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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 I’s

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

University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next (and last up for this post):

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

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

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

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

Demonstrated Interest, indeed.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up are Penn’s prompts for this year:

Penn

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

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

(Please answer in 300 words or less.)

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

Which are you?

(Please answer in 300-500 words.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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