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Thursday, July 08, 2010

A Sample Of This Year's Essay Questions & More

- Could not resist sharing these thought provoking essay prompts just released by the University of Chicago for this season's prospective students - included are also some classic questions from previous years. Actually, it's a read for anyone.

Essay Option 1
Find x.
Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Essay Option 2
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

Essay Option 3
Salt, governments, beliefs, and celebrity couples are a few examples of things that can be dissolved. You’ve just been granted the power to dissolve anything: physical, metaphorical, abstract, concrete… you name it. What do you dissolve, and what solvent do you use?
Inspired by Greg Gabrellas, A.B. 2009

Essay Option 4
“Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” - Overheard in the city of Chicago.
Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favor, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be “conveniently honest,” what other virtues might we take more lightly?
Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second-year in the College

Essay Option 5
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk and have fun.

Some Classic Questions From Previous Years

- Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.

Chicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture and explore what it wants.
Proposed by Anna Andel, a graduate of Bard High School Early College, New York, NY (2007–2008).

- In Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, he writes a parable entitled “Borges y yo,” which translates as “Borges and I.” In it, Borges writes about “the other one,” his counterpart, who shares his preference for “hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson,” but is not the same as he. “The other one” is the famous author; “the other one” is the one “things happen to.” He concludes this parable with the line “I do not know which of us has written this page.” Write a page. Who has written it?
Proposed by Zhuyi Elizabeth Sun, a graduate of Inglemoor High School, Bothell, WA (2007–2008).

- Modern improvisational comedy had its start with The Compass Players, a group of University of Chicago students, who later formed the Second City comedy troupe. Here is a chance to play along. Improvise a story, essay, or script that meets all of the following requirements:
It must include the line “And yes I said yes I will Yes” (Ulysses, by James Joyce).
Its characters may not have superpowers.
Your work has to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of a high school student applying to the University—this is fiction, not autobiography.
Your work must include at least four of the following elements: a paper airplane, a transformation, a shoe, the invisible hand, two doors, pointillism, a fanciful explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem, a ventriloquist or ventriloquism, the Periodic Table of the Elements, the concept of jeong, number two pencils.

- “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)
Inspired by Jack Reeves, a graduate of Ridgefield High School, Ridgefield, CT (2006-2007)

- The Cartesian coordinate system is a popular method of representing real numbers and is the bane of eighth graders everywhere. Since its introduction by Descartes in 1637, this means of visually characterizing mathematical values has swept the globe, earning a significant role in branches of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus. Describe yourself as a point or series of points on this axial arrangement. If you are a function, what are you? In which quadrants do you lie? Are x and y enough for you, or do you warrant some love from the z-axis? Be sure to include your domain, range, derivative, and asymptotes, should any apply. Your possibilities are positively and negatively unbounded.
Inspired by Joshua Nalven, a graduate of West Orange High School, West Orange, NJ (2006–2007)

- The instructor said,
Go home and write
 a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
—“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
Perhaps you recognize this poem. If you do, then your mind has probably moved on to the question the next line poses: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” Saying who we are is never simple (read the entire poem if you need evidence of that). Write a truthful page about yourself for us, an audience you do not know—a very tall order. Hughes begins: “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem./I went to school there, then Durham, then here/to this college on the hill above Harlem./I am the only colored student in my class.” That is, each of us is of a certain age and of a particular family background. We have lived somewhere and been schooled. We are each what we feel and see and hear. Begin there and see what happens.

- University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric, Oyster Bay High School, Oyster Bay, New York (2005-2006)

- Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus’s escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the basic awfulness of string cheese, to the Old Norse tradition that one’s life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children’s game of cat’s cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
Inspired by Adam Sobolweski, Pittsford Mendon High School, Pittsford, New York (2005–2006)

- Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
Based on a suggestion by Katherine Gold of Cherry Hill High School East, Cherry Hill, NJ (2004–2005)

- People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you’re startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
Based on a suggestion by Kimberly Traube of La Jolla Country Day School, La Jolla, CA (2