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Back To The University Of Chicago Application Essays: What They Aren’t Telling Us About History (And What We Aren’t Noticing)

In Don DeLillo, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago History Prompt, What They Aren't Telling Us on November 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm

This post is on last year’s University of Chicago prompts.  If you want to write an essay about history for a college app that would allow a response on this basic topic, go ahead and read the post below.  If not, this post is  totally history . . . but for this year’s University of Chicago prompts, you can go here:

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2014-2015

These new posts are history in the making, which is where you should be. 

 

Overview of this Post:  I will address the history prompt of the University of Chicago in this post and describe three basic approaches to the prompt, supplemented by a miscellany of ideas and inspirations, supported by numerous informative and inspirational links that range from the old Cointelpro program to  NSA spying and Edward Snowden to social network “privacy policies” and Jaron Lanier and on to Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher who wrote the book On B********.  Not to mention Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, and different ways the Holocaust is interpreted, also with links.   I conclude with a very strong movie recommendation for a film that examines what it means to live in a state ruled by secrecy–the film alone makes reading to the bottom of the post worth it.  The post is broken up into rough subtopics, but within some subtopics on how to approach the prompt, you will find multiple ideas.  And while you read, keep in mind what George Orwell wrote in 1984: He who controls the past controls the future.  He who controls the present controls the past.  Have at it:

I know, I know, it’s a long title for a little four thousand or so word blog post, but we must give the Windy City, the City of the Big Shoulders, Chi-Town, The Chill,  The City on the Lake and the City on the Make its due.   All of these phrases are or have been used for the City of Chicago, some of them still in use, some of them artifacts of history.  Which makes this an apropos intro to a blog post on the University of Chicago’s essay prompt about history, the latest in what is by far the greatest series of college essay prompts.

The Beginning of History

So let’s start with  a word about history.  It’s worth thinking about what history is before you write about it.  We begin, dear readers, with the fact that the man called The Father of History has also been called The Father of Lies.  His name was Herodotus, and he wrote a long book relating his inquiry–the Greek word for inquiry is historia–into the origins and conduct of the Persian Wars. It’s pretty much the decline and fall of the Persian empire.   He was born in what we now call Turkey, but the area in which he was raised was Greek culturally, and he viewed himself as Greek–which brings up the first thing about histories.  What’s in them depends on who writes them.  Given the times, Herodotus was pretty fair in his presentation, but one wonders what the Persian Wars would be called by a Persian.

Herodotus discusses in great detail the cultures and leaders involved, with granular detail on specific battles–that movie The 300  was, uh,  taken from Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae (I should say, taken from Herodotus, run through a Chippendale’s transmogrification machine and subjected to  historical revision injections until, voilà! 300 iron-pumping Trojans fighting in pull-up diapers, without the benefit of armor.  Thus we have what movies tell us about history–or really, about what sells tickets.  Not a bad topic idea, if I may say so.)

While Herodotus tried to be factual and would only use material he himself had learned directly from a source, this often included quite a bit of, ah, somewhat inflated and apocryphal if not downright fanciful information–such as his accounts of griffins, dragons and his introduction of the phoenix to the western world. (Search the page for “phoenix” to find Herodotus’ account.)  Like all of us, his ability to examine the underpinnings of knowledge and opinion in his epoch were limited, and he gave us his best version of the facts as he knew them.  Which is pretty much what any history does, but even the best have flaws.  So as I said, Herodotus the Father of History is a pretty good place to start with a prompt about history.  And before we dive deeper,  here is Chicago’s history prompt:

ESSAY OPTION 3.

