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Posts Tagged ‘Writing About Books’

Scoop! Princeton’s Application Essays for 2015-2016

In Essay on Intellectual Development, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Princeton Moral Obligation Essay, Princeton Supplement on July 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Otherwise known as application essays for the class of 2020.

I cannot resist scooping my peers and competitors by getting the Princeton prompts up first, so here they are.

While Princeton has not officially released its prompts, they have updated their pdf’s for those filing paper applications, and here’s the deal:  Nothing has changed.  The PDF is for the class of 2020, but the prompts are unchanged from those for the class of 2019 (That’s last year’s applicants, for you).

To save you the search, here are the prompts, followed by a link to my analysis of how to write about them:

Princeton Essay: Your Voice
In addition to the essay you have written for the Common Application, please write an essay of about 500 words (no more
than 650 words and no less than 250 words). Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approach the world. Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.

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

2. “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.”
Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University; founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University

3. Princeton in the Nation’s Service” was the title of a speech given by Woodrow Wilson on the 150thanniversary 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.

4, 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.

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, title and author at the beginning of your essay.

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

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

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

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

As for the Ivies, here we go:

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

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

Things To Research For The “Why Us” Prompt

Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know What Your Major Entails/Understand the Hierarchies

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

Back To Brown

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

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

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

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

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

Brown Majors, Departments and Programs

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

Penn

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

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

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

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

Essays 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Evade the Cliche In Your Application Essay

Evade the Cliche Step 2

How College Applications Are Evaluated

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

The 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.

Yale and Harvard Application Essays for 2012-2013: The Coquette and the Copycat

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on August 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Note to readers:  First of all, if you are reading this in December of 2013, this was written for last year’s apps; on the other hand, much of what I say still applies to Harvard as well as to other colleges that want you to write about a book or intellectual experience this year, so in those cases you should have  a look, but keep in mind that some of the information linked below is protected and available in full only to clients or subscribers.  You may e-mail me to get a subscription, which is normally only $15 dollars for the  application season, thoug if you use my editing or college advising services, the subscription fee is deducted from your first editing job or I will give you access to the private blog as soon as you pay for your first edit.  I do give a free editing sample on a single college application essay–serious inquires only to:  wordguild@gmail.com. You’ll need to provide some additional information and your bona fides before I do a free sample edit, though.

Where is the Yale supplement? As of 8/1/12 at 3:15 PM Eastern Time, this was the only information available:

Yale University Supplement:
Yale University allows this supplement to be submitted Online.
This supplement is not yet available.

Go Bulldogs!

What can we make of this strange absence?  Perhaps that Yale is so cool they can ignore Common App deadlines?  Either that or their I.T.  people are out to lunch, in the colloquial sense, which seems impossible.  I mean, it’s Yale, right?  They would know what they are doing?  Or is it a secret plan to have no competition when they put up their supplement?  Like a debutante arriving late for the dance?   While we await a solution to the mystery of the Yale supplement, let’s look at Harvard.

Harvard

So Harvard has put up their prompts in a prompt fashion.  But aside from being on time, this year Harvard reminds me of a kid trying to fob off a Junior English essay in his Senior English class.  What do I mean?  Well, look below at this year’s prompts and then have a look at last year’s prompts (the underlining and bold print is mine):

Harvard Additional Essays 2012-2013 

Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics: 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• A letter to your future college roommate

• An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

• How you hope to use your college education

• A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

Harvard Prompts 2011-2012 

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

• A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

My first hint is this:  most people write the extra essay, even if it is just suggested.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use, of course.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard now has six total prompts as opposed to last year’s five, with two new prompts and  the other four prompts essentially unchanged, aside from rearranging some words and a slight broadening of one prompt.  And of these two new additions, the prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate is a rerun from recent Stanford supplements.  Perhaps a former Stanford admissions officer took a new position at Harvard and  it really is a small world, after all.    This year’s  prompt on an intellectual experience is a bit broader than last year’s prompt on an academic experience, but then it also overlaps with the Common Application’s own essay prompts.

Since Harvard is not adding a lot of new material here, I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013.  I will be discussing the list of books essay in a separate post soon, with new examples, but these posts will get you started as you generate ideas.

