Posts Tagged ‘Quote Essay’

How to Write a College Application Essay About a Quote in 2018-2019: Part 2

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Miles Davis Essay, Mind that Won't Stick Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, Zen Master Shoitsu on July 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Also known as How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay:  Part 2

I ended my last post by looking at U Chicago, so let’s return to that now.  Here are two of the numerous prompts from Chicago that use a quote:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Let me begin by saying that Master of Jazz Miles Davis is being pretty zen in his quote here.  In fact, Davis is basically presenting a koan to “explain” his art.   But Zen Master Shoitsu is being pretty jazzy–he is, in fact, suggesting  what it takes to be Miles Davis improvising on his horn. (Note:  I know Mr. Davis played the trumpet.  See this if you have any questions:  The Man With the Horn.)

In a recent post, I talked about looking into the background of prompts.  My statements here  relate to the deeper story that each quote tells–to their background.  Knowing about both of them–about something the Tao of Davis and the Way of Shoitsu–allowed me to connect them. Your essay does not need to connect them, of course, though Chicago does like a little improv, and they do offer you the opportunity to make up your own prompt, which could involve combining these two.  But to do that, you would have to know some things.

Of course, you could just riff on either quote without even knowing, for example,  what instrument Miles Davis played, or even what jazz is, and if the essay is good, who needs background?  Whatever great thing rises up without the interference of the stuck mind is fine with the University of Chicago, and with the universe as well.

But here is the thing:  that is hard to do.  It’s hard to improvise without knowing  what you are improvising  from or about or for.  And while you need and are searching for a starting point for a college application essay, your mind is already stuck, and filled with noise, due to your desire to get into college, but also due to what you have been taught an essay is and should do, by all the essays you have written for school, which have done little to help you deal with these two prompts.

It’s kind of a zen experiment in itself:   The fact that you are writing to an elite and highly selective college suggests that you are already  in a race for achievement. You are trapped by the past and by your fears of the future. Which creates a Mind that Sticks.

The purpose of the college application essay makes students get stuck in trying to write about not being stuck as they show off how flexible and yet full their minds are.  These students talk about how they were studying or working on A, then started reading B, then lost themselves in C.  They go on to list all the great things they have learned by being an autodidact or by simply being constantly distracted by curiosity, claiming that this is what it means to have an unstuck mind.  But they end up with a blatant list of activities and things they have likely not really read all of, or read at all.    Trying to separate themselves from the crowd by showing how much they know, how far they’ll go.

It’s almost a koan:  Bragging while not bragging about it!  Very Zen!

Not.  This is a stuck mind.  And a laundry list of activities doth not make a good essay on Mind that Does not Stick.  Mind that does not stick is relaxed and flowing, not worried about outcomes.

What to do?  Think about what makes you flow.  Look at the two prompts I selected.  Ask this:  what is Miles Davis thinking  when he is playing?  He is thinking, but he is also . . . in the music, moving with it while shaping it.  Not thinking in the normal sense of wondering what will be for dinner (or breakfast–late nights for musicians and all).  He is not wondering if he left his oven on.  He is not checking the clock to see if class is over.

No, he would mess up his playing if he started thinking in that sense.  So would you.  One way to hear what is not there is by not being trapped by thought and expectation.  In this case, what should be played next is not what Miles Davis played.  But once he played the next note, it was right (Okay not all the time, but most of the time).  He was absorbed in the moment, one with the music.

Likely you have had similar experiences, in which you lose track of time, are one with your activity.  Which means that you, too, have experienced an aspect of unstuck mind.  Maybe that is your topic.  What makes you lose yourself.  What makes you lose expectations to hear what others do not hear. Very . . . Zen

Speaking of Zen, let’s take a look at it and at Zen master, Shoitsu.  (Warning:  This is dangerous.  Many people talk about Zen, but almost nobody knows what they are talking about.  Because, first of all, you cannot really talk about it to get it.  You have to experience it. Which is obviously a problem for anybody, but especially for you, because, well, you are just trying to write a college essay and that has a deadline that is in a few months, unlike enlightenment.  But this prompt caught your eye.  So we will try).

Here goes:  It is common to oversimplify so-called Asian philosophy and religion, particularly in making broad generalizations that stand in contrast to what is supposedly the Western style of thinking.  But there are some aspects of Zen which are broadly shared with other traditions, and knowing something about them  can help you understand where Master Shoitsu is coming from.

In Zen, and in aspects of other eastern meditative traditions, like Taoism, the thinking mind is not really the thing.  In fact, it is fundamentally an illusion.  Here is why: We look out at the world from a particular perspective, shaped by experience and by desire, but most of what we do is: not see.   This is true for a range of reasons, mostly involved with wanting things and suffering–and we suffer mostly because we want things we cannot have or do not have at the moment.  And in this process, as we think, we constantly judge what we see in order to try to avoid what we do not like or want and to get what we do like or want.  Desire, then, drives us and blinds us.