“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

Returning to Herodotus for  a moment, and to why this man the Greeks called  The Father of History was also called The Father of Lies: later scholars took umbrage at his methodology, and condemned him because he took so many apocryphal stories at face value and included them in his book.  Like that Phoenix thing.  (One also wonders  if Xerxes really had his men whip the ocean at the Hellespont to punish it for wrecking his pontoon bridge.)  To be fair to Herodotus, living as he did on the edge of the Greek world and rubbing shoulders literally with people the Greeks considered barbarians, he was amazingly open-minded for his time and place.  And he did call it an inquiry, an historia, which does connote an open-ended exploration, which is what he literally did by traveling as he conducted his inquiry, seeing at first hand many places he wrote about. Imagine someone in the ancient world, traveling by foot, boat and animal, trying to run down the original source of every tale, or to double-check the veracity of every source in a work as large as Herodotus’ Histories, especially without tools like real libraries, much less the internet.  Not gonna happen.  Herodotus shows us that, in its origins, history is, indeed, a  kind of storytelling, shaped by the tools and knowledge available in his time as well as by his outlook–his personality.  So in the shaping of history, one place to look for a “they” and to examine what they aren’t telling us is to look at the writers of history and their circumstances–and there are many who write history who aren’t in fact  historians.  In our time, pundits seem to have replaced reporters, in a way that changes the ongoing narrative of recent events, substituting beliefs no more real than is the Phoenix while the history of the moment is recorded.

History as a Shifting Narrative

That would be my first way to look at the question, by looking at all histories as stories, and what is not told is a result of the outlook of the time and of its  limitations.  Each era is marked by limitations in the knowledge available, and also by limitations in what people seem able to see, by what information is accepted as relevant–behind the stories we know are many more stories untold, and what stories are told, and what they mean, changes with each era.   So what is “truth,” what becomes our  history, is a result of not just the incidents in time, but the perspective and tools of that place in time,  influenced as well by the individual personalities doing the research and writing. The “they” in the prompt can be historians, can be reporters, or pundits or even powerful interests setting up think tanks to shape public opinion, but “they” is also the culture at large, what we as a group are willing to hear and ready to understand.  There are pivotal people who do shape perception, who push it one way or another, by being in a certain place at a certain time, or by finding a new cache of overlooked, lost or secret material, or by simply putting all the pieces together.  Hannah Arendt, for example, famed for her phrase “the banality of evil,  or more recently, Daniel Goldhagen, who dismissed Arendt’s argument.

Speaking of which, one interesting example of how history is a changing narrative is what is usually called the Holocaust.  In the period after the war, multiple narratives developed about the holocaust–that it was an act of unspeakable evil committed by inhuman monsters;  that the average soldier didn’t participate in the machinery of genocide directly, and that the average German also did not–though they did turn a blind eye; that it was a mixture of conformity, fear and antisemitism that, step by step but without a clear overall plan, eventually led to the Final Solution.  But late in the century, continuing into the early part of this century, that narrative has shifted–with books like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which detailed a very high level of knowledge and mass participation in the events of the Holocaust.  Daniel Goldhagen, the author, effectively indicts German culture at large, which is quite a change from many of the  earlier historical readings, which tended to see it as  caused by  a relatively small number of leaders who created the Final Solution piecemeal, over time, and who used a larger group of fanatics from the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo,  leaving the rest of the Germans as either ignorant, afraid or “just following orders.”  So what is being told–and what is being left out–also changes over time.  Goldhagen’ s swing to a broad assignation of guilt  to non-Jewish Germans as a whole, is highly controversial, but I think that just reinforces my point about history as a changing narrative–for more on that controversy, see this:  Willing Executioners?  Be advised that I have merely provided a couple of examples of different readings of this history–scholars have found over forty different frames for Holocaust studies, as shown here:  A Survey of Interpretive Paradigms.

Don Delillo and Us:  The Sum Total of Being Watched

We are a lot like Herodotus, who recorded so much apocryphal information from supposed witnesses, but instead of receiving our information via interviews that we may not be able to corroborate, we rely on media, and more and more for your generation, dear reader, not so much internet research as information spread through social media. I add here that I am fascinated by the degree of gullibility and cynicism that internet “knowledge” develops, but that would take an entire series of posts to address, so I’ll just move on now to  a consideration of Don Delillo and his context.   Since he’s the source of the quote, he is definitely worth knowing about.

