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Big Changes for the University of California Application: What, Why and What to Do (Part 1)

In Berkeley Application, Changes in College Admissions, College Application Essay, Personal Insight Questions, U.C. Berkeley Application, U.C.L.A. Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Admissions Data, University of California Application, University of California Application for 2016-2017 on September 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Who should read this post: anybody who is now or will be in the near future applying to any University of California campus; any parent of anybody applying to the U.C. anytime soon; anybody interested in what is going on in higher education.

 Our major topics: The U.C. Application Essays for 2016-2017; Some Current Data on U.C. Applications, From Admit Rates to G.P.A.’s; A Brief History of U.C. Admissions

 Our friends at the University of California have finally made their break from the Common Application.

But wait, you say—they never were in the Common App system. And you’d be right.

But the old, two-essay format for the U.C. pretty much guaranteed that a majority of applicants reused their Common App essay; with one thousand words total, you’d upload your very polished Common App essay, then write (or reuse from somewhere else) a shorter essay of about 350 words, after which you could click on as many U.C. campuses as you liked and call it a day. For the last few years, the U.C. has been like a satellite orbiting the Death Star known as The Common Application.

So much for that.

What exactly they want now is four essays, each of 350 words (maximum) and you are to choose from eight prompts to do so. If you are a junior college/transfer applicant, you are required to write about your major, then to choose three of seven remaining prompts. I link the new U.C. prompts for everybody here.

This is the biggest change in years at the U.C. and the biggest change I have seen yet this year in any of the major applications—so why are they doing this, now? And why should you care? Isn’t it enough that you have to write the bloody things?

Well, yes it is, but knowing why can help you understand what they want. And the why has three reasons.

Reason number one: The U.C. is having trouble figuring out who the best applicants are. More on that below.

Reason number two: The U.C. has too many people applying. To a large extent this is due to the fact that it’s easy to apply to all the U.C.’s once you’ve done the app for one: you write the essays, fill in the rest of the application, and then just start clicking to send it to as many U.C.’s as you want. Sure, you pay for each campus you target, but the fee is relatively small against the upside benefit of a seat at a U.C. campus. But you already knew that.

Reason number three: Essay recycling. Clearly this is tied in to the large number or apps, partly because the U.C. was a default backup to a range of super-selective Common App colleges (the Ivies, etc); most U.C. applicants were (and still are) applying to a selection of Common App schools as well—and being able to reuse the Common App essay made it all the more easy to add a set of U.C.’s to your average HYPSM application.

I know I already mentioned that, but it’s an important point because, well, they don’t want to feel like your fallback date for the big dance if your true love turns you down, and you can see how the new application is a direct response to essay recycling when you look at the length and at the number of essays now required for the U.C.: very few universities have a 350-word limit for their essays, and very few require this many essays written specifically for them. Of course, the number and range of questions also require you to do a lot more writing about yourself, and they hope that this will help them do a better job figuring out who to admit.

Think about it: if you are at a typical suburban high school, you probably need two hands and both feet to count the number of people at your school who have a 3.8 or above GPA and a 2100 SAT (or 32 ACT). But would you want to share a dorm with all of them? Are some of them not indistinguishable from robots?  U.C. truly believes in building a “learning community” and, like all schools, want people who themselves really want to attend, and who have more experiences in their lives than were defined by ten years at Kumon and four years of college counseling.  Therefore, the essays, which make it harder to fake it as you show who you are.  Though not impossible.

The takeaway is that it’s become much more difficult to reuse another essay directly on the U.C. application—or to use their essays directly on somebody else’s. Stanford, for example: they want 250-word supplemental essays, and while some clever editing might allow some crossover, a 350 word essay cut down to 250 words is a whole new essay.

On the other hand, a school like Harvard has some overlap through their “optional” extra essay (which is not really optional for most students) because it is so open-ended. And there is a degree of overlap between select UC prompts and prompts for a number of U.C. analogs as well as for some excellent, lesser-known choices across the country. So I will address the opportunities for multi-use essays directly in my next post.

For now let’s leave the essay prompts behind and turn to the details on how this came to pass, and on some current data for the U.C. admissions (3.91 average GPA at the two most popular U.C. campuses, for example) read on.

How We Got Here (And Where We Are)

To get a broader picture of where we are,  let’s start with a quick look at the ancient past: By the middle of the 20th Century, the U.C.’s stated mission was to provide higher education to all California students who qualified. For some perspective on what that meant, prior to 1960, the top 15% of all California students were admitted to the U.C. system, and until 1964 the system admitted all students who met its requirements.  And this without needing an SAT test.   Then, in 1968, a paradigm shift began as Ronald Reagan, governor of California, defined higher education as a privilege that should be defined by the practical and limited to the “deserving” (have a look here for a quick summary of Ronald Reagan’s role in changing the postwar educational paradigm: The Day the Purpose of College Changed).

Flash forward to the early 1980’s and Berkeley was denying admissions to roughly 50% of applicants; by 1990, that number had grown to around 2/3.

 

Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California

That seemed like tough news in 1990, but it seems fantastic compared to last year’s Berkeley admissions: for the incoming class of 2020: 14.8% of all freshman applicants were admitted to U.C. Berkeley, this coming out of 82,558 freshman applicants. And, oh yes, that average Berkeley SAT of 2093 and ACT of 31 for this year’s incoming freshmen, in addition to that 3.91 average GPA (Which was 3.94 for out-of-state and international students—though there are seats set aside for them which might still result in you getting bumped by an out-of-state student, Oh 3.9 GPA Californian).

Of course, you already knew that U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. were both a bear to get into (No, I could not pass up the chance for a bad pun).

But now, even the so-called second tier campuses appear increasingly difficult for admissions, partly because the ease of spamming applications to all campuses, noted above, but also for the very good reason that the education is superb, and the chances of getting into other big-name university brands is even more brutal—just under 5% last year for Stanford, for example, and 6% admit rate for the tougher Ivies—and, well, Mr. Reagan, who attached the idea that education was special and argued that education should take cuts like everybody else when the budget needed to be balanced, and since the early 1970’s, it’s been about balancing budgets more than addign seats—I add only that this is a short summary but fully factual. You can add whatever politics you like to the facts.

But it could be worse–and there is plenty of room for the top 10% of students in California, at the least, if you are flexible in your U.C. target list. So before you panic, consider a wider field, starting with my favorite dark horse, Santa Cruz, which had an average admit GPA of 3.85 and an overall admit rate of 56.9% last year (with a California admit rate close to 80%). This from a university that the Times International survey has ranked in the top two in the world for research influence over the last couple of years (measured by how often U.C. Santa Cruz researchers were cited by others). Yep, U.C. Santa Cruz, at the top of world rankings for research citations.

As for prestige, in ten years, having a degree from U.C. Merced will be gold to a U.C. Berkeley or U.C.L.A. platinum.

It’s true that the pressure is not going to go away, but the new four-essay admissions strategy is likely to have a dampening effect on the total number of applications, and the additional 5,000 or so California students that the U.C. has agreed to add over the next two years will also have an effect on the chances that a California student will be admitted, as well as on the average GPA and test scores. And let’s look past my Dark Horse to a couple of other options.

In fact, let’s look in the San Jouquin Valley, where Merced’s middle-range GPA’s for students arriving this fall ranged from 3.37 (25th percentile admitted) to 3.88 (75th percentile). Which means that Merced looks like Berkeley did when Reagan was governor, in terms of getting in (Historical fact:  1967 was the first year that the SAT was required for U.C. admissions)—though I hasten to add that Merced will also be a large construction site for the next 4-5 years as they build it out into a truly world-class campus.

If construction dust (and valley fever) sound like bad news, have a look further south at U.C. Riverside, which for students enrolling this fall, had a mid-range GPA of 3.52-4.0, a mid-range ACT composite of 27-29 and a mid-range SAT composite of 1490-1915.

