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Ivy League Round Up: The Brown, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth And Amherst Supplemental Essays For 2013-2014.

In Amherst Supplemental Essay, Columbia Supplemental Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Essay on Literature, Essay on Science, Penn Supplemental Essay, Why Brown on December 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

This will be my final update for the 2013-2014 application season.  With the early rush over, I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have one or more application essays that you wish to have reviewed and closely edited, splice the following address into an e-mail and contact me with the subject “editing request:”  wordguild@gmail.com.

Include your name, geographical location, and a basic description of what you need.  I’ll be asking you to provide me some additional information to help me edit, but all information and work is kept strictly confidential.  My prices for a three-round editing package, with the last edit ready to submit, are $100-$150, depending on the essay length and prompt.

As for the Ivies, here we go:

The Ivies are using the Common App and a variety of questions in their supplemental sections; what they share, beyond the Common App essays, is one or more supplemental responses that are best restated by the question “Why do you want to go to school here?”  This is a question which you can and should research.

What you should not do is write an autobiographical incident or short essay on some experiment or program you were in–it’s fine and in fact necessary to talk about yourself and your specific  academic interests, but you should also be talking about and showing knowledge of the university itself.  Don’t just recycle part of a Common App essay.

Things To Research For The “Why Us” Prompt

Brown

So let’s start with Brown as an example; their prompt is pretty simple:  Why Brown?  You probably already knew that, but my advice–again, repeated throughout this post, with some different links and information about each school– is to do some research, specifically in the areas in which you are considering majoring.  The essay should be about your experiences and interests, but not just about you.  It’s about the school as well, and not just about how the school will be useful to you.  How will you be useful in the world?  To other people or creatures or the environment?  What will your contribution be?

Please think about that.  The admissions officer will be looking for it–it doesn’t need to be completely explicit and specific, but they won’t be impressed by an essay with a whole lot of “I’s” and “me’s” in it, or by an essay that is all about how they can do things for you.  See the Dartmouth admissions officer, below, and his comments on the self-absorbed.

Look outside yourself.  Study the university.  Find out about programs, then about professors as well as classes.  Know something about the research or work being done at Brown in your field of interest.  Follow links and information on the work of specific professors and schools or institutes or centers.

Be able to name drop with knowledge, but not just as a list of names the app reader already knows; this should be shown as something that fits with you and your plans, as something you can use, with a little explanation, in a meaningful way.  Be able to explain how Brown can help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve–which hopefully has something to do with helping other people out in some way, whether through innovation or services.  Then write efficiently and without hyperbole.

I recommend reading this article on the changes to Brown’s supplementals for this year :  Changes to the Brown Supplement.  And don’t forget to have a look at their mission statements, motto, and that kind of thing.

Brown is one of the Ivies that views public service as more than lip service.    Don’t forget:  Sincerity is a must, but avoid being preachy or a hand-wringer, and don’t come off as self-absorbed. See my links below to how to evade the cliché, et al.

Know What Your Major Entails/Understand the Hierarchies

To repeat:  research all things related to your major or to areas you think you may want to major in–you hopefully have already done some research and know the basics, but a quick recap here:  Majors are taught within a  “division,” “school” “program” and/or “department” and, in recent decades also within “centers” and “institutes.” Some of the latter have different structures than a traditional school or department, but for the most part the name game with centers and institutes  is a way to set up  funding, often around one or more rock star figures (they are not always professors by trade, but possess advanced degrees and outside experience that applies to the field in question) or around some hot, usually interdisciplinary new “field.”  There is a constant turf war for attention and funding which has driven this in recent years and this also reflects developing areas of study and technology–new stuff can create new disciplines.

Back To Brown

One example at Brown is the department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, formed in 2010.  How linguistics has joined Cognition and Psychology is a bit convoluted but will illustrate a point I want to make about the contemporary, interdisciplinary approach to education.

Modern linguistics really starts in the early 20th Century, with structuralism, and was  a field within philosophy and sociology and later within various language departments.  As the early Linguistics departments were founded at universities in the 20th Century, structuralism was superseded by new fields within linguistics, like generative grammar, and today everything from probability and game theory to computer science  and brain science plays a role within linguistics  (voice recognition software, anybody?).

The result of these developments (as well as politics and funding competition) is this new department at Brown.  It’s worth comparing majors and departmental structures at different schools–have a look at the Penn Linguistics Department, for example, which has a much less flashy website and which is embedded in a different structure– but you should also be looking at individual teachers, learning something about research and specialized programs you might be interested in, as well as about particular professors and their work.