The quote used in this prompt is from DeLillo’s novel Libra, (about the Kennedy assassination, in this anniversary year of the Event in Dallas, but it’s only a coincidence . . . or maybe not ) but Delillo’s breakout novel is entitled White Noise; it is about a professor at a small university, head of the Department of Hitler Studies (!), a field of his invention–but also an obvious parallel/parody of Holocaust studies–and the good professor’s  observations of the effects of a mysterious Airborne Toxic Event, especially on himself and his wife and family.  Fear of death is a major subject, as is the use of pharmaceuticals to deal with what ails us, including our fear of death.  I love that part, especially given when the book was written years before the idea of mood enhancing drugs became mainstream.   In a 1988 review in the New York Review of BooksRobert Powers memorably called him “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.”

I love that.   Delillo, a man of his Cold War generation, does see conspiracies,  if not everywhere, then as pretty frequent features in our social and cultural geography. Dialing the time machine back to Delillo’s salad days, Nixon was definitely not telling us for months that he was bombing the sovereign country of Cambodia as part of his Vietnam strategy; the CIA did not tell us they were spying on Americans in the 1970’s especially antiwar activists and others exercising the 1st amendment rights; the FBI didn’t tell civil rights leaders that their phones were tapped. But the rumors circulated, and the truth finally did out.  Or what we now about now came out . . . .Who knows what we don’t know?  For more on this era, start here: Cointelpro.

So Delillo has good reason to view history as being untold, as shaped by conspiracies.  And after the black sites of the CIA and “rendition” programs were revealed back in the “oughts”, it became clear that the same hidden machinery working away in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s had not gone anywhere.  Then came  Mr.  Snowden and his, ah, communications team, Glen Greenwold and Laura Poitras, and we learned we have all been spied upon, excuse me, have had our metadata analyzed and our communications mapped, with times and places.  Oh, and the topics we discussed noted.  Oh, and the discussions themselves recorded.  Oh, and our skype calls monitored and. . . never mind.

Delillo is, indeed, interested in what you might call the secret history behind history, and the past year has revealed a whole lot about the secret war in which we have all been pawns, witting or not.  Going further, Delillo has also defined a very specific role for writers as gadflies, as rebels, those whose job it is to  question the accepted values and beliefs of their cultures.  So history in Delillo is a bit like the proverbial iceberg, with what you can see only part of the story.  Why the events really happened and who is responsible lies underwater in an unseen world of unknown events and unknown causes for the events that are known.  I might add that documents released by Edward Snowden show that the NSA has, literally underwater, attached probes that extract the contents of various undersea communication cables,  sucking up every e-mail, et al, that goes through the conduits of international communication.  So the point of view in the Delillo approach to history is that you cannot  trust the authorities and you can never be certain that you have the whole story.

This is not a new idea, of  course; the legal grounds for the stuff our intel agencies and the Brits are doing go at least back to WWI  and the Espionage Act, or the Czar’s secret police or to Lincoln in the Civil War or to the Star Chamber and Queen Elizabeth’s secret police, and you can find examples of clueless authorities all the way back to the Book of Job, but Delillo and his baby boomer ideas of conspiracy, shaped by the Cointelpro revelations from back in the day,  take on a new life with Snowden and  what we might call the  Wikileaks school of history.  The they of the prompt, in this case, are not just the visible government, but the increasingly powerful cryptocracy that runs the show behind the scenes and which, like wizards, both protects and amplifies its  powers  through the  circular logic of secrecy,which I might summarize in this way: “We can’t tell you what what we are doing, but trust us, it saved thousands of lives, the details of which we can’t share because they are secret.  By the way, why aren’t you buying the geriatric brand of dogfood for your aging dog instead of that higher fat dogfood showing up on your charge card, and is that an illegal download of music we see on your hard drive?”

And this leaves aside the issue of the privatizing of war making and spying–Snowden himself was a contractor for the NSA, in effect a mercenary who didn’t like the principles under which his employer operated, and blew the whistle.