That’s pretty much it.  But this is also pretty hard to know.  You just read what I wrote above, but you cannot know without experiencing the loss of that thinking or ego self.  Which is where the meditative tradition of a guy like Master Shoitsu comes in.  These

Zen guys were and are hard core–sit there and breathe (and do a bunch of other work with total concentration and other stuff, like giving up things you do not need, etc, et al) and eventually insight and maybe even enlightenment might happen.  Through a full-on confrontation with the ego over a long time.  Check out Bodhidharma, for how hard-core zen practice is.  (Note:  one story has Bodhidharma staring a hole in the side of the cave during that nine [or ten] year meditation described in the linked page).

So Zen Master Shoitsu is  pointing out that your mind is basically a kind of construct, a filter gone rigid over time as it sorts events into categories such as like and dislike to the point that it is always stuck (Yes, that subtext is aimed at social media categorizing.  Wait, Zen Mind vs. Social media?  A topic?  Could be . . . ).  The mind is not really seeing reality because it is too busy processing, seeking advantage, driven by emotions like anger that are the product of habit–notice when you have “knee jerk” reactions of anger due to old experiences.  That, my friends is stuck.

Yes it is also a deep part of the mechanisms that keep you alive, but there you are: wanting.

Wow, that went deep, fast.  For more background on Master Shoitsu and Zen emptiness, check these links out:

What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Instructions of Master Shoitsu

For Miles Davis hearing what others do not, try this: Miles Beyond

And for your essay, if nothing else works , but you like these quotes, and you want to go with the spirit of either quote, you want to think about what absorbs you utterly, what makes you flow with whatever you are doing.

Or just riff on one.  Have fun and ignore all my advice on using background.  Give it a whirl, as I did here, just goofing  an introduction to see what would happen–

Zen Master Shoitsu’s words on being unstuck fascinate me as a physics problem.  In a similar way, some time back, I was trying to work out the problem posed by that famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I embarked on a series of physical experiments to explore this question, but all I ended up doing was getting cramps from squeezing my hand a lot–though at one point I did slap myself as well.  That definitely made a sound, but my findings on clapping one hand were inconclusive. 

However, this is the spirit I try to bring to every question that  me:  rigorous but joyous experimentation.  Full on engagement.

This started at a young age as I attempted to build Leonardo’s Flying Machine in my garage, but was apprehended by my dad as I tried to haul it up the ladder to the roof.  It has continued as I  . . . . . etc etc etc.  Etc.  

Notice the way I use an interesting intro to set up a discussion that would follow the etc etc to show things about you that need emphasis.  Notice also that humor is a good thing, or it can be if it us handled well.  And since U Chicago wants edgy,  feed that desire . . .

Time to wrap this post up.  If you were looking for a lot more clear explanation about what to put and where to put it in an essay, you are kind of missing the point of both quotes.  Try some essay experiments, without being attached to them, and see what happens.

And follow my blog as I continue to post on essay prompts and related topics . . . Or if you need help from a Zen Master of Editing, Contact Me.

Writing an Essay About a Quote for Your 2018-2019 College Application

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 11, 2018 at 11:40 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to the Ivy League, or anyplace else that asks you to respond to a prompt that uses a quote or that asks you to use a quote.

My usual advice when asked about using a quote to start a college application essay is pretty simple:  Try something else–unless there is a really good reason, like the prompt using a quote, asking for a quote, or presenting a subject that includes quotes–such as your favorite book.

My main reason for being wary of the quote opener in a college essay is also pretty simple:  in order to prompt high school students to get an essay started, many teachers ask students to use a quote when starting an essay, or a question.  That makes the quote opener–and the question intro–overused and prone to cliche.  And given the way that most “quote” essays use the quote like you might use the word “squirrel” to divert the attention of a dog–as a kind of noise to get things moving in a particular direction, in other words–quotes are often a poor way to initiate a college application essay.  But not always, and in some cases, using a quote is a requirement of the prompt.

So there are exceptions to this rule, and many great essays have used quotes to get started and to develop ideas.  In fact, the gentleman who invented the essay as a form, Michel de Montaigne, used quotes all over his “little attempts” or “essais;”  I have never been bored by Montaigne and dozens of his essays are truly great.    Of course, these “essais”  also run from a few pages to a couple score of pages, and they were not written for college admissions.  Some of his techniques will not work, but I have some techniques and ideas below that have worked.