There are many other interesting developments over the last ten-fifteen years in “cross curricular” programs–check out the Brown sociology page, where you can see their links to things you would expect, like the Social Science Research Lab, but also their links to the program in Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship.

The message is that there is no time like the present to start defining a course of study for yourself, and these newer institutions do offer many opportunities to craft your own program and not to be stuck in a narrow field of study–this may also help you get a job.  On the other hand, I always argue that you should study what you love, and research the major that is in the area that most interests you, then look for ways to make it “practical,” if you do not want to stay in academia. An English major who can search databases with his own algorithms, for example, would be very employable; you could get there with a major in English and a minor in a computer discipline, or a minor in psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, with computer classes added to learn how to construct databases and mine data.   I’ll come back to that later.  For more at Brown, start here:

Brown Majors, Departments and Programs

For more ideas on things to research and write about on the “Why Us” prompt, read on.

Penn

Penn wants basically the same thing as Brown; here is the prompt:

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

As with the Penn or any “Why Go To Our School” prompt, you want to drill down to find specific information–and maybe to find out what you want to do, as well.  Here is Penn’s Majors page:  List of College Majors. In one example, if you are interested in both business and international relations, you’d want to check out the Huntsman program (listed on the Penn Majors page) and start following links on the Huntsman home page:  HuntsmanThe point is to become informed and follow information that interests you.

Columbia
Columbia has three prompts that roughly translate to “Why Us,” or why you fit them.  Here they are:
  • Tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.
  • If you are applying to Columbia College, tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section. If you are currently undecided, please write about any field or fields in which you may have an interest at this time.
  • If you are applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.
As with all of these questions, this prompt is a good place to mention a campus visit.  The people, both students and faculty,  and physical setting of the school are, hopefully, something that has influenced your decision, and this is the time to express your enthusiasm.  Specifics help, but don’t get carried away in your descriptions of the ivied walls and eager scholars.
Back in the day, research was the purview of grad students, but these days undergrads are often involved in the cutting edge stuff– as I pointed out above, “even” an English major might be doing research, and the cutting edge there might be looking at evolving responses to a work of literature over time, Huckleberry Finn, for example, using those databases of, say newspapers and periodicals  I mentioned and writing algorithms to define searches that reveal how attitudes toward  Twain’s magnum opus have changed, or looking at the incidence of a word and how its meaning has changed, and thus engaging in a kind of English-department driven sociology.  This is quite a bit like market research, by the way, and the same basic skills can be used on other databases, looking at health in various human populations, for example.
So what I am saying is, you could use this required app essay to start thinking in an innovative way about your own future, and you might even find a way to convince your parents that the apparently impractical subject that you love could actually be practical, after all.  With a little tinkering.
Have a look at the research opportunities in the school of psychology at Columbia, here, and start clicking for some examples of the interdisciplinary possibilities offered in one field:
Or go to the general research page, which has links to various fields and institutions within the university and find the sites that you need:
Dartmouth
As you probably know, Dartmouth uses the Common App and a College/Major specific essay.  So everything I said above about Brown, et al, still applies, but I’ll add a bonus:
an excerpt of some quotes from an interview with a Dartmouth admissions officer, published on Business Insider; the “insider” tips offered by BI are not really anything new, and officials who are quoted as unnamed sources always have some kind of ax to grind–this guy sure offers some complaints as well as reveals some of his own biases– but his statements  on the admissions essay itself are worth perusing; here they are:

Essays 

“The essay is very important. It’s when you get a sense of what the kids about. We’re looking for creativity, self-awareness. The biggest mistake is when they aren’t very self-aware and write standard sports essay where they talk about the big game and that hurts them in the end. Not standing out is a big mistake for kids who are from demographic groups that are historically well represented.

But even an amazing essay can’t save a bad application.

“It’s difficult to see an app like that because every aspect of the application needs to be pretty strong, especially in the numbers driven game, it’s hard for a kid to stand out if not strong academically even if he writes this amazing essay. It’s a question of the marginal case.”

“Many kids write adversity essays. Some cases are more contrived than others. I remember one essay about a girl who struggled with a broken family in the ghetto, who lacked nuclear family structure at home. It was well-written, not case of pitying herself, but written matter of factly, very powerful.”