This second way to look at history as what we aren’t being told also introduces the digital world as perhaps the major factor in what is told and not told, what is known and by whom–which is quite an irony, if you consider the early promise of  the personal computer revolution, which was going to create a  libertarian wonderland of freedom, at least according to the first generation of Silicon Valley moguls. Many of them still seem to think this way  (and notice how Google, Facebook, etc, are Shocked, shocked!  To find spying going on!).

Clearly the advent of e-mail and then of social networks are providing a vast temptation to spy, and those who are spying–the They who aren’t telling us things–includes both private companies taking personal data in exchange for “free” services but not making any promises about what they may eventually do with our information, and government agencies who have clearly escaped the leashes of their supposed political masters.  These are huge forces shaping what is known, what is told, and what will be known and told in the future.

Spying always has to do with controlling  human behavior and winning conflicts–notice the targeted ads, aimed at getting you to buy stuff, as well as the intelligence spooks looking to see if you are a “person of interest,” which includes gathering intel on environmentalists,  but of course it’s been clear for years now that all kinds of peaceful domestic groups have been spied on–as here:  2005.  This kind of stuff is always  problematic, but especially at a time when it’s being shown that corporations are effectively writing some of our legislation and that much of the domestic spying seems aligned with particular corporate as well as intelligence interests, this seems, well, to justify the view that we are being conspired against.  Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean my e-mail isn’t being scanned.    And it’s not just the FBI, CIA and NSA that is spying on environmentalists–check out the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security’s activities for what I’d like to call Orwell light.

So it’s not just the government and its hidden minions (and not just the U.S. government, either) that is fodder for this essay prompt.  No, let’s face it, it’s the private sector and all those social networking empires as well–most famously Facebook–that play fast and loose with our privacy, scheming to make a buck on what they know about us.  If you’ve been around for a while, you even call it an erosion of privacy–as here: Facebook and the Erosion of Privacy.  And don’t get me started on Google, whose accumulation of data is being challenged in Europe.  One way to look at Google Glass is to see it as a handy way to record everything all of us is doing, voluntarily or not, through an ugly facial apparatus that our friends may choose to wear to, say, our party.  Plug in some facial recognition software and who needs drones to track people?  Even the Google model for ad prices, on the sales side,  echoes the NSA–this is what our ads are worth because this is our data proving what they are worth.  Trust us.

So we appear to have another essay topic here, folks, using the privacy (non) agreements of Google, Facebook, et al, in which the fine print allows them to change their use of whatever information they have on us at some point in the future.   As Jaron Lanier has said, these guys could get rich just on their search algorithms, but they have chosen to turn their  social networks into private spying agencies.  To whom most of us give quite a bit of information, many essentially putting their entire lives online.  If history is being shaped by these companies, what has recent history shown us about what they aren’t telling us?  You might want to actually pull up the agreement you have signed onto, by clicking agree, and reading it.  You might find an essay’s worth of material there, especially when you click on something like the timeline I linked above and look at the change–or what the heck, here it is again:  Facebook and privacy, a timeline.

Every Man Is An Island Or, The Problem Is Us As Well As “Them”

A final thing to consider, and I’ll keep it brief, is the way in which media today is creating a fragmented polity. Back in the day, say 1984, most people got their news from a daily paper, local radio, and one of  the big three television networks. Public radio and television were on the rise, but that’s about it.  A lot of local news had a particular flavor–conservative in conservative parts of the country, not so much on the coasts, but the overall mix was influenced by journalism done in major cities, from which the major networks broadcast–I mean ABC, CBS and NBC–maybe you’ve heard of them.

Now you have many more sources, but there is no longer as clear a mainstream narrative, driven by these major news organizations, who got many things wrong, but who also but tended to work toward the truth.  So a now vs. then comparison is also a fruitful way to look at how the news of the day, which is what becomes history, is being told.  Clearly journalism has changed, with advocacy becoming the dominant mode of journalism, while the major source of more objective reporting, the newspapers, is  in serious decline and long-form journalism is looking like an endangered species.  (This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was the newspapers that drove all other news, in the old model; television took their cues, and most of their story ideas that mattered, from the newspapers.  This is still often true, and most internet news sources are actually parasites on other sources, especially newspapers.  Seriously, who came up with or wrote out the stories first?  By the way, I am still encouraging clients to pursue their journalism dreams–but as a Journalism major, be ready to be entrepreneurial, looking for new ways to be paid for content.  Somebody is going to have to produce news, and you know what market economics says about supply and demand . . . eventually content will be worth something again .  .  . maybe a lot, if you are lucky and smart enough to come up with the right venue or model . . . ).