 In my posts for Harvard last year,  I focused on the book prompts.  Some of this material, especially when it relates to establishing genres or categories for different books, would be useful in a “list of books” essay.  I will address the list of books essay soon in a separate post, with some examples, but the posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

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

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

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

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

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

I will be addressing the Harvard prompts for 2012-2013 again soon, starting with those I haven’t addressed yet and updating for some of the prompts I discuss above.  Stay tuned.  Hopefully Yale will give us something in the meantime.

Topic Generator #1 For The Problem Essay and The Essay On What You Care About

In Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Issue of Concern Essay, Problem Essay, Significant Experience Essay, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 12, 2012 at 11:37 am

Many universities use application essay prompts that ask you to write about either a problem of some kind or something you care about.  I encourage my  clients to try to come up with at least one counterintuitive essay, so let’s do something completely unexpected and go with  a retro subject that could fit both of these prompts:  libraries.  There is nothing more cool than bringing back something retro, right?  And what could  be more retro than a place full of printed material?

More specifically,  here’s my first idea for a problem essay or an essay on an issue everyone should care about:  The Decline and Fall of Libraries.

I use an e-reader, have a blog, follow news online, etc, etc, etc, but still: I believe, nay, I know that traditional  libraries are important.  If you think this makes me sound totally 20th Century, then read on–below you will find an annotated list of links to brilliant essays,  articles and a book, all of which defend and explain the purpose of libraries and all of which are full of ideas that you could use to develop your own essay.  Read them for ideas and information relevant to essay prompts ranging from the Personal Influence and Intellectual Experience  to prompts about Problems of Local or National Importance.  If a librarian has influenced you, this subject could also work for Common App prompt three.

Here are links to essays and opinions on libraries (and of course on books, as well):

Grazing in the Stacks of Academe–Here music critic Ben Ratlif offers a great example of how to write persuasively and evocatively; he also provides enough ideas for half-a-dozen new essays.  Example: How ugly can be good (even beautiful). Click the link to check it out.

North West London Blues  In this piece, published both in the print version of The New York Review of Books and as a blog post, Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, writes about the unremarkable but vital library in her community.  Her introduction is a bit roundabout, and some of her references are obscure for those who do not follow British politics, but the problems are similar to those we have on this side of the pond, and she makes the importance of her library and libraries in general very clear.

The superb book critic and social commentator Laura Miller has a good piece on the value of libraries in Salon: Why Libraries Still Matter. Read it and be persuaded.

Did you know that the destruction of print didn’t actually start with the internet or even with the computer?  Did you know that old print material is often destroyed by a machine called “the guillotine?”  Nicholson Baker can tell you all about it and  why places that store print materials on shelves are irreplaceable. Baker is no luddite fuddy-duddy; he was an early proponent of both e-readers and Wikipedia.  He also likes video games and has written about them.  Yet he strenuously defends the value of books as objects and he has written an entire book himself on the destruction of libraries:  Double Fold. You can glean a great deal of information about Double Fold  just by reading this excellent review in Salon:  Stephanie Zacharek on Double Fold.  You could also buy the book from this superb bookstore:  Double Fold at Powell’s Books.

Next up is Lions in Winter.  Big changes are in store for New York City’s public library system, and in this fine piece from the superb n+1, Charles Petersen gives an extremely detailed and fair-minded assessment of the changes proposed for NYC’s libraries, and in the process gives you excellent background and perspective on libraries in general and on how the world of information and books is changing.  Petersen understands the need for change but also knows the value of what may be lost, and describes it eloquently.  If you have trouble getting your teeth into this because of the lengthy introduction,  you might actually start with Part II of this article here–Lions in Winter Part Two– and then return to Part I.

The changes planned for the NYC library system have, of course, provoked a lot of response from journalists at the New York Times and in their opinion and letters sections.  You can get a variety of opinions on the value of libraries there, including but not limited to:

Sacking a Palace of Culture by Edmund Morris–he sounds a bit too much like a cranky old guy when he complains about the aroma of coffee, but he also offers an eloquent and even moving defense of the traditional research library, based on his own experience.  You don’t bump into a new idea or book in the same way online or via the Apple store or Amazon as you do in the library, something Morris and a number of other writers I link point out.

These kinds of changes have been going on for some time; meet a book robot here, and assess the different views of it:  A Robot Will Be Happy to Find that Book for You

On a more fantastical note, you might find this article, again by Laura Miller in Salon, which deals with the idea of a library for imaginary books: The Greatest Books that Never Were.

