Posts Tagged ‘The Big Problem Essay’

How to Write the Yale Supplemental Essays for 2018-2019 (And a bonus look at the Dartmouth Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019)

In Community Essay, Problem Essay, Uncategorized, Yale Application Essay 2018-2019, Yale Supplemental Essay on July 6, 2018 at 11:59 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to Yale or Dartmouth and anybody who needs to write about community or about a problem that needs solving.  In my previous post, I discussed sorting prompts into categories in order to save time by creating reusable essays, or at least some reusable language.  To summarize the basic point, many prompts have overlapping topics that allow you to reuse material, which saves time and suffering.  In that spirit, this post will focus on connections between the Yale and Dartmouth prompts for 2018-2019.  For a link to  a discussion on how to write about a problem, scroll to the bottom of this post.

Background to This Year’s Yale and Dartmouth Prompts:

No doubt if you are reading this, you have already visited the Yale and perhaps the Dartmouth site, and seen this year’s application essay prompts.  Yale and Dartmouth have both launched their essay prompts ahead of their Ivy League peers, as well as Stanford, a move that suggests they are interested in seeing the effects on their application numbers.

Yes, the others have essay prompts up, but they are last year’s prompts, and even though little change is expected for essay prompts this year, I advise that you wait until each school’s prompts  are officially released for this year before you write an essay, so that you do not find that your topic has disappeared.  It have seen this happen.

The reason for the early launch by two Ivies is  easier to guess than, say, why Amazon is changing the prices of product x or y at Whole Foods:  Yale and Dartmouth want a boost in applications this year, by getting the work-intensive part of their applications up early.  Yale has often been a bit tardy in getting their essays out, so it is even more noticeable, at least to me (I do pay attention to this stuff, after all.  It’s my job).

For more on last year’s Ivy League application data, as well as a bit on Stanford, have a look at my recent post on early versus late applications, here:  Ivy League and Stanford Application Data for 2017-2018.

So why would Yale get out there to stir it up and boost numbers?  In my opinion?

There have been identity issues in the Ivies, and there has been some discussion of Yale’s brand slightly declining against those of its immediate peers due to a perception that it is not “STEM-y” enough.  Yale also sends a high percentage of grads into the financial industry in New York, which is a pure blessing for its alumni donations, but a mixed blessing reputationally.  Or maybe those folks in  Yale admissions have just been drinking a lot of double espressos (on ice, given the weather of late) and are operating at a hyper-caffeinated pace.   There is further evidence of another intent within the Yale prompts that is perhaps related to reputation, however, as well as to the kind of student the most elite schools have been working with.

Yet it is not like Yale is the only school struggling with some identity issues.  Harvard had a notorious cheating scandal–and you can see these institutions dealing with their own paradox:  it is so hard to get into most Ivies that some people will do almost anything to get admitted, and some continue their anything-goes-to-get-my-grades habits during their college years.  These things  may explain why so many essays this year can be sorted into the “community involvement” or “do good for humanity” category.

Yale, for example,  has three supplemental essay prompts, but two of them are really about being part of a community.   Note, by the way, that this makes a total of three essays for one Yale application (the Common App 650 or the Coalition App essay, then two of the three supplementals).

And what does Dartmouth have as a supplemental prompt?  Three of the five options are in some sense about being part of a larger community or purpose.  Of course, Dartmouth had its own cheating scandal, in an ethics class, no less.   Satirists take note.  The messaging  in the choice of prompts that the schools are choosing is clear.  Have a look at the Boy Scout Oath if you have any further questions.

Yale and Dartmouth Essay Prompts for 2018-2019

To save you the effort of toggling between windows, here are the supplementals for Yale, followed by a brief analysis, then Dartmouth:


After a series of short responses with an emphasis on academics, Yale presents this:

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application will select from the following topics:

  • Think about an idea or topic that has been intellectually exciting for you. Why are you drawn to it?
  • Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community?
  • Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international importance. Discuss an issue that is significant to you and how your college experience might help you address it.

Applicants submitting the Common Application: Please choose two of the topics above and respond to each in 250 words or fewer. (The bold print here is mine)

Let me point out why I sort two of these essays into the same basic category:  Both the community essay, which is the second option, and the significant issue essay, the third option are about engagement with the greater world.

Please notice as well that, when you begin to talk about being part of a community, it may involve things like food and music and family and geography, but it also tends to involve specific challenges–all communities have to be maintained and all communities face problems.  A quick look at our politics shows you that, whether we are talking about decaying mining communities in the Appalachian region or immigrant communities in Oakland:  place, music, food, all the elements of culture are there, but so are a specific set of problems that define the communities.

