an essay.  Perhaps you silence was unwise or made you complicit in something wrong–handle this with care–perhaps your fear was well-grounded and your silence wise.

On the other hand, somebody in a meeting in which Roberts Rules of Order are being followed is offering positive affirmation  by remaining silent when the chairperson asks if there are any nays, and the person does not speak.

Or maybe you have been in a setting in which silence was a rule, intended to create a meditative or contemplative environment, or to foster nonverbal communication.  Taoist and Buddhist cultures have places reserved for silence . . .

Or maybe you spend time out in nature, observing, where you have discovered the virtues of silence, what silence allows you to see or what silence brings to you (is this also true in some social settings?  That those who constantly talk cannot see, blinded as they are by themselves?)

And what about that John Cage composition 4’33”, composed of . . . silence . . . or the sound that fills the hall when the instrument is silent . . .

Have fun with the process and look for a post on prompt four for U of Chicago soon.  And remember what Hamlet said:  The rest is silence.

What a closer!

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two: You Wanna Schroedinger’s Cat? I Got A Schroedinger’s Cat.

If the title of this post on Chicago’s application essay, prompt two, seems obscure, let’s first take a look at the prompt itself:

Essay Option 2.

Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).

Inspired by Doran Bennett, BS’07 Chemistry and Mathematics.

While the prompt allows and even suggests that you write about fields outside of physics, it is still helpful to know a bit more about the background to this prompt.   This might help you better identify an analogue, and if not, at least you have a better idea of what Heisenberg was talking about. In this post, I’ll give you the scientific context to the prompt, with both Hiesenberg’s idea and Schroedinger’s response, with links that offer detailed explanations that are easy to comprehend (with a little effort).  I will also discuss the genre of this prompt and errors that this prompt may lead you into, with an example.    I’ll end with some humor.

Background and Context of the Prompt:  Physics

Let’s unpack this prompt a little more and give it some context, as we did with the first U of C prompt.  The concept outlined in this prompt is usually called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  You can find a good explanation of it on a number of websites.   This page on PBS gives a brief summary of the problem and Heisenberg’s proposition:  Heisenberg on PBS.  This next site also offers a quick and clear explanation, but offers much more detail about the mechanics of the idea; those of you with a mathematical aptitude will appreciate the annotated explanations of the math associated with the observations.  Go here to have a look:  hyperphysics.

Another good place to look is on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here.  In addition to concluding that you cannot know an electron’s position and momentum, Heisenberg also proposed that the path of an object comes into existence when we observe it.  Think about that, for awhile, and you may come up with a number of analogous ideas to write about.  For more on this and on quantum physics, along with some biographical dirt, go here: Quantum Mechanics 1925-1927.

As for Schroedinger’s Cat.,  Schroedinger, in response to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, proposed a thought experiment to illustrate the problem uncertainty raised.  Let’s just say that Schroedinger was not thrilled with uncertainty, and then . . .This post continues with a link to Mr. Schroedinger’s cat, then examines the genre of this prompt, after which it explores some problems you should consider before addressing this prompt.  If you like this post so far, you can access it as well as other protected or sample information on this blog by choosing one of the two options I explain below.  Future posts also fully available only to subscribers or clients will include analyses of prompts from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elite universities. 

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The University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2012-2013

The University of Chicago has posted its questions for this year.  They are earlier in getting out their prompts than many of their competitors, which is only fair–they will, as usual, have some of the most challenging questions out there, as well as some of the most entertaining, so you will want to give this essay some extra thought.  I will look at the prompts one at a time,  beginning in a moment.  Before I do, may I suggest that you get into the spirit of the prompts by investigating the U of C scavenger hunt.  It’s always a good idea to have some idea of your audience’s perspective, something I have discussed before in a number of posts.

You can start here, with the site for the scavenger hunt:  Lore.   The hunt represents the University of Chicago’s world view, taken to an extreme, so it is worth knowing about.  You will get a broader look at the atmosphere and outlook of the university in a recent article  published in the New Yorker: U of C Scavenger Hunt.  Like my website, the  New Yorker has a paywall on some content; if you or your parents have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the full article; if not,  you can pay for access to it.    This article does give you some history and insight into Chicago’s essay prompts and school tradition as well as the scavenger hunt itself–I’d say it is worth the fee to learn more about the school.

Continuing to the prompts, I will deal with them one at a time, with suggestions, ideas and background on prompt 1 in this post, and the others to follow in subsequent posts.

2012-13 essay questions:

Essay Option 1.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.

Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).

Inspired by Martin Krzywy, admitted student Class of 2016.

Let me say first that you could write a satirical or otherwise humorous response to this prompt.  I want to start by making that point clear because the background to this prompt, which I will discuss below, is not so funny.

This prompt also has some overlap with those for other essays, such as Prompt 4 of the Common App, which asks you to discuss the influence of a character from fiction or a historical figure.  If you strongly identify with a character in a book or in history, hey, their enemy might be your enemy. Imagine yourself entering an elevator to find some literary or historical baddie on board.   So if you are all geeked out over a particular set of characters from books or if you are a history buff, feel free to insert yourself creatively into their story.  Do try to make it relevant to “real life” or show what this opposition means in your life and says about you.