As for what is wrong with the they in media, telling us what is happening today, just look at the kind of speculation about who’s going to run for president in the next election–it’s not reporting, it’s what I can only call bullshitting, no more real or relevant than sports fans talking about the chances of various teams next year.  (For more on the phenomenon of bullshit, I recommend philosopher Harry Frankfurt–you might start with this:  On Bullshit–a discussion.  You could also try Frankfurt writing on the topic here, a great source of inspiration for who “they” is, what isn’t being (honestly) told, and why.)

So in my last suggestions on topics, the “Them” in the question can be the media, especially the partisan media, but of course “them” also can mean us, as participants who buy the product and the b.s.  And no, I don’t think a U Chicago reader will object to this term, especially if you name drop Dr. Frankfurt, analytical philosopher.

The result of all these influences is a real decline in the ideal of objectivity, and it’s increasingly apparent that many people know what they want to know, and go to the outlets that tell them what they want to hear. Don’t believe in global warming?  Spend your time on Fox and websites like The Heartland Institute.  Believe that global warming is simply a finding of science and is happening?  Go to CNBC (with some caveats) or to Realclimate.org.  (I need to add here, having read a lot of science, from science sources, like GISS,  NSIDCThe Royal Society, et al, that it is clear that this climate argument does have a correct answer, which is that it is happening and that it is human driven, and that venues like Fox and Heartland produce smogscreens and misinformation on this matter, both bullshit and lies, not scientifically validated information.)

But back to my main subject:  the “they” in this final approach to the prompt is really, in the end, us–or many of us–who don’t want to know what we don’t want to know, and who don’t examine what we are getting–and not getting–from our trusted sources, or at least don’t test the stories by looking at other sources closely enough.  This is more true on the conservative side largely because of, in this order, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News–they have simply done a better job of establishing themselves and dominating the arena.  See this analysis of Fox, Wingnut Commander,  for more. And consider, as you think about this approach to the topic, where you get your own news–we usually don’t see our own blind spots, you know . . . it takes a lot of reading, listening and cross-checking over time, these days.

To return to the Greeks one more time before I wrap up, historia is not so much like Herodotus’ inquiry these days;  it’s more like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a babbling mass of prisoners chained down in darkness, staring at the shadows cast by a bluish screens, shadows which they think are real, and exchanging bad information as gospel truth. Or maybe not–scholars studying this matter disagree.

But speaking of bleak fictional worlds, just think of the possibilities of the future!  When your car, driven by Google, might lock the doors and take you right to the police station after somebody decides what you are e-mailing while the car speeds along is suspect.  Or maybe takes you to a CIA black site.  Keep in mind that I am writing in the best spirit of the Chicago prompts and am kidding.  Maybe.

And to End:  A Movie

And now I’d like to suggest, with my highest possible rating, a movie that will convince you that you don’t want to live in a surveillance state:  The Lives of Others.  Get it and watch it as soon as possible.  Then write a great essay.  I wish you all the best as you assess history in our times.

Good luck on your essay and let me know if you need editing help, by contacting me at

word guild@gmail.com

Yep, I use google mail, but I don’t use Google Docs–given the information available, I assume that they are all spying, after all . . .

Oh, and I accept the ads that may appear at the bottom of this post as necessary to support the wonderful platform of WordPress, but that does not mean that I endorse any specific product which may appear there.  Thanks for your support.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

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

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Thoughts On The Problem Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The problem of food shortages and famine

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

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

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

2. Renewable Energy

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

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

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

3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems

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

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

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

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

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

5. Immigration

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

6. Terrorism and Extremism

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

8. Social Justice Topics

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

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

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

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

9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

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

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

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

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