And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays

 So what should you do as you begin your U.C. application? Let’s start with Reason 1 for the change in the application: at the most selective U.C.’s, they are having a tough time figuring out who is a robot as they sort through reams of applications containing the life accomplishments of kids who have had fully programmed lives, going to Kumon since age four and starting college activities in 8th grade.  So view the essay as a chance to show them why you are unique and would be a real addition to whatever campus(es) you are applying to. But before you do that, compare the U.C. prompts to those used by the other schools you are applying to. Or better yet, wait until next week, when I do some of that for you, as well as analyzing prompts.

See you soon.

 

 

 

 

The University of Chicago Application Essays: Prompt 2, Part 2

In Application, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Translation Essay on July 10, 2014 at 10:53 am

I gave background to U Chicago’s Application Essay Prompt 2 in my last post; in this post, I will provide some more specific suggestions and sources for essay inspiration.  Before I do, here is the prompt, again:

Essay Option 2.

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.

Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Alrighty.  So my first suggestion is not to accept Ms. Driscoll’s argument that some words are untranslatable, because they are all translatable.  However, even once they have been translated, a foreign person still may not really get it.  One reason:  culture, which includes language but also history, philosophy, geography, weather, technology, etc, etc, etc.  A concept like the Chinese idea of Chi is actually pretty easy to translate but not so easy to fully understand–it can best be translated as energy but also can have to do with a person’s temperament and mood, with the weather and time of year and its influence on the person, with the “energy” or nature of food a person eats–and the chi of food alters as well, depending on the way food is cooked.  A fever manifests a disturbance in chi, but is also  a kind of chi in itselfand a martial artist of skill will use a person’s chi against him.

Notice that much of this does not fit the western concept of energy, though electricity is a also a kind of chi.  A nonnative speaker of Mandarin can become fairly fluent in the language but would need to, for example, study some martial arts under a master, maybe do some qi gong and learn about Chinese cookery, architecture and art in order to have a decent grip on Chi, on its meanings and manifestations in Chinese thought and experience.  So looking at language as an expression of culture, and at culture as a kind of closed room that must be entered and explored before many words–many concepts–can be fully understood . . .  is a good way to approach this essay.  There are also personal and familial reasons why a person may not be equipped to understand a word–even a native Mandarin speaker may not have the understanding of Chi that, say, a Taoist master who is also an acupuncturist and painter would have.

My second suggestion is to look at idiomatic expressions.  You might want to start with your own language, Oh Native English Speakers. Of course, given the different varieties of English, it can be argued that we Americans are speaking a foreign tongue to those Brits.  Or vice-versa.  A famous Brit whose name escapes my data banks once claimed that American speech is slang.  Contrasting the Queen’s English and the Colonies’ English is a fun exercise in itself–you can start with those slang and idioms that do translate, pairing them, then find idioms that do not translate at all; for example:

American English/Queens English

a dust up/argy bargy

cock up/snafu

biscuit or bikky/Cookie

bobby/cop

technical expert (or geek, in some uses)/boffin

screwed/buggered

opportunist, schemer or swindler/chancer

chat or gossip/chinwag

reconnoiter or check out/dekko

old man or boss or old and the boss (and dreary and annoying)/gaffer

The next step is not just to look at what the equivalent expression is, but to try to figure out why/from what the term came.  Again, notice that they are translateable, but there is a cultural flavor and flair with many slang expressions.  A good example is dekko, which is not English in origin; it comes from  British military slang and derived from the Hindustani dhek/dekho meaning “to see”. It is also less commonly decco, deccie, deek, deeks.  It is also an example of what I mean about language and culture.  The British Empire ruled over India for well over a century, and in the process of garrisoning India, it brought back more than chutney and curry. It brought back many words and forever altered British culture.   Given that many of British soldiers were also working class, you find quite a bit of this new language entering through more street or slang dialects, like Cockney, which also has a lot of Romany (these people are commonly called gypsy) words.  Like this: Put up your dukes, pal.  Look the last two words up for more.  They are Romany in origin.

Cockney itself would be an excellent place for you to look for inspiration, though you should keep in mind that Cockney has just about died out–the last true Cockney speakers were fading away by the 1990’s, pretty much as the East End of London faded as  a stronghold of working class whites/Cockneys.  Notice how slang evolution is tied into history and slang, as well as “proper” language evolves over time.   So slang and idioms are a great source for an essay like this, and you can use the wonders of the internet to look for ideas,  making lists of words and looking for ways to connect words and concepts that say something larger about culture.

To start working with idioms, try British slang, Cockney, and American slang as search terms and give it some time. There are many sites and posts devoted to this, and quality varies.  Make lists and double-check definitions against other sources and sites–I will provide some good dictionaries and other sources for looking up and crosschecking, below.  What makes you laugh would probably also make your essay reader laugh, which is a good thing (as long as they are not laughing at you.)

To recap and add an example:  the history of language and word meanings, whether they are considered idiomatic or otherwise, is  a great place to look for essay ideas and content–words do change meanings over time, just as words are born and words die.  In the 13th Century, the word gay   meant bright (brightly colored), cheerful, et al.  It had nothing remotely to do with sexual orientation.  Then, in 1890’s America, it gained a slang meaning–a gay lady was a prostitute (I guess somebody was happy.)   Then, in the 20th Century, the term, which already had a double meaning associated with being happy or bright, and with suspect or illicit sex, was assigned to homosexuals, then adopted by the homosexual rights movement; but this change in meaning then led to suburban youth by the 1990’s referring to something suspect or bad as “gay” –a change that illustrates the adolescent fear of being different,  especially sexually, and conversely, of punishing those who are different.  This is an example of a  psycho-sociological effect that is reflected in the change in a word’s meaning.  Words change all the time, but not always this drastically–fear and prejudice are powerful influences, even on words.  When you write your essay, your focus might be on how the history of language is closely tied to sociology and psychology.  Our words say a lot about us.

To close things out, I am going to recommend some source materials, and as part of that paste in a recent article that shows a good way to open an essay like this . . . Hello loyal readers.  This is the second post on this Chicago prompt, and you have to pay a subscription to my private blog to get full access to this post and quite a few other posts, past and future.  You have about half of the post available in this sample.  If this seems unfair, that’s probably because you have been taught to disrespect the value of written work, due to the parasitic nature of most of the big internet companies, which offer creators little compensation while essentially giving the creative work of others away for free.  A subscription for full access to all of my posts is available for the small price of $15.  You send me an e-mail, with the subject heading “subscription, please,” and I will send you an invoice for $15.   After you pay it, I will give you access to my private blog, which has all of my posts available in full, including the rest of this post.

One more thing–a caveat emptor–I do not delete old posts from other application years, partly as a matter of historical record, but also because many universities repeat the same prompts, or use prompts that are similar to prompts used in the past.  If you see that a post was put up during the last application season, you need to double-check to be sure about the prompts for this year’s applications at your specific universities–we are currently in the 2014-2015 application season.  The software of this site will link “related” posts, but they are sometimes from previous years.  Be sure to visit the university website to check on application requirements and timelines for this year.

Speaking of which, I am still accepting some college advising and application essay editing clients.  E-mail me soon to inquire and to secure a spot.  As of this writing, July 10, 2014, I am fully booked in early August, but can accept college application editing business in July and from the latter part of August on.  This will change in the coming weeks, of course,  as new clients take up existing space in my schedule, so it’s better not to wait too long.  I only have so much time. . . See you soon.