These techniques will come in handy this year, for there are already some important universities that ask you to write to or about a quote in your application.  Among the current year’s  releases as of early July, 2018, Dartmouth has multiple quote prompts, as does the University of Chicago.   Princeton had quote prompts last year, and I  expect them to do so again this year, so  I will be taking  a  look at the Princeton  prompts soon.  You can have a look at last year’s Princeton prompts, in last year’s main post about the quote essay, but hold off  on writing an essay for Princeton until they confirm for the 2018/2019 season, which usually happens in the last week of July–they may change one or more and it’s not worth writing until you know, though it’s not a bad idea to have a look at the old prompts and let your mind work on it a bit while you tend to other things.

Let’s take a look at the basic types of quote essays, then have a look at our first example for this year and some ideas about how to attack the prompt:

Three types of Quote Essays

There are three basic ways that colleges can ask you to write about a quote:

They throw a quote at you and ask you to respond to it;

They ask you to choose a quote to talk about;

Or, less directly, they ask you to talk about something that will allow you to use a quote, like a book or a film.

One of the main problems in writing about a quote prompt is establishing some kind of frame for what you want to do.  What do I mean?

Know the Background of the Quote

Well let’s look at what you might not or definitely do not want to do:  write about a quote in such a way that you actually contradict the quote unintentionally and, well, make a fool out of yourself and fall victim to ultracrepidarian syndrome.  Think of that stuffy and rigid person you know who is always full of opinions, especially when they are wrong, and can go on at length about something they know nothing about.  Because most of the quotes used by the universities are presented without much context, you have an open invitation to becoming a card-carrying ultracrepidarian if you do not approach the quote in a skillful way.

Many prompts are intended not to have much context, and the reasons for this vary.  A place like the University of Chicago is  interested in how inventive you can be in responding to a quote, and is not  interested in seeing a research paper,  and in fact some really great essays take off from a quote in totally idiosyncratic or non-sequitur ways that end up having little to do with the original intent of the quote, but that do produce an entertaining and effective essay.  Other quotes, like that used by Dartmouth, beg for some background research.

But even if you decide to write a non-sequitur essay, in which you  goof around with a quote to show your innovative mind, you still need to have some understanding of the quote to find a starting point, in my opinion.   How can you make a joke or satirize something or riff on it if you do not know what it is?  So knowing something about the background of a quote is useful, especially if you want to cleverly subvert expectations.

One of the best recent public examples of people quoting foolishly and widely in public involves Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which a character says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”   Quite a few people, some of them very highly placed in government and elsewhere, have been using this quote as  evidence for the idea of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, as Vice President Mike Pence did, or just in defense of fences in general.

There’s just one problem with that:  the poem is not, in fact, in favor of fences or of walls  Instead, it offers a subversive and ironic take on walls–and fences–questioning them, not promoting them.  Before I show you that,   here is another particularly dim example of this quote, used out of context, to make the problem clear:  Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

Sure, this is marketing, really, but so is your college application essay, and if you were to upload something like this  as an essay response using a quote you like, I can pretty much guarantee that you would find the college gates shut, with  you outside the walls when admissions offers arrive.  Application readers know something about the quotes they present to you, and are generally well-read people who know about a wide range of quotes you might use.  This means that they usually know when somebody is totally clueless, as in the examples above.   Regardless of your politics, misusing a quote like that from  “Mending Wall” is a no-no.  Let’s just say the standards for application essays are higher than for political speech, these days.

If on the other hand, you were intentionally misusing the quote, great.  But be sure to give the reader clear clues to your clever and satirical or humorous intent.  At the bottom of this post, I offer a full analysis of “Mending Wall” and more links to clarify just how badly this quote has been used, but let’s jump to this year’s quote essays.

How to Write Short Responses and Essays on Quote Topics

For an example of how to look at a couple of quotes and learn some background, I will take a short response first, in which Dartmouth asks you to respond to a quote:


1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

What to do?  You might start talking about wanting a small college, or profess your love for Dartmouth, or even recall the story “The Devil  and Daniel Webster” and discuss what  slick talker that Mr. Webster was.

Better, of course, would be to talk about the program you are interested in by doing some research, as this short prompt clearly wants you to show some knowledge of Dartmouth and why it fits you, or you fit it.  I discussed researching your university and the essay on why you are a fit in a recent post: The “Why Us” Essay.

But it helps to know something about Daniel Webster and this case, as the quote, and the prompt, says something clear–but only to those who know the background of the quote.  To begin with, the quote they use is specifically from a court case that shaped the contract clause and defined contract law in the U.S.   The court case is described on Wikipedia here: Dartmouth College v. Woodward.

In addition, this quote is prominent on the Dartmouth website.  Here is how this quote appears on Dartmouth’s website, summing up their own history:

 The charter establishing Dartmouth—the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States—was signed in 1769, by John Wentworth, the Royal Governor of New Hampshire, establishing an institution to offer “the best means of education.” For nearly 250 years, Dartmouth has done that and more.