I do have something for you to consider as a counter-zeitgeist move, though–instead of talking about what it means to be part of some sub-group, is it possible to talk about what it means to be American?  Is that a community anymore?

I am asking this seriously.  I heard a teacher from a highly diverse high school interviewed recently, and he observed that his non-anglo students did not identify with the term “American,” seeing it as a code word for “white”.  So one thing I might challenge you all to think about his what means to be “American” today.  I qualify that as well, by pointing out that, in South America, people tend also to think about themselves as “Americans” in some sense, as this link will show you: “What Does American Actually Mean?”

I also point out that the question of community identity is behind many of the troubled headlines today–tied to the fear of the Other.   (What else is the fear of migrants in, say, Bavaria, when you look at it?  Well that and manipulation by fear-mongering demagogues, which might also be a topic for this year, if you have been paying close attention and can avoid writing a rant.   For the record, for those of you who read the article linked here, I have been to Duisburg and Berlin and did not see the rampant crime claimed by certain Bayerisch politicians.  Felt safer in both places, in fact, than I have in more than a few American cities).

This fear of others is a world-wide phenomenon now, not just an American problem.  Just beware of preaching or going off as if this were a class discussion in Civics or history.   And please note  that this kind of problem or community essay needs to have a strongly personal foundation in  you, your family, your sense of place within a community or within a term like “American,” and that none of these topics ask you to sermonize.

As an addendum to this short discussion I can also suggest that you listen to a short essay by the great linguist Geoffrey Nunberg–words and identity are inseparable, and Nunberg talks about tribalism as his word of the year for 2017 (which involves both a problem and deals with what community is) here.


Everything he said in 2017 seems totally relevant now.  He has a lot to say about related topics if you keep clicking.

If you have an appealing or interesting personal and family history, that also has a place in this kind of essay, but of course you may have crossed that box off already for your Common App or Coalition main essay.

Dartmouth Supplemental Essays

Here they are:

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

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

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

B. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.

C. “You can’t use up creativity,” Maya Angelou mused. “The more you use, the more you have.” Share a creative moment or impulse—in any form—that inspired creativity in your life.

D. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

E. In The Bingo Palace, author Louise Erdrich, Class of 1976, writes, “…no one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.” Discuss.

F. Emmy and Grammy winner Donald Glover is a 21st century Renaissance man—an actor, comedian, writer, director, producer, singer, songwriter, rapper, and DJ. And yet the versatile storyteller and performer recently told an interviewer, “The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet.” Can you relate?

So let’s sort these as well:  Prompt 1, the short response, is clearly of the “Why Us” variety which I discussed in my previous post. It is also really  short, so look closely at a few programs/aspects of Dartmouth that appeal and good luck.

Prompt 2 has a clear “problem” essay in Dbut this problem also implicitly demands a degree of awareness and engagement with the larger world.  So, a community aspect, define that as you will by the problem you want to address (and those you therefore want to help).  Again, watch the preaching.

As for community prompts here, that starts with B–history, legend, tradition are all community things.  Sure, it is about you, but it is about what has been transmitted to you and what you are part of.

Prompt E is also in about connecting to somebody else, whether because they are an outsider, or as part of just connecting, to which I add that some sense of shared connection, some sense of empathy  is always what underlies a community.    (Warning for this essay:  Beware of a Kumbaya overdose, for which the antidote is a good sense of humor).

And finally, Danny Glover in E.  Maybe what Glover was thinking about that does not exist is just being a person in America, without all that other stuff he often talks about as a comedian, like always having a hyphen attached to his identity, or what one has to do while black in America.  Think about what it would be like to have an America where that did not happen and Danny Glover was not an “African-American” comedian, but instead was just an American comedian.  Or just a great comedian.

Before I leave, I have written about the Problem Essay long ago.  Some topics not have changed  much, which says a lot.

If time allows, I will discuss problem essays at more length in the coming weeks.  But hey, when Yale gets its application prompts out this early, I may be busy pretty soon.  Speaking of which, if you are seeking editing help, Contact Me sooner rather than later, as my book will start to fill up soon.





More Thoughts On The Problem Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The problem of food shortages and famine

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

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

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

2. Renewable Energy

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

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

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

3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems

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

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

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

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

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

5. Immigration

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

6. Terrorism and Extremism

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

8. Social Justice Topics

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

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

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

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

9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

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

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

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

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