And as a final, tangential recommendation, check out this article, about an attempt to get a copy of every physical book and preserve it:  An Ark Full of Books.

That should be enough to get you started on an essay about how libraries (or a librarian) have influenced you, or why they are important, or how their diminishment and destruction is a local, national and international problem.  Keep checking back as I will be adding  posts which provide new topic and source materials, and I will be addressing this year’s prompts as they are released–most universities will release their essay prompts between now and August 1st.  As an example, I expect to see something from Stanford in the next week or so.

Starting A Book Or Intellectual Experience Essay: An Example Of How To Look Deeper

In Brown University Application Essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, Princeton Book Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay on July 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I have previously put up posts with detailed information on  intellectual and book essays–see the links and table of contents in the first column/post of this website.  These posts will also appear under categories and tags  for Harvard, Princeton and other University names, as well as under the essay about books,   the essay about an intellectual experience and under a couple of the Common Application prompt topics.

In this post, I will be looking specifically at one area of genre literature and even more specifically at one series of books as an example of how to go about addressing the book or intellectual experience essay.  The first lesson is this:  don’t just read the novel(s).  You will need to find give the novel(s) a wider context and meaning.   The way to do this is to gain a wider perspective and put it to use to express something about yourself as well as about the books that are the stated subject of your essay–as I will show in this post.

Writing About Books

The genres of literature which I will discuss here include Dystopian, Near Future and Science Fiction.  See this link for more information on those.  You might also want to see my entry last year in which I established a system for categorizing novels and gave specific suggestions for writing about the novel categories. (This link is a protected sample, available in full to subscribers and clients)

Let’s start with this assumption:  an essay about well-written genre fiction  can be every bit as good an essay about so-called serious or literary fiction.  For many of you, an essay about a supposedly pop novel will actually be better because you won’t feel trapped by the need to be as serious and weighty as you would in writing about, say, Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch.  It can be very difficult to write about greatness, especially when it takes the form of classic novels.

I enjoy reading the serious literary fiction of both Dostoevsky and Mary Anne Evans, but I equally enjoy reading a work of genre lit like Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Jonathan Letham’s Gun, With Occasional Music, and  if you understand how to frame novels like these last two, you can write an essay that is effective and interesting.  These aren’t  highbrow works of realism–the  Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in a parallel-universe Alaska and features a detective investigating the death of a possible Messiah, while Gun is set  in a near future Bay Area with a detective following a trail of criminality through a world populated by genetically manipulated creatures, including an evolved kangaroo-thug named Joey–but these novels have a lot to say about what we are now and where we are going.

Let me explain by way of example and provide further arguments for genre lit as a subject of a good application essay.  It’s all about the context and the archetypes, people.

Fantasy literature in its various guises has become the best-selling narrative form in the world.  In fact, the last two decades have seen half a  dozen trilogies or series that have been extremely popular.  I have little expertise on strigoi or other of the blood-seeking living dead, so I will skip the vampire stuff to focus on near-future dystopian lit.   One of the best written and most popular examples is  Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

The Hunger Games is interesting in many ways–it features a nightmarish, near-future setting, it is a cautionary tale, and it is an archetypal forbidden romance.  You can find elements of The Hunger Games in literature ranging from Norse epics up through Shakespeare’s plays and Orwell’s 1984,  and on through American culture, in novels like The Great Gatsby and in movies like Rebel Without A Cause.

Due its popularity, there are rich resources and conversations available for The Hunger Games,  many of them by  journalists and academics who provide detailed and well-written analyses of different aspects of HG and of the genres into which Collins’ series fits. I will give you a set of annotated links as we move on in this post, where you can find everything from character analysis to social commentary–these links often discuss more than just HG .  Some of them are excellent examples of what an intellectual experience essay can be, albeit at much greater length than your typical college app essay.

First up is an excellent piece analyzing recent “young adult”  dystopian lit, by Laura Miller, Salon’s book editor, who has been a heavy hitter in the book world for years.  She compares  The Hunger Games to similar works past and present, and she makes the kinds of connections you will want to make in an intellectual experience or book essay.  Miller provides  fine-grained analysis based on specific quotes from HG and other novels, and she uses this to support a broader set of arguments about both HG and some of the other recently popular dystopian “Young Adult” lit; here is an example from Miller’s article:

. . .  dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.

Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.

 Of course, this is only one way to look at The Hunger Games, but it’s persuasive, and it doesn’t exclude other readings–you can read HG as an analogue for the competitive viciousness to be found in(at least some) American high schools, or you could read it as a warning to today’s increasingly oligarchical America  about the dangers of powerful elites.  Or it could be about the dangers and seductions of consumer culture–Katniss seems to get a real kick out of some of the perks of the Games, while claiming to hate all of it . . . or HG could be read as a more traditional, science fiction cautionary tale about the dangers of the technologies we already possess.  After all, something ugly happens to America on the way to Panem.

Even if you have not read any of the The Hunger Games, I would strongly recommend that you read the rest of this analysis by Miller, in the New Yorker’s  Critic At Large feature  here.

I’m going to be writing more specifically about the Archetypal Criticism of literature soon, but as another example of how to analyze characters and meaning, I offer a link to an article a  New York Times article which is also focused on Hunger Games, but which gives you another set of ideas about what an archetypal analysis can offer as you grapple with an essay on a book or series of books.  So go here for an archetypal discussion of dystopian film,centered on Suzanne Collins’ characters  (this post is specifically about film, but you can “read” a film in much the same way you can read a novel, and similar themes can be developed in each form–which is one reason why so many films are adapted from novels.  Need I mention that a good film is an intellectual experience?).

Lest I give you the impression that the NY Times isn’t giving the written word adequate attention, also have a look at this link, in which John Green also points out how a number of  futuristic tales are really about the here and now.

Part of the requirement for the genre of literature called Realism is that it be an imitation of real life, that it hold up a mirror to the world; in contrast, a widely held view of fantasy holds that it is simply a form of make-believe, and so it is often thought not to reflect much about the “real” world, much less to be “serious.”  However, if you’ve read much fantasy or even if you’ve only read the material I’ve linked so far, you should be reaching the conclusion that, while science fiction and fantasy by definition are not “realistic,” they do indeed hold up a critical mirror to the here and now.

Let me offer another example, a New York Times opinion piece looking at the current rage for dystopian lit as a phenomenon that is linked to much of the “Tiger Mother” style self-help lit  out there, the idea being that economic competition and the ferocious struggle for the admission to the right schools  lies behind everything from the Hunger Games to Bringing Up Bébé.  (This could also be a good subject for the Common Application’s  essay on an issue of national importance, if you think about it–have a look at the NY Times article Hunger Games Parenting to see what I mean.  It’s a pretty persuasive take on where we are as a nation and what this kind of  lit is really about though, as with the links above, there is more than one way to interpret any of this stuff–which is why it makes such a great essay topic.)

And finally, I’d like to recommend this blog post by Stanley Fish, one or our great literary and cultural critics, in which he links The Hunger Games to the ancient literary form known as The Pastoral and its beautiful but melancholy momento mori.

What I am hoping you realize at this point is that it is legitimate to develop your understanding of whatever you are reading by looking at what other people have to say, especially if those other people have some expertise and genuine insight.  You can, indeed, access rich and diverse discussions of literature online, as well as cute kitten pictures, and looking to sources like those I cited above can be helpful to you as you set about creating a book or intellectual experience essay.  The idea is to read critically in order to  shape your own views, sometimes with the help of and sometimes by resisting what other readers and critics say.  Just be sure to use my examples and anything else you find as inspiration only, though a short quote won’t hurt if you give it context and it makes sense in your essay.

In addition to blogging about archetypal readings of books in upcoming posts, I will also be discussing further the role of form, of genre, in shaping meaning.  Stay tuned and come back soon (a word of warning, however:  some of my upcoming posts will only be fully available to subscribers and clients.)

Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.

The Harvard Supplement: Or, How to Write About Books Part 1

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Influential Experience Essay on October 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

This post specifically addresses a Harvard application essay about a book, but this discussion is on writing about books in general.   The advice here is also good for the 2015-2016 Princeton prompt on books and for other colleges asking you to write about a book in some way. I continue this thread for several subsequent posts, and cover everything from writing about a quote to step-by-step suggestions for how to write about multiple books in a single essay.  If you intend to write about books that have influenced you, these and a set of new posts coming out later in 2015 will be very helpful to you.  

Books are a perennial favorite for college app prompts and even when the prompt does not directly ask you to address books, prompts directed at intellectual experiences or influences or ideas that shaped you can be addressed through an essay on books.