Dartmouth’s founder, the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans. Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and one of Wheelock’s first students, was instrumental in raising the funds necessary to found the College. In 1972—the same year the College became coeducational—Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country. With nearly 1,000 alumni, there are now more Native graduates of Dartmouth than of all other Ivy League institutions combined.

Governor Wentworth provided the land that would become Dartmouth’s picturesque 269-acre campus on the banks of the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire and Vermont. The College’s natural beauty was not lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who visited in 1953 and remarked, “This is what a college should look like.”


Dartmouth was the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1819, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, in which the College prevailed against the State of New Hampshire, which sought to amend Dartmouth’s charter. The case is considered to be one of the most important and formative documents in United States constitutional history, strengthening the Constitution’s contract clause and thereby paving the way for American private institutions to conduct their affairs in accordance with their charters and without interference from the state.

Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, passionately argued for the original contract to be preserved. “It is … a small college,” he said, “and yet there are those who love it.”

The underlining is mine.  Notice that this short history also implies an ethos, and that ethos includes a multiethnic approach to education–Who knew that Dartmouth’s original purpose included a mission to educate Native Americans?

Of course, that may not be as P.C. as it sounds, once you think about it, but leaving aside the questions that raises for now–that matter of genocide as European and then U.S. settlers moved west, not the mention the paternalistic view that a European education was necessary to elevate a native, etc–there is an obvious intent to show Dartmouth as educating all, and as multiethnic.  Then there is an emphasis on the right to pursue the mission of education free of interferance.  And there is a layer of American legal history.  So all of that lies in the quote, and in this, Dartmouth is presenting a sense of its values and purpose–always consider the audience you are writing to, which here is offering you some ideas about how they see themselves..

Yet all of that information may only yield one or two sentences in your short response–remember, you only have 100 words for this one.   But those sentences could be telling.  Showing that you know some background on Dartmouth beyond, oh, the fact that they have a good prelaw track is a plus.  Being  specific and knowing detailed information about your target school, and target audience, is a plus.  This allows you to tailor your response in a way that reflects you and the school, and so shows a good “fit.”  For example:

Centuries before CRISPR, Dartmouth altered the legal D.N.A. of the United States as Daniel Webster defended and won academic and institutional freedom for Dartmouth, his “small college. ” I believe in the values that Dartmouth established generations ahead of the rest of the country when it offered education to native Americans like Samuel Occom,  and I hope to  pursue a degree in x, in a prelaw program, preparing for a career in  y, by working with professors like Z Z in programs like X X,  and learning about YY from  a professor such as A A.

(Note that this example is a few words under the 100 word maximum, and that it also required research into some programs at Dartmouth, as discussed in that post I linked above, and was written by a person with clear goals–all of which will help an application.  And yes, the letters denote name variables for programs and instructors.  This is meant to be farily generic.)

In my next post, I will move  on to a more pure quote essay prompt, this one from the University of Chicago.  Chicago throws six new prompts out there this year, along with a “make up your own” prompt, but then goes on to recycle old prompts, which include at least four that count as quote prompts.  A couple have caught my eye:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Here is my first idea on these:  they both look pretty Zen to me.

You will know when I post on these if you follow my blog.  In the meantime, keep a notebook or phone handy to jot or type ideas as they come.  The creative mind tends to let an idea surface at unexpected times, whether it is for a topic or a great word, or a sentence–but they can easily evaporate.  It’s kind of like that dream you remembered when you woke but forgot by the time you finished breakfast.  Write it down when it appears. 

For those needing a little more evidence that you should not take the quote  “Good fences make good neighbors” as literal truth, take the time to read the poem that is the source of the quote, you will see that the neighbor who advocates fences is portrayed as a dark character, filled with latent violence,  and is directly compared to a  cave man, “an old stone savage” who carries rocks to the wall like some head hunter returning with the skulls of those he has killed.  Throughout  the poem, the narrator argues against his neighbor, questions why they are rebuilding the wall, mocks the idea by wondering if   the neighbor fears that his apple orchard is going to invade the pine trees on the other side, and suggests that we should be careful when building walls–or fences–that we should pay attention to what we many be fencing out–and in.  The poem is highly ironic, but its purpose is clearly to question the reason for fences and walls, not to promote them, and the wall here is linked with fear and violence. In an additional irony, the reluctant narrator and his neighbor are repairing a stone wall, not a fence. 

Here is a more detailed discussion of the poem, as well as of Pence’s misuse of the quote, with some good insights on ambiguity, which is often the way the world is, and which good essayists understand:  D.T. Should Read R.F.’s “Mending Wall.

See you soon.


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:


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.)

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.