Before you do, however, you might want to take apart the prompt a bit more.   First I offer a little detour into the taxonomy of this quote–it’s probably better to call it an apothegm than an aphorism–go here for the distinction.

Though this prompt seems aimed at generating responses both creative and humorous,  the relationship this prompt has to Wilde’s demise is anything but humorous.  It’s worth looking at Wilde himself while you are trolling the depths of your mind for an idea for your essay.  Wilde’s enemies were multitude, as it turns out, from the power structures of his time, political, legal and social to . . . his own lover.  He is a good example of of a person who did not take his own advice.

As England’s leading wit and one of its great writers, Wilde lived flamboyantly in London and elsewhere, and made a very bad enemy in the form of the father of one of his lovers.  When Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas came to light, Douglas’ father, the Marqess of Queensbury, was enraged.  Though the Marqess instituted the Queensbury rules of boxing, making it a “civilized” sport, his own conduct was anything but civilized  (he was considered something of  a brute in his own time, which is saying a lot, given his noble status).  Queensbury threatened Wilde with physical violence both through proxies and in person, and when this and other means, including cutting off Lord Douglas from funds and any other support failed, he attempted to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s  play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though  Wilde had used the police to keep the raging lord out of the opening of Earnest,  he did not foresee the potential for revenge that he handed Queensbury when he told his solicitor (that’s lawyer, to you Yanks)  that Queensbury’s charges were lies.  Queensbury himself was, as a result, arrested on libel charges.  But Wilde’s verbal pyrotechnics in the trials that followed were not going to allow him to evade the obvious fact that he had himself lied in denying the nature of his relationships with other men. Today the  odious Marquess would have been the one found guilty and punished, but this was the late 19th Century; Wilde did not account for the legal system he faced when he tried to use it against his enemy.  A gay man turning to British law at this time for respite from  an enemy like Queensbury should have understood that the law, too, was his enemy.  But the cruelest betrayal for Wilde would be that of Lord Douglas himself.

Rather than defeating the brutal Marquess, Wilde himself was eventually arrested, and in the end, convicted and imprisoned for “Gross Indecency” under sodomy laws.  His trial is also generally seen as marking a turn to much harsher attitudes toward homosexuals in Britain, attitudes that would reach a peak of nastiness during World War I.

If you wish to explore the Wilde angle of this prompt and the potentials it raises further, Barbara Tuchman puts Wilde in the context of prewar Britain in her great work of popular history The Proud Tower.  For more immediate information on Wilde’s trials, try this link: Famous World Trials. If you are a Wilde fan and want to really get into this, try Ellman’s biography:  Oscar Wilde.  Wilde himself created a great artistic response to the injustice done him by writing the poem Ballad of Reading Gaol; use the link for some background and  to access the poem itself through the Guardian website.

Wilde’s life represents a serious side to this prompt, but whether you lean toward humor or toward being earnest, you might want to begin by simply making lists of things you oppose.  Don’t prioritize, don’t establish a heirarchy, just do it–from pet peeves like the missing sock to existential threats like nuclear destruction, you have a large and every growing category of problems, threats and villains to choose from. If you’ve written or thought about writing the Problem/Concern essay for the Common App, you may be able to turn there for inspiration–you aren’t writing the same essay, of course, but you may be recycling the same idea.

You can then easily split your list of That Which You Oppose into either serious or lightweight and humorous topics.  In either case, consider how to make the essay about you as well as about the topic–how do you fit in to the picture; what is your relationship to the topic?  I have written before about the nature of the college app essay, which is often about an “external topic,” but which is always, nevertheless, about you, the writer.  Keep this in mind.

If you have selected a problem that is serious, these can be represented by individuals whom you feel are responsible, but only if you can easily show it’s a clear-cut case of malfeasance–you have hundreds of words available in this essay, not thousands. In general  I  suggest that, if you are going to write about an issue, you focus on the issue rather than a person–ad hominem attacks are generally better in politics than in application essays.

As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, both serious and humorous.  We have all kinds of serious examples from various banks in well-deserved trouble to despicable political leaders who kill or incarcarate their own people.  Be sure you know what you are talking about, however, and avoid cliched discussions with trite solutions for dealing with your “enemy.”

As for humor, the range of topics is also wide open, and I think that you could include inanimate objects and phenomenon beyond human control.  You could also include notable individuals, if you choose with care and handle it with wit, such as a certain New York City developer with bad hair . . .or you could use the late and great Pogo as an inspiration–“We have met the enemy and he is us”–to  examine  some personal or social foible.  For my part, on Monday morning, my sock drawer is my enemy . . .

Spend some time brainstorming and riffing off of the basic idea this prompt presents to come up with any  antagonist you wish.  You know you have an enemy somewhere . . .

I’ll return to more of the University of Chicago’s prompts in the next day or two.  Come on back soon but be aware that some of this will be behind my paywall.