For the 2011 application season Harvard took an approach similar to that of Stanford.  They suggested that, while they have more than enough information to evaluate you already based on other parts of the application, you might just want to consider adding a wee bit more to your application file by submitting some groundbreaking art or your Great American Novel or, what the heck, writing just one more essay.  Here are the topics suggested for their supplemental essay that year:

• Unusual circumstances in your life

• Travel or living experiences in other countries

• Books that have most affected you

• An academic experience (course, project, paper or research topic) that has meant the most to you

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

Like you, I noticed that the book thing comes up twice in a fairly short list, so let’s start there.  It appears that Harvard is hopeful that its applicants have vibrant intellectual lives and read avidly.  It’s also  likely that you only have time to do assigned reading, what with all those A.P. classes you need to take in order to be considered for an Ivy League school, but even if your reading has only been for classes, you must have read a couple of  intellectually stimulating and interesting books in the past twelve months, and you certainly should be able to bring some books to mind that have affected you–if you can’t think of any, what Harvard  may be saying to you is that you aren’t the kind of gal or guy they are looking for. They want masters of the universe who are well read if not downright bookish.

If that bums you out, no time like the present to start reading–a journey of a thousand books starts with the first.

But let’s assume that you  have read some books which have had an impact on you.  The first thing to notice is that either of the suggested book essays will require you to write about multiple books–and, therefore, Harvard is challenging you to do something which you probably have not done before or which you have not done often, for few contemporary English classes in American high schools asks students to evaluate or compare works of literature which they have read.  Most of the time high school students write about their personal response to a book or they do an analysis of some particular kind of theme–the river as a representation of nature,  in opposition to the corruption of civilization which is represented by the towns and people on the river banks in Huckleberry Finn, for example.  This kind of cycloptic essay is not what you want.   Yes, I did just coin that word to capture the narrow focus of these essays.  Single eyed, if you will, as opposed to the broad view you need for this Harvard essay.

In a way, this supplemental essay  will make an unstated argument of a narrow sort, which I may sum up thus:  What an interesting mind I have and what a well-read person I am!  You should admit me to Harvard!  Yet in order to succeed in this unstated argument, you must convey the capaciousness of your thought and the variety of your interests by writing an essay which makes some sort of sophisticated primary argument about a selection of books.

So let’s look for some aid.  To start with, you need to read some examples.  You need to find a publication which frequently features articles on not one, not two, but three or more novels or nonfiction works–yes, they said only books, not just novels.   You need . . . the New York Review of Books.  Like many publications, the NYRB is increasingly protecting their content–meaning that they put up a firewall and you have to pay to get at it–but in the issue online as I write this post, the NYRB has articles on energy and Alexander the Great which both reference, discuss and analyze multiple  works on their respective topics.  It’s a fine lesson in How To Do It.

If you follow my link to the NYRB and it seems a bit too high-falutin and stuffy for you, may I suggest that you check out their recent article on Stieg Larsson?  With the caveat that his would be a daring choice of books to write about, but one could do worse, as this article shows.  Just don’t plagiarize this or any other article, first on ethical grounds and second as there is an above-average chance that your Harvard Admissions officer also reads the NYRB.  It’s de rigueur for all us folks with intellectual pretensions or accomplishments, and for good reason.

Another place to look for examples is the New York Times Book Review (whole different crowd, confusingly similar titles).  Go to the nytimes site using my link and you can find some of this week’s articles there–scroll down.  You might want to see if you can access a review of a bushel of mysteries–this would provide a valuable contrast to the kind of extended comparison and analysis you find in the NYRB–these thumbnail reviews are fun and useful, but are probably not what you want your Harvard Supplement book essay to be.  They wittily summarize and evaluate a pack of recent mystery or crime novels, but are not very worried about linking the discussion into a coherent argument.  These are user’s guides for mystery and crime fans. Have a look at this recent example.

While you do get a strong sense of the author’s voice in the roundup of recent mysteries I link above, the purpose of this article is different than the purpose of your Supplement essay. You want to use a selection of books to make some sort of argument, as the NYRB articles do.  This could mean that you use fiction–a set of novels, for example–or nonfiction to develop an argument or to explain the effect the books have had on you. I leave it up to you to do some homework now to prepare for this topic, to which I will return soon.