Most essays are not very memorable. I think people should be willing to take a larger risk with essays. There’s a way to do that and still be tasteful. You don’t want to highlight a negative personality trait. Like if you’re a complete narcissist, if that comes across in tone even though the essay is creative it will put off admissions officer. I do think kids need to think more about what they want to present.” (My addendum to this:  use good judgement if you want to be daring.  Many “risky” essays actuall do come across as self-absorbed or in poor taste.  So be wary of what I would call stunt essays.  Notice also that the app officer specifically liked the simply factual essay by the girl from the broken family in the ghetto.  Notice in addition that he uses the word ghetto, which sounds quaintly like what those suburban middle class kids, whom he seems to both pity and sneer at in the article, might say. Instead of ‘hood, for example.  It’s additionally interesting, because these days the “ghetto” is more a pocket neighborhood than the vast and largely, to the middle class and upward,  unknown area of a city where poor people and immigrants live.  We often have urban professionals and hipsters on the same block or a block away from what this app officer would think is a “ghetto” neighborhood.  So, he sounds a lot like an older version of the kids he seems to address most directly here.  I’m just sayin’).

You can read more at the link below, though I hasten to add that some of this unnamed admissions officer’s complaints deserve a response from somebody, and a good journalist would have gone and asked other Dartmouth officials, on the record, for responses.  A really good journalist would probably capitalize the personal pronoun “I” as well, even in a blog format article.  Having offered those qualifications, here’s the link:   http://www.businessinsider.com/secrets-of-dartmouth-admissions-office-2012-10#ixzz2nwiWxswn

Amherst
I like Amherst’s supplementals the best of this bunch, so I saved them for last.  I won’t discuss all of them, but there are a couple that I think are worth looking at; here they are, so you don’t have to go back and open another page up:

1) “Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”

Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

This prompt is interesting on a number of levels in its definition of what a good physical scientist is like–that’s what it is, in essence.  And since the topicc is about the workings of the world, human artifacts and ideas like ethics can also be featured in this essay.  I think the best source of inspiration for this prompt that I can give you this late in the game is a podcast from a wonderful radio program, Radiolab–listen to this episode, about the scientist Fritz Haber, who was brilliant, made amazing discoveries, but who also . . . caused great harm.  Showed a certain lack of foresight, of some degree of common sense and personal responsibility.  Here it is:  Fritz Haber.  

In all of the Ivies, there has been some soul-searching due to things like the financial crisis and recent Great Recession–most of the major players in finance responsible for this fiasco came out of the Ivies, the best and the brightest, as it were, and while Professor Jagannathan seems to intend a more specific emphasis on empirical common sense, ethics itself, forseeing the potential outcomes of scientific work, in every sense, is also important.  As the Haber episode I linked shows.  So don’t write an essay focused entirely on some experiment you did; try to have a wider view into which your experiment might fit, a view of how your work might be of wider benefit, of an ethical dimension as well as a practical dimension.

2) “Literature is the best way to overcome death. My father, as I said, is an actor. He’s the happiest man on earth when he’s performing, but when the show is over, he’s sad and troubled. I wish he could live in the eternal present, because in the theater everything remains in memories and photographs. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to live in the present and to remain in the pantheon of the future. Literature is a way to say, I was here, this is what I thought, this is what I perceived. This is my signature, this is my name.”

Ilán Stavans, Professor of Spanish, Amherst College. From “The Writer in Exile: an interview with Ilán Stavans” by Saideh Pakravan for the Fall 1993 issue of The Literary Review.

Well, there’s nothing like reading the interview as a whole to prepare for this question; here it is: Ilan Stavans Talks.

Then you might read my posts on writing about books, some of which are linked in my previous post, on the Princeton prompt.

As for the third prompt for Amherst, I think you could also  look at my post on the Princeton prompts for insight–here is the Amherst prompt:  3) “It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest…unless the graduates of this college…are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion… then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”

John F. Kennedy, at the ground breaking for the Amherst College Frost Library, October 26, 1963

And, to conclude, If you have a Social Justice class, or personal experience with stereotypes and overcoming obstacles, prompts four and five might work for you–notice my excerpt from the interview with the Dartmouth admissions officer, above; he seems to be advising you just to tell your story, if you do have one, without all those autobiographical narrative tricks designed to pump up the suspense and excitement (starting with a dramatic quote or scene, for example).  Straightforward is probably better for those with real drama in their essays.  You might also want to visit some posts I wrote long ago about ways to get prompts like these wrong.  I’ll put those links below the final Amherst prompts; here they are:

4) “Stereotyped beliefs have the power to become self-fulfilling prophesies for behavior.”

Elizabeth Aries, Professor of Psychology, Amherst College. From her book, Men and Women in Interaction: Reconsidering the Difference.