P.S.  The ads you sometimes see below some of my posts are inserted by the WordPress people.  Allowing them to advertise allows me to save expenses on this platform, and by keeping my fixed costs down, I am able to offer not only the most effective editing service you are likely to find, I am also cheaper than all those big operations you may have heard of.  I myself do not see the ads unless I access my own site via an outside search.  If you do dislike one of the ads, please let me know at the e-mail above, and I will have a look and contact WordPress, if necessary.  Thanks.

Princeton Essays for 2015-2016: Getting the Job done

In Essay About a Problem, Essay About Culture, Issue of Concern Essay, Princeton Supplement, Woodrow Wilson Essay, Writing an Essay about a Book, Writing an Essay About a Quote on December 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm

This post specifically discusses the Princeton Supplemental Essay prompts used in recent application cycles (2015-2016 and 2014-2015) and in the process also addresses essays about or based on quotes, as well as addressing essays about national problems, essays about ethical matters, essays about culture (and food) and essays about personal beliefs.  Much of the content is, therefore, germane to these topics in general.  

Numerous links to examples and additional reading are included.  This is an update to last year’s post on the same prompts, with some new links and other changes to make your essays relevant for this year.  It is also a very long post, because I address all the Princeton prompts in it, in detail, so you might want to scroll down to the one or two prompts that most appeal to you–or you might read the whole post and find an idea you had not yet considered.

If you need editing, contact me soon to guarantee yourself and editing slot:  Editing Services.

I will address the Princeton Supplement prompts one at a time, repeating each prompt so that you do not have to look it up again. After you have written a draft, you can send it to me as a Word attachment, to wordguild@gmail.com. I will give you a free sample edit and a price quote–but serious inquiries only, please; I’ll give you enough for you to judge what I can do for you.

Note well that the Princeton Supplement begins with this admonishment:  In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please select one of the following themes and write an essay of about 500 words in response (no more than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.  The underlining is mine.

Many people are choosing a “second string” Common App essay because of the way some of Princeton’s prompts overlap with the Common App prompts, and because of the very obvious way that the word count requirements fit the Common App this year.  Using an essay you opted not to use is okay only if you think it’s equal in quality to the one you chose or if you can work some more on it to improve it.  If this app matters to you, of course.  If it’s just a lark, don’t sweat it too much.

The rest of this post is for people who want to put in some work to have a great essay.  If that’s you, read on.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 1

Tell us about a person who has influenced you in a significant way.

I really don’t have anything to say about this prompt beyond what I have already said about the same prompt on the old Common App, which I discussed over the last two years–you can see my archives, or to save time,   use this link to see what I gave you on Prompt Three of the Common Application, which is in the same topic zone, and have a look at my second entry on the same subject here: The Demons are in the Details.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 2

Using the statement below as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world.

“Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150th anniversary of the University. It became the unofficial Princeton motto and was expanded for the University’s 250th anniversary to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Woodrow Wilson, Princeton Class of 1879, served on the faculty and was Princeton’s president from 1902–1910.

Let me begin by suggesting that the Princeton admissions officer might be a bit more impressed by an applicant who actually showed that she had read the speech.  Try this link and give it a few minutes; I recommend taking notes:  Princeton in the Nation’s Service.

I will pause for dramatic effect while you read the speech.

Welcome back.  This speech will feel archaic  to most of its modern readers in its vocabulary and in its Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ideals, but I would say that this is the point.  Hopefully you read all the way to the bottom of the page and read the footnote about the fact that Wilson had suffered  a stroke and struggled physically to finish rewriting the speech on a typewriter.  There is a moral message of a sort right there, folks, about Wilson’s grit as well as  his  sense of duty.  Compare the person making the speech and the content of the speech to many of our politicians and much of what passes for political philosophy today. The contrast is clear.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I would point out that  the last few decades have been notable for material excess and personal aggrandizement, often at the expense of others–the upper echelon of Goldman Sachs, for example,  has been wildly successful in the terms of our culture, meaning they made incredible amounts of money, but it’s hard to argue that much of their work has been a boon to our society or to the world financial system in general.  A quick review of their role in the European debt  crisis–they enabled Greek currency manipulation–and their simply fraudulent actions in the derivatives market in the United States makes this clear.   I would suggest to you that Princeton is taking a strong stance against the attitude embodied by people who act in the interest of short-term and personal profit over the long-term good for all.

You don’t have to be Anglo-Saxon or Protestant to have a sense of duty, of course–go look up Dharma if you have any questions about that–but clearly Wilson himself in his speech and in his physical situation while writing and giving the speech was embodying a certain spirit of sacrifice.  This is  important because a prompt like this tells you  what your university is looking for in its prospective students:  a future Lord of Wall Street needs not apply.

If I may quote from Wilson’s  essay, this section, by establishing what Wilson saw as the purpose of the university, also reinforces what the university still sees as its purpose:

“Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage, –not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbours. A small group of Presbyterian ministers took the initiative in its foundation. They acted without ecclesiastical authority, as if under obligation to society rather than to the church. They had no more vision of what was to come upon the country than their fellow colonists had; they knew only that the pulpits of the middle and southern colonies lacked properly equipped men and all the youth in those parts ready means of access to the higher sort of schooling. They thought the discipline at Yale a little less than liberal and the training offered as a substitute in some quarters a good deal less than thorough. They wanted “a seminary of true religion and good literature” which should be after their own model and among their own people.

 It was not a sectarian school they wished. They were acting as citizens, not as clergymen . . .”

It’s not an accident that this speech tweaks one of its rivals, Yale, and Princeton clearly sees itself as a liberal institution in the traditional sense of the word, producing people of wide-ranging  knowledge and overall excellence who will practice the Aristotelian virtues of service and thought.   So may I strongly suggest that your essay for this prompt show you as a thinking and active member of American society who is concerned with the state of the world and the welfare of his or her fellow citizens.  (To be fair to Yale, I think Harvard has more suspects behind some of our recent economic troubles.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to come off as a hand-wringer or platitude fabricator as you demonstrate your sense of duty and your awareness of the Big Picture, and your essay should not fall into the trap of being too self-referential; its focus should be more on what you observed than on what you felt, on what should be done rather than on how to point fingers.

You should also not offer simplistic solutions to the problems which you  discuss–just look at the Occupy movement, which morphed into all kinds of weirdness, especially in places like Oakland, as various violent elements like the so called black-maskers and so-called anarchists infiltrated the scene–they were not always the same people– and caused trouble.  Seriously, smacking with a hammer a waiter who’s trying to stop you from breaking the window in the restaurant he works at is not fighting the Man, and the  Eat the Rich slogans do not have a lot of traction as prescriptions for change.

Anger isn’t a solution, nor are platitudes.   Though anger is necessary to get a movement for change started.   It just has to be channeled into something other than violence.  Ask Nelson Mandela, or Ghandi or Reverend King.  So try to avoid both overt anger and platitudes  if you write about economic justice and social well-being.  And keep in mind that in this country, having a shot at a decent income and quality of life is intertwined with that line you likely  memorized about the pursuit of happiness.

I would add to this that if you are writing about  social and economic justice, you wouldn’t want to appear as if you suddenly noticed the income gap last week.  A sense of commitment should be clear in your essay, and not just clear in the nice things you say. Hopefully you have either a track record in some sort of work or volunteering, and the best thing would be if it were in addition to your required community service hours.

For recent background on economic justice and its history in the last few years, I would start with this month’s fast-food strike, in which workers in hundreds of cities walked out of their jobs or took their day off to ask, en masse, for a living wage.  Start here, for information:  Fast Food Strike.  Then there is the Walmart food drive–for its own employees.  Probably you have heard or read about it, but here’s a decent summary:  Food Drive.  

I must add at this point, that these two items would be nice examples for an essay, but they don’t offer much in the way of solutions to the bigger problems, though I would say that a higher minimum wage would be a good start.  I add that I am aware of the argument for inflationary effects, but many economists see no problem for the greater economy with a national minimum wage somewhere between twelve and fifteen dollars an hour.  I don’t have time to get into the whole we-are-competing-with-the-whole-world/race to the bottom thing in this post, though you might want to bring it up in your own essay.