5) “Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals

General Advice/How Not To Blow It On Your College Application Essay

How to Evade the Cliche In Your Application Essay

Evade the Cliche Step 2

How College Applications Are Evaluated

Seven Rules For College Application Success (They Aren’t Really Secrets)

The Harvard Application Essay for 2013-2014: Back to the Future

In Harvard Application 2013-2014, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Supplement, Harvard Supplemental Essays, Intellectual Experience Essay, Ivy League Application Essays on December 11, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Or to the past, because Harvard’s prompts are a blast from the past, especially if the past is the old Common Application Prompts.

The prompts that Harvard has up this year are a mix of old Harvard prompts and the prompts that your older friends or siblings wrote for the Common Application if they applied in recent years.   I’ll analyze the prompts separately, in order, right after this message:

Editing Update, 12/26/13:  I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have 1-3 essays that need editing for a final app, contact me by splicing this address into an e-mail, with the heading “editing request” and a brief description of what you need:  wordguild@gmail.com

Final requests taken on Sunday, 12/29/13.  

And now, here is my Harvard analysis: 

1. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Required, 150 word max, Paste in).

150 words is not much space, which reinforces that this “essay” prompt is meant as a chance either to elaborate on material you (hopefully) already listed for them, or to describe an interesting aspect of your life that merited essentially a footnote in your application or that is not visible at all.  Choose wisely, by which I mean, look first for ways to offset weaknesses and next for ways to play up strengths that may be apparent in your application, and choose a topic  that shows a person who truly  is curious instead of a person who is merely trying to look as if he or she is curious .

If you appear to be a stereotypical asocial math and computer whiz, try to find a way to talk about something else–your stats and classes should already show your prowess in these fields, supported by your transcript, so maybe you should talk about your love of windsurfing or (harmless) flash mob organizing.  If you are weaker in math, find a way to offset that–your love of philosophy and logic, through your sideline, studying Zeno’s paradoxes, or perhaps your organizing skills or ability to find your way in the dark without a compass.  Be creative.

It’s fine to repeat things that are prominent on your “resume” so long as you are truly and deeply enthusiastic about the topic you choose.  You can sneak in some other things by showing, for example, how your interest in Topic A lead you to Topic B, the subject of your essay here (or paragraph, probably).

As for essays on work, I wouldn’t necessarily say not to write about your job flipping burgers, but you might want to give it some heft.  Try reading or at least perusing Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed for some ideas on how to add depth to an essay on your fast-food/entry-level side job.  Internships will hopefully also provide fodder for an intellectual experience essay.

Now let’s look at the remaining prompts as a group, with links to topics that can be used to address the prompts:

2. You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics (Optional, 1300 word Max, Paste In) 

Unusual circumstances in your life
– Travel or living experiences in other countries
– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
– How you hope to use your college education
– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months


My first advice is this:  You should, of course, write this extra, “suggested” essay.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard  has for the most part just  rearranged some words  from last year’s  prompts.  The prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate was introduced last year, and is either borrowed from recent Stanford supplements or great minds really do think alike.

This year’s prompt on an intellectual experience was added as a word change to a similar, earlier prompt and  is  much broader than that earlier prompt  on an academic experience, which it replaced in 2012.  Academic limits you to school and maybe that internship or research project you did.  Intellectual does not limit your topics as much. Music, film, rock climbing, almost any serious human endeavor or experience can have an intellectual aspect to it, if you look at it the right way.  Books, of course,  are an ancient source of intellectual experiences and these will be a specific focus in this post.

I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013 that relate to or could be topics for this years prompts.  These posts will help get you started as you generate ideas.

I  address the list of books essay  in a separate post–this essay can take various forms, but avoid just making it a list of book blurbs; find a way to tie the books together, based on some sort of shared idea or other connection.  The posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

My full-package college application clients are all done with their apps, so I will have some space for new editing work from today on through the 28th of December, 2013.  You can e-mail me at wordguild@gmail.com to inquire.  Good luck and Good Writing.

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

In College Application Essay Example, Essay About A Quote, Essay and Literary Terms, Essay Beginning With a Quote, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 25, 2012 at 11:05 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s Wolf’s problem.

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

The Prompt:  Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:

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

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

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

Fermi at U of Chicago

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

Einstein in Bern

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

Espresso Past and Present

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

Tosca

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

College Application Essay No-No’s

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm

This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”

Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.

Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .

This  is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.

Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.

The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).

Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.

The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this.   Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .

The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?

Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.

Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.

Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.

In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”