Did I mention that many fast food workers have trouble getting a second job because  fast food joints–the big corporate ones–expect their workers to work a varying schedule, filling in wherever they are needed in a given week?  Makes it tough to fit a second job in when you can’t schedule time more than a week in advance.

It is also worth looking at the Occupy movement in its early days, for the spirit of the thing and the reasons for anger–have a look at this link in the New York Review of Books for a good discussion of Occupy if you are interested: In Zucotti Park

A few other things to remember about this speech involve  Woodrow Wilson himself.  He was an internationalist who believed strongly not just that the United States participate in international affairs, but that we be, well, a bit Arthurian, a leader yet seated at a Round Table–he did want a League of Nations, after all . . . so if you are an isolationist or  tend to speak like the more hysterical members of the Tea Party movement, Princeton seems to suggest in presenting Wilson’s speech that you might want to go elsewhere for school.  Yale, I guess.  Or tone it down.

In concluding our discussion of this prompt, I mention my view that the Tea Party and the Occupy people share a fundamental American concern for fairness and equality, and that I look forward to some sort of shared agenda arising from these populist movements, especially if things get worse.  If you do prefer tea to coffee, so to speak, you might explore that kind of common value, which would prevent you from coming  across like, well, Sean Hannity.  Woodrow Wilson would not have been a fan of the Tea Party; in using his speech, Princeton is taking a stance that is both principled and political.  Keep that in mind.

Princeton Supplement Prompt 3

Using the quotation below as a starting point, reflect on the role that culture plays in your life.

“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”

Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, chair of the Council of the Humanities and director of the Program in Humanistic Studies, Princeton University

Pretty stuffy-sounding phrasing, but this is a great prompt, and not just for people from specific and clear ethnic bacgrounds.  Music, architecture, dance, literature, all the artifacts around us represent culture.  Cars are culture (and also capture the often paradoxical nature of it, the good and the bad:  with the car, independence and mobility, really the entire American way of life, set against urban sprawl, traffic deaths, pollution and climate change.)

Clearly, culture is an enormously   broad subject, so I am going to focus in this post on one area of culture everyone shares:  food. (I’ve already written about books–about writing about books, about books as culture–elsewhere, both in my links for Princeton this year and in other examples in my archive).

Whether your mother (or father–things have changed) makes saurkraut or brews beer or has kimchee fermenting away or simply cooks anything with regularity, you are in touch with culture as food.  Just look at holiday meals, how they are used to  pass on traditions, and not just in the form of recipes.  This is a rich source of personal experience for essays.

I’ll start my links with Roi Choi, who is a pioneer of the new-wave food truck industry, and who recently published a cookbook that is more autobiography than recipes; here’s an interview with him:  L.A Son.  The early part of this interview pretty much shows what I mean about food and culture as Choi talks about kimchi and how his native Korean culture is, for him, rooted in food.

Also roaming the greater L.A. area is one of the great food writers of today, Jonathan Gold, food critic for the L.A. Times and fanatical hunter for cheap and interesting ethnic food.  Here are a couple of appetizers that give a good taste of his writing–pay close attention to his use of detail and the casual but tightly written style he has evolved:

Jonathan Gold on Tacos

Jonathan Gold on Udon

And consider your own family’s food traditions as an expression of culture and get writing.  I recommend starting when you are just a bit peckish, to stimulate your descriptive skills, dining only after the first draft is done.

 

Princeton Supplement Prompt 4

1.Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.

“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?”Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.  

This prompt asks for a very personal response.  I am revising this post in the week after the death of Nelson Mandela; though imprisoned when I was in high school and college, he was still a presence in my life, here, in America, and in addition to your own experience, I’ll just add that there is no better model of how to address this prompt than Nelson Mandela.

The book Conversations with Myself is a good introduction to his life, and if you have seen the recent movie, you really should also read this, which shows even more clearly  how he lived the idea of racial equality, moving from his involvement in often violent resistance to apartheid to his stance against revenge and violence when he left prison.  It shows both his incredible will and discipline and his humanity, his quirks and foibles.  A good, quick  introduction to the book and to Mandela’s life is in this review, from The Guardian: Conversations With Myself.  

Princeton Supplement Prompt 5

Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting  point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation at the beginning of your essay.  

Michel de Montaigne, the guy who developed the essay as a literary form, also initiated many of his essays with a quote that conveyed an idea which he would develop throughout the essay, and he would weave in more quotes as he went, so this essay prompt harks back to the beginnings of the form.  Too see some stuff from him, I send you now to another link in which I mention this hero of letters, where I also provide a second link to a good article about his life and essays,.  Montaigne himself is a great source of quotes.  By the way, if you read an essay, say, today, and really liked it, and could use it, that fits the prompt’s requirement that you have read this in the last three years.  That’s called inspiration and it’s totally authentic, if you do it right.

Now to the central problem of this prompt:  starting with a quote can be hackneyed and the quote intro can also be used thoughtlessly or clumsily–for example, by jumping from the quote to a more-or-less unrelated idea in such a way that the quote is really an excuse to start an essay more than a true starting point.  And don’t force the book and your experience together.   You can write a great essay which references your life to knowledge found in a book, but it is vital that the quote–and the book–relate somehow to your experience in an honest way.  See my discussions of writing about books which may help you with the thought process, though rather than finding a way to link a book to a book, you look for a single book to relate to your life.  Be sure that the quote you used is not taken out of context, and that you deal with the essay or book as a whole.

If you searched “Essays that start with a quote,” in addition to finding a number of college application essay books, you’ll also find web pages explaining how clichéd and terrible these essays are.  If you were cynical, you might draw the conclusion that this essay is a trap.  An optimist might argue that Princeton is trying to breathe life into a venerable style of essay.  My view is, it depends on what you do with it.  Anything which is treated witlessly can become a cliché.

Alternatively, you can write a quote-based essay that is more obscure than an 8th Grade Confessional Poem Using Only Adverbs.  Be sure not to  make your reader have to figure out what the quote has to do with everything else in the essay and if you use multiple quotes, be sure that they are suitable and relate to what is around them.

The idea is that the opening quote should be integrated into or lead naturally into the opening paragraph and so flow on through the rest of the essay.  It might be best to look at a few examples of folks who know how to work a quote into an essay–you might try reading some Montaigne, or for a modern idiom, you could try this link, to Paul Theroux’s the Old Patagonian Express, and read pages 3-6, which don’t begin with a quote, but he soon uses multiple quotes.  This three-page section of the book has been excerpted as an essay and gives a good example of thought and action as Theroux looks at himself in relation to others engaged in the same activity.

I also suggest that you visit the New York Review of Books, which always has an article which discusses a series of new or recent titles and puts them in perspective. Have a look at my posts on writing about books, starting with this one, and you may find some useful passages for your purposes in this quote essay–be aware that the NYRB articles are meant largely to discuss books but many wander far afield in ways that may give you ideas on writing an essay tying your own life to what you have found in a book.

In the same vein, In the link here, you will find an NYRB discussion of Michael Lewis’ Boomerang, an especially good book and article for those of you who believe in the idea of economic justice, or even if you think our financial system should be run in a more ethical or simply open and clear way–the article linked here is a good model for how to discuss a book both in relation to oneself and to the larger world, which is part of what they want from you in this prompt.  Of course, you should also be able to show yourself doing something beyond simply observing.  It would help, of course, if you were a participant in some sort of action, though the author shows his own ability to think and does act on his principles by reporting on the book and the world around us.

Here are two  more specific examples from Joan Didion; both are a factor of magnitude longer than the 500 word essay but they still give you the flavor and an example of how to work with quotes.  Notice that some of Didion’s essays could be cut down to a three-paragraph excerpt and, with perhaps a sentence or two of more direct exposition, work as a short essay, like the one you want.

“Goodbye To All That”

“On Self Respect”, in which Didion quotes from herself to get things going.

That’s all for now, folks.  Good luck and good writing (and reading).

How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples

In common application, Princeton Application Essays, Stanford Application Essays on September 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Oh, and what not to do.  For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay.  Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros.  More on that in a moment.

Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out.  Read on for more.

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To begin with,  I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life.  Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into Collegeand, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below).   In it,  an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).

Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest,  and,  most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring.  The admissions director talks about  the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay).  This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you )  or why this has come to pass, something I explain here:  Common App.

So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s  College App show, and listen before you read on.  After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below.  More on that later; for now, here it is:  This American Life:  How I Got Into College.

Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons.  First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective.  Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the  protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.

As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here:  Prank Admissions Essay

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Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.

By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays.  The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.

So my first advice for the Common App is this:  Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected.  (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.)  This does not really require anything radical or crazy.  It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.

The next point I’d like to make is this:  none of my essay examples below will be student examples.  The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation:  if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers.  You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field.  Somebody with proven chops.   It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where  I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good.  Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures.  My caveat:  you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote.  Thanks.  Now on with the show.

Essay Examples

After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them.  I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.

Okay, here we go:  to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world.  I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational  exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.

So go to this  long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years.  Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below.  The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link:  My Wonder Years.

And here is your brief and painless editing exercise:  copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs.  After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18.  Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted.  Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word.   Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.

You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s  original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen.  Yes indeed,  a  nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic.  And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.

Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place.  The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes  with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have  in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.

Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital  This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here   the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another  great example of the Unexpected, in point of view  and attitude.  The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.

Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops.  The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above.  Or just  skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more.  Good stuff.

Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I BelieveThis link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays.  The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics.  The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids.  The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.

I do have one warning for this collection:  this specific  essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe  project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio.  So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or  This I believe: x.  An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now.  Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.

As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in  few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here.  Thanks for dropping by.

And remember:  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is  . . . theft.  Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante:  Wages of Sin.  Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.

LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, START YOUR ESSAYS: THE 2013-2014 PROMPTS ARE OUT EARLY

In Common Application Essay Prompts, Common Application Essays, University of Chicago Application Essays, Yale Application Essays on July 1, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Or at least some of them are out early.  

This post will introduce some of the essay prompts for Ivy League and elite universities this year.  We are off to an earlier than usual start for this year’s prompts, probably due to the increased number of early applicants; many of the important schools are not, however, posting yet, but I will introduce some of those that are online now, below, with a quick overview and a few of the new prompts themselves spliced in below that.  Keep in mind that this post is being written on July 1st, and the application scene will change rapidly over the next two to three weeks as many of the colleges get their sites up to date.  Some will not put up prompts until the beginning of August, speaking of which . . . 

The Common App is planning to open for business on August 1st.  If you visit the Common Application site before August, you will find last year’s downloads and pdf’s.  However,  the Common App’s new essay prompts have been released as a “beta.”  Unlike beta software,  these Common App prompts will not be modified and you can start working with them.  This split presentation, with both an out-of-date website and an early release of up-to-date essay prompts can be a bit confusing, but it’s their way of helping applicants start the essays early while not opening up the website itself until they are ready for business.  

I have the Common App essay prompts for 2013-2014 here:  Common Application:  What’s New for 2013-2014.  Then read on below in this post for information on U Chicago, Yale and others, including the complete U Chicago, Yale and UC  essay prompts for this year.  

As a threshold matter, let’s establish our position in the calendar: if you are a rising Senior, you are going to be applying for the 2013-2014 cycle, as a prospective member of the Class of 2018.  I say this because of the volume of page views I am getting in recent weeks on my posts about last year’s  application essays; last year was the 2012-2013 application cycle.  I know, it should seem obvious, but it can get confusing as old posts linger on and many universities have the old prompts listed under “2013.”  It’s also true that some of these old prompts are going to still be in use this year–I have one example below, with the U.C. system–but most will be changed, so be sure that you are working with the right prompts before investing any time and effort.  And no, I do not believe in practicing with old prompts.  This is not the SAT.

So now let’s turn to this year’s prompts: U Chicago got an early jump on some of its Ivy League competitors, having posted its prompts before June even ended, but  Yale has also posted its essay prompts and UPenn has, um, publicized its prompts. Harvard, Columbia, Brown, and  other Ivies are  still stuck in last year as of this post on July 1.  Princeton is with the rest of the Ivies who are not yet up to speed, but I expect to see information on their new essays in the next couple of weeks, given their history.

Let’s start with  UPenn.  The Quakers had this year’s Common App prompts up, but directly below this, Penn still had last year’s supplementary essay . . . The Ben Franklin prompt.  (Yep, that’s their mascot:  a Quaker; and yes, the Ben Franklin prompt is from last year.)  But wait, Penn Admissions Dean Furda put the new prompt up on Penn’s Insider’s blog . . .   Confusing, Penn.   To clear up the confusion, see below in this blogpost for this year’s UPenn admissions essay.

And Penn is not the only school with a blog by the admissions office that is more up to speed than their official admissions portal.  This has to do mostly with the rise of the Common App itself and with the move to electronic submissions.  The Common App effectively sets the date that admissions start for its colleges, and there is a disconnect between this date and when students try to start working on applications–the Common App itself advises starting early on the essays it requires, both in its prompts and in the supplements that the universities post on the Common App site, but August 1st is not really very early, given that more and more students use early applications and some students will be done with apps as of October 1.  In steps the blogs and insider pages for many universities, to fill that gap and help you get going before August–which is what Penn offers, but they should also take down the Ben Franklin prompt.    

Over on the left coast, the University of California is using the same prompts as last year, so you can get started on those now.  I will also copy their prompts into this post, below, and I wrote about these prompts last year.  The Stanford prompts and short writing responses are not yet up–you have to go through the Common Application website to get their supplement,  but I will be perusing their admissions blog and will put up their prompts as soon as I see them.  In the meantime, I’d get working on the Common App prompts and any others I post below that interest you.

As for the Common App itself:   forget about registering and setting up your account on the Common App website before August 1st; they will delete any accounts that were set up before they go live on August 1st.  I would suggest that you  visit the Common App to check out the site format and to search for information on the schools, which will include variables that each school considers when it evaluates applicants.  Go here to search for application information, by school:  https://www.commonapp.org/SearchEngine/SimpleSearch.aspx

( I repeat, do not register.  Yet.)

In my upcoming posts, I will begin addressing and evaluating specific application prompts, with advice on what to do and what not to do, but be warned:  I offer in full only some posts on specific prompts here, on the CollegeAppJungle.  Full access to all of my analysis and posts, including my advice on individual essay prompts, is only available by subscribing to my private blog or by retaining me to edit your work or to help you with a full package, including college application advising.  I offer quite a bit of general advice as a public service, but this is also a business.  Business requires payment, which is a point that has become somewhat obscured in the age of the “free” download.

If you want access to my private blog, or you want to inquire about editing services and college advising,  e-mail  me with either “college advising/editing” or “subscription” as a heading and send it to this e-mail address; I will send you an invoice and grant access to my private blog after you give me a payment:

wordguild@gmail.com

And now, here is a look at some of the prompts that are already up for this year, including U Chicago, Yale and the University of California (Expect to see me start writing about how to approach the U Chicago later prompts this week):

U Penn Essay Prompts for 2013-2014Penn Supplement Essay Prompt for entry Fall 2014:

“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; 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

Clearly, Dear Reader, UPenn expects you to know something about their programs; get started on your research . . . before writing. 

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see by the attributions, some of the questions below were inspired by submissions by your peers.

2013-14 essay questions:

ESSAY OPTION 1.

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 2.

In a famous quote by José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher proclaims, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (1914). José Quintans, master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division at the University of Chicago, sees it another way: “Yo soy yo y mi microbioma” (2012).

You are you and your..?

Inspired by Maria Viteri, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 3.

“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010

ESSAY OPTION 4.

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

ESSAY OPTION 5.

How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Inspired by Florence Chan, Class of 2015

ESSAY OPTION 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun

Yale University Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

Yale Writing Supplement – Essay Topic

Please note that the Yale freshman application will be available on the Common Application website sometime in August. The Yale-specific questions will include one additional required essay for all applicants, and one optional essay for prospective engineering majors. The essay prompts for the 2013-2014 Yale Writing Supplement are as follows:

Yale Writing Supplement required for all freshman applicants:

  • In this second essay, please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits.We ask that you limit your essay to fewer than 500 words. Before you begin, we encourage you to go to http://admissions.yale.edu/essay, where you will find helpful advice.

Optional essay for prospective engineering majors:

  • If you selected one of the engineering majors, please write a brief third essay telling us what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you.

University of California Application Essay Prompts for 2013-2014

As you respond to the essay prompts, think about the admissions and scholarship officers who will read your statement and what you want them to understand about you. While your personal statement is only one of many factors we consider when making our admission decision, it helps provide context for the rest of your application.

Directions

All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.

  • Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
  • Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.

The essay prompts

Freshman applicant prompt

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

Transfer applicant prompt

What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Prompt for all applicants

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

That’s it, for now.  Get a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  I recommend doing some writing every day, as ideas occur to you and also just to record where you are at or just what you are doing.  This will give you a large repository of information to fall back on as you begin to write your essays.  You would be–or may be–amazed to discover how easy it is to forget a good idea if you do not write it down promptly.

What Universities Will Look For This Year In College Applications–A Quick Introduction

In Admissions Data for 2013, applying to college, Changes in College Admissions, College Application Data, common application, Getting Into College on June 27, 2013 at 2:59 pm

What universities are looking for starts with what kind of university you are applying to.  In the most basic sense, universities can be divided into two categories when it comes to applications: holistic or objective universities.

In the first case, holistic universities take a “whole person” approach, looking at grades and  (usually) test scores, but also looking at other factors, like essays.  Whether this measures the whole person or not is open to question.

Objective universities use test scores and grades . . . and that’s pretty much it.  With the exception of some specific programs, your academic record is the sole measurement, so no sweating essays and recommendations.  On the other hand, with objective schools, you also have  little or no chance to persuade somebody to give you a chance if your academic record is a little sketchy.  And how well grades and scores reflect your potential is a matter of some debate;  I have written about this and about how college applications are evaluated in earlier posts, and I suggest you read this post from last year before reading what I have to say below:  How College Applications are Evaluated.  I will pause while you click and read . . .

Welcome back.

So let’s turn now to factors that most applicants think are more important  than they really are.  I must caution you before we proceed to keep in mind that, in this post, I am dealing with aggregated numbers, i.e, with averages.  Despite the trends and averages,  there are specific colleges which do emphasize elements that other colleges ignore completely–a college that states diversity as a mission will emphasize this in applications, for example, so being the first in your family to attend, or being a first generation American, may give you some sort of boost.  Other colleges that have small student bodies, a personal approach and active and committed alumni may put an emphasis on a personal interview–in one specific and extreme case, Deep Springs College requires an extended visit to campus, participation in the work and classes there, and a panel interview that can be, well, a bit confrontational, and this panel, which is dominated by students currently in the Deep Springs program, ultimately determines who is admitted after making it to this second round.  But hey, if you do make it into Deep Springs, you are getting a free education at a super elite (and highly iconoclastic) school that sends most of its grads on to the Ivy League or other super-elites for further ausbildung.  And schools which put interviews and personal characteristics at the top of their criteria are rare.

In fact, for most universities, in terms of the activities and qualifications that play a role in the application process,  interviews and class rank are not of significant importance or are not considered.

Surprised?  You have  a lot of company.  I  have some clients who follow their class rank like a gambler staring at the roulette wheel, even after I show them that it won’t really matter, and I have others who really sweat the interview and I have to repeat, over and over, relax, dress decently, smile and all will be well  until I have them hypnotized.

While there are probabilities in admissions, your college applications are not a crapshoot, and unless you suddenly turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, (Don’t click this link if you don’t like scary pictures)  or otherwise go out of your way to offend the interviewer, the interview won’t matter  other than as part of your overall expression of demonstrated interest.  And demonstrated interest is important, but an interview is only one of the ways to demonstrate interest to the college.  Talking to any reps the university sends out on the road, to your school or your region, talking with people in the admissions department and in the various programs, visiting the campus, et al, also fit into the category of demonstrated interest.

The reasons for the decline of the interview are multiple, but most importantly come down to money–with the enormous volume of applicants many universities process, it is, for most schools, too difficult to establish and maintain an adequate pool of good interviewers.  Over the years, alumni have become the go-to source for interviewers,  but they are often not really vetted because it is hard enough just to find somebody with the time and desire to do the job.  Interviewers are not paid or get only a nominal remuneration, for the most part.  As applications have soared into the many tens of thousands for elite schools, even after an initial pool of qualified candidates is established, the multiple hundreds to thousands of remaining applicants represent a huge interviewing challenge.  So when it comes to interviewing, my advice is to schedule an interview and follow my mantra, above.  Oh, and be on time.

The decline of class rank as a factor is more complicated.  One reason is the decline in the number of high schools who report class rank.  Put simply, high school administrators grew tired of the bloodletting that occurred over class rank as students vied to be valedictorian and salutatorian, and it’s pretty hard to compute rank in a fair way when comparing students who have, say, the same G.P.A. and same number of A.P. classes but have emphasized different areas.  How would one fairly compare an exceptional arts and humanities student to an exceptional STEM student?  Universities, on the other hand, have de-emphasized class rank for a number of reasons connected to variations in the quality and size of high schools.  The third-ranked student at a small school that is mediocre is not likely to be all that competitive with the third-ranked student at a large and very highly ranked high school.  Or at least it is not possible for the universities to assess a pair or students like these in an objective and accurate way.

Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:

In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.

A more important issue for admission is also a perennial hot button topic:  race (or ethnicity, if you will) which, after this week’s Supreme Court decision, will still be used in admissions–at least in the next couple of years.  The very last legal word has not been said on this matter yet .  . .

But here is the nut of this issue:  ethnicity is not really a major factor in most cases, and for those where it is a factor, this is only true after you qualify and at a particular point in the process with particular schools: before any additional factors are evaluated, the initial pool of candidates is established using GPA and test scores; then essays, activities and other factors, along with race, are used to determine who will be offered admissions, based on a scale that reflects what the university wants and needs.  A truly unqualified candidate is not in this initial pool.  I have written about this in more detail in the post linked above and also in this post:  Seven Rules for College Admissions.

Here is the data that the NACAC study came up with for race and other “personal characteristics” in college applications:

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

How Colleges Use Factor First-Generation Status Race or Ethnicity Gender
Considerable Importance 3.5% 4.7% 4.7%
Moderate Importance 22.5% 21.0% 8.2%
Limited Importance 26.0% 21.8% 23.0%
No Importance 48.1% 52.5% 64.1%

For 70-95% or more of the colleges, depending on which factor you look at, it’s not such a big deal, eh?

For the most part, your application  essays are far more important than personal attributes like gender or race, and the essays themselves often tie into or show something of your activities and interests, so you can cover a lot of ground with a good essay. Good essays are particularly important when you are likely to be in the middle of the pack qualifying for the pool and need something to stand out. So after grades, test scores and ongoing activities, you should be looking at developing a good set of essays.  That, I think, is the takeaway here.

To recap and to wrap this post up, the two most important factors in college admissions are, in this order,  grades in college preparatory classes and test scores on the SAT and ACT (AP classes obviously rule the college prep class category, unless you are in an IB program–more about this in a later post).  Following grades and tests in importance are essays, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations (I favor getting both, as long as they are specific and solid), and demonstrated interest also matters to many schools; below these factors in importance, for most schools, are subject test scores, portfolios (though portfolios are a must for some programs and do make a difference if you have something remarkable to offer) and, depending on the school, near the bottom of the priority list in admissions are interviews and personal characteristics, with the exceptions I noted earlier.  Do read the links I posted above if you haven’t already and stay tuned: I’ll be turning my attention to specific application essay topics in the next two weeks as the universities start to post their essay prompts for 2013-2014.

A word of warning, however:  As I start to write about some of the specific posts at elite schools, some of my posts will be available only as excerpted samples on this site; you will need to pay a small subscription fee to gain full access to all posts, via my private site.  It’s only fifteen bucks for the full application year, through April, 2014.  I call that a bargain.  But just to check, feel free to peruse my archives and to click on tags and categories for other posts.

The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014

In Changes for the Common Application, common application, Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, The Common Application Essay on March 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

The Common App folks are set to release Version 4.0 for the 2013-2014 application year.  They have promised to make things more user friendly, and they have changed the essay prompts.  Most important, from my point of view, is the increase in essay length–you have up to 650 words; you need to write at least 250. This is up from the 500 word limit of recent years, which is a great thing.

They have also dropped the prompts that I grouped together as the “intellectual development ” prompts–such as the prompt that asked you to talk about an intellectual experience or influence.  On the other hand, there are still ways to use the new prompts to discuss books and intellectual experiences. If you are bookish or  a fanatic when it comes to a particular author or genre of fiction or film, or have found an intellectual home somewhere in the world of books, you already have a large cache of material to draw on and there are ways to use these as topics for the new prompts.

Writing about an enthusiasm is particularly helpful in shaping your personal essay so that it looks out the window more than it looks into the mirror.  An essay about an intellectual or other passion is a good way to  write about something outside of yourself as a way to write about yourself.   Coming up with content may be much easier than for some other topics,  and you get the bonus of not  seeming self-absorbed (a real problem in a first-person essay about yourself).

I will offer more strategy on that soon and begin my discussion of potential topics for some of the new Common App prompts in upcoming posts.

I’ll close for now by giving you the new prompts:

The Common Application Essay for 2013-2014 Instructions.

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. 

The Stanford Supplement for 2012-2013: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

In Essay on Intellectual Development, Influential Experience Essay, Stanford Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay on August 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm

In this post, after an opening discussion on how to approach any supplement with both short answer and essay responses, including advice on dealing with electronic submissions, I will begin analyzing the individual prompts in Stanford’s supplement for 2012-2013.  I will include all of the Stanford prompts, both for short responses and essays.  Keep in mind that this post applies to this year’s prompts, since they are not changed, but some details in this and other linked posts are aimed at what was happening last year.

My links to more in-depth discussions include protected material which is  only available in full to my subscribers and clients.  My client services include everything from a full range of college advising and application support to editing on  a single essay.  Contact me for more information at:  wordguild@gmail.com.  I will book up rapidly from mid-August into September so don’t wait too long to contact me–I offer inspirational help to those dealing with writer’s block, as well as editorial help on existing app essays.

The  Stanford supplement requires a series of short answers–a couple of lines, in most cases–followed by a series of short essays.  When I say short, the range will be from at least 250 words up to 2,000 characters.  I would suggest writing rough drafts of 300 to 350 words.  You could possibly fit in as many as 380-390 words and be under the 2,000 character limit, but I always advise  having a safe margin–one of the most difficult editing tasks is to take a tightly written essay and knock fifty words off of it.

There is a saying, attributed variously to Faulkner and other writers, that,  In writing, you must kill your darlings.  This applies to you insofar as you need to step back to look at each essay as a unit and to look at that unit as part of the larger package you will hand over to the application readers. Anything that doesn’t help the whole package needs to go.  You have to be prepared to throw out even the greatest sentence you’ve ever written if it doesn’t fit the essay, or if it somehow contradicts something you’ve said elsewhere.  And you may need to throw out even some great sentences that do fit the essay if you are over the word or character count.  (Do what I do and write the poor, discarded sentence down in a notebook for possible use elsewhere before deleting it from your essay–limbo is better than annihilation and you may be able to reincarnate it in another essay.)

I also advise–nay, remonstrate–that you should write, rewrite and further revise all of your responses to the questions ahead of time, not just the essays,  and that, when you have typed in a response (typing from one of your already polished drafts)  you then take the extra step of printing and reading a hard copy before submitting.

If you have a problem with the preview function, simply copy  the text into a new document, then print it and reread  the hard copy carefully and make any necessary changes before submitting it.   I ask my clients to do this with all responses, from a sentence in length to an essay.  It is generally easier to see mistakes on a piece of paper than it is on a screen.  Of course this also takes more time than simply sitting down and banging out your answers, which may seem awful given the amount of time you are going to be spending on college apps, but you will find that a response that seemed brilliant yesterday may seem ho-hum or even ill advised today.  You should have spent days or weeks polishing your responses before finally you sit down to fill in those boxes and submit.  Think of it as two years of English class  compressed into a few months, and keep in mind the potential payoff if you feel like screaming.

Need I say that you also need to check that all of your short answers and your essays present a consistent picture that coincides with everything else you present to the university?  You may come up with something witty or interesting to say in a short answer, but it needs to be thrown away if it contradicts the rest of your material or otherwise may cause you trouble, by being offensive, for example, or simply. . . not fitting in well.  When using humor, check yourself to see if you are  coming off as flippant or sarcastic.    If in doubt, show your answers to at least two other people you trust to get their opinions.  Remind them to think like an admissions officer.  Be sure at least one of them is an adult who is not afraid to be critical.

And now, on to Stanford, beginning with the short answer responses:

Stanford Short Answer Prompts for 2012-2013

Please respond to the following questions so we can get to know you better. Respond in two lines or less, and do not feel compelled to answer using complete sentences.  300 characters each.

  • Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.
  • What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?
  • What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
  • How did you spend your last two summers?
  • What were your favorite events (e.g., performances, exhibits, sporting events, etc.) this past year?
  • What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
  • What five words best describe you? (My note:  you have some characters left after the five words.  Find a pithy way to elaborate.  X because of y, for example.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

Essay Responses

Please respond to the following essay topics using at least 250 words, but not exceeding the space provided. (I would shoot for around 350 words here; this will put you under 2,000 characters, which is their limit.)

Please print preview before submitting to make sure your responses fit into the space provided.

  • Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
  • Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – know you better.
  • What matters to you, and why?

Prompt Analysis and Advice

I begin with caveats and advisories.  As I pointed out in recent posts, Stanford, like many other schools,  is using much of the same material they used last year.  An overhaul of the Common Application site is planned for next year, which may explain why so many schools are using retread prompts this year–I assume that they are waiting to roll out a bunch of new stuff with the new app portal, or maybe they just think they’ve found the perfect prompts.  I’ll know more about that next year, though you won’t have to worry about it, having already written brilliant essays and gained admissions to multiple excellent universities.

What you do have to worry about is coming up with good ideas for your essays.  And since there is all this material just lying around from last year, and in some cases from the last several years, it seems like  a no-brainer to approach older friends or siblings who still have app essays, or to look online.  And I do encourage looking around so long as you are simply picking up good ideas. If you do know people who applied in the last couple of years, surveying them for their opinions is a good idea.  In particular, I would ask them what they would throw away or do differently as well as asking what ideas or essays they thought worked best for them.

The caveat here is that you should be seeking inspiration rather than direct imitation.  While there is a long and colorful history of authors “borrowing” from each other, directly copying or barely reshuffling somebody else’s app essay is a bad idea,  in a number of ways.  I would say that first among these is your own knowledge that somehow you cheated; within the exultation you might feel when you got that acceptance e-mail or envelope would be a grain of regret, a sense that somehow you are a phony.  And that sense may never go away, may still pop into your mind years later.  Who needs that?

A second problem in relying on close imitation is what I would call the cul-de-sac problem.  If you focus on specific examples, you can end up in a mental dead-end.  If you are too specifically inspired by somebody else’s essay, you may find yourself stuck, unable to find a new direction when the idea–their idea–goes nowhere for you.  So if you are going to look at examples, look at many examples before you start to write.  And don’t look for ideas by simply searching for successful application essays to Stanford or to any other university you want to attend.  Figure out how to create categories for different approaches to the questions and search–and think– along those lines.

For example, when looking at the intellectual experience prompt,  instead of starting by typing “intellectual experience, Stanford,” into a browser and spending hours going through page after page looking for examples online, switch off the machine for awhile and spend some time thinking of all the things you’ve read and done in school or elsewhere that represent an intellectual experience.  And don’t limit yourself to experiences with teachers or books or experiments.   Especially remember things that truly sparked your interest instead of things that simply seem stereotypically “intellectual.”  I’ll get into this in more detail below, when I address the intellectual experience prompt directly.

A third problem with imitating too closely is the fact that data won’t die until civilization collapses.  That essay your friend Jimmy sent to Stanford last year is still out there somewhere, and electronic submissions have made it easy to check essays for plagiarism.  So if you borrow an idea, reshape it so that you own it.  Entire genres of literature and drama are based on loving mockery or sincere imitation that moves into new territory (and this isn’t limited to parody and burlesque).  Write in that spirit.  When imitating, you want to be like that artist who finds a bunch of junk and makes a brilliant new sculpture which incorporates old stuff made by others,  but which is at the same time one-of-a-kind. If you cheat,  Big Brother is likely to catch you.

So let’s move on to the intellectual vitality prompt.  As I pointed out last year, this overlaps with the Common App prompt about an intellectual experience.  The possible range of topics here is wide, but whatever your choice, do not forget that you are the real topic and the hidden form of the essay is that of the argument–your argument being that you should be admitted to the university.

Let’s start with classes, which could include anything from science and lab classes through your humanities and arts classes.  But don’t limit your brainstorming to school or classes.  Einstein found inspiration as a child by looking closely at the structure of individual leaves.  Think broadly as you start brainstorming.  Maybe you started studying strategy because of your interest in a team sport . . . or for a game . . .  sounds intellectual to me.

While an entire area of study may inspire you, you will want to identify a single experience or episode or unit in order to create a focus,  a source of specific, descriptive detail.    Being able to show the reader some of your experience through specific detail is almost always a good idea.

But it is not enough simply to describe an experiment or a poem or a chapter on Gettysburg or a technique for moving up a level in a challenging game or for finding a weakness in an opposing defense.   Imagine your reader constantly asking the question “Why is this important? And what does this show about this kid?”  You need to show them that, which means you need to show your passion or show why the topic is more generally important.

This means you need to give some thought to the whole idea of intellectual experience and growth.  I would suggest that a sense of  wonder, of excitement is necessary to all real intellectual growth and achievement.  Maybe a particular moment in a chemistry class, watching the seemingly magical transformation of matter,  gave you that sense of wonder.  If it did, then show it.  Maybe a biology or geography unit suddenly transformed your sense of time as you learned to look underfoot for that ocean that no longer exists.  Maybe it was the time the fourth grade teacher gave different kids different objects from peas to marbles to a basketball and taught you about the vast distances in the solar system by having kids run further and further apart across the practice fields, Neptune or Pluto way out there across the campus, an invisible  pea held up by an arm that seemed tiny from where you stood holding the basketball that was the sun . . . If you start with an early experience, go on to show how the experience amplified and echoed through your life, is still visible in your pursuits and interests.

Also consider the  examples offered by the greats in the sciences and the arts.  Inspiration or growth which may seem sudden most often comes from long labor, repetition, tedium, failure.  As you start thinking about this topic, don’t be afraid to consider the role of failure and the importance of determination and discipline.  Fiddling with tubes and beakers or reading and rereading to figure out meaning are part of the deal and you should not be afraid to talk about these things.  Your essay isn’t a movie trailer full of explosions and leaps from tall buildings, nor does it need to be about awards received and competitions won. Try to keep coming back to those things that made and make you feel wonder.

It’s wonder and joy that kept Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Leonardo, Beethoven and Matisse going, the desire to capture what is seen, to know more deeply.  The intellect isn’t some stuffy dude with patches on the elbows of his jackets. You are an embodied mind and anything requiring thought may be considered intellectual.  I’ll come back to the intellectual experience essay again, but for now let’s cut to a few links.

First, to get the synapses going and to help you broaden your thinking, here is a post I wrote earlier this year on an interesting intellectual experience essay that is on a topic that seems anything but intellectual:  comic books.

See this post:  Second Skin.

As you read this, look at how the author engages intellectually with the questions posed to him, how he works out his own way of seeing things.  Whether it is in an experiment in biology or an argument if favor of graphic novels, you need to own the experience you describe.  You need to be able to make and stand behind your own judgements.

Next, have a look at my entry on Stanford for last year, where I discuss and link information on the essay topics:

Stanford 2011-2012.

Then get out a piece of paper and start scribbling down times you were both learning and excited by what you were learning.  Work from these to describe single incidents or experiences, including  periods of trial and error.  You can work out how to frame an essay and create a complete narration later.  Start with topic ideas and scenes.

I will return to the Stanford supplement and its essay prompts again soon.  Check my site again in the next week.  I also expect to post soon on some of the Ivies who have yet to put up their supplements.  I guess they’ve extended their vacations over there at Dartmouth, et al.

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 3: The Dark Lady

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag on Silence, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm

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

The Lady and the Prompt

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

Part 1:  Watch Your Context

As usual, I want my readers to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues they must tackle to write a response to the prompt.  This despite an e-mail about my recent posts on Chicago.  In this e-mail, I was asked why I didn’t just let people make it up, slap something together on the fly, in keeping with the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

My response–Go ahead, if you want to, but here’s the problem:  this isn’t a scavenger hunt.  It’s an essay.  And among other things, you would probably like to have an original idea for this essay, right?  And you’d like to relate your essay to the quote.   But how do you know if it’s original?  And how do you know what to make of the quote?

One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is.  You may have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it.  Just like Alfred Russell Wallace, who had a great and crazy idea nobody else had, so he sent it to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here.

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

So my advice is paradoxical:  Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.

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

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

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

Dude, you are so blowing your quote there.  This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spends all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say.

Why?  In the first example, Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in a poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman.     The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence.  Read it and see, here.    And it’s Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius who speaks the Shakespeare line.  He’s speaking it to Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword.  Right on, man!  Be true to your own selfish, murderous self!  Using this line as a positive aphorism is a good example of philistinism.    (Bonus activity:  Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)

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

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

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

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/silence.htm

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

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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

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

http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/susan-sontag/

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

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

Part 2:  Some Approaches to the Quote

Approach 1

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

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

Approach 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a closer!

The University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2012-2013

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde Enemy, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

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

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

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

2012-13 essay questions:

Essay Option 1.

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

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

Inspired by Martin Krzywy, admitted student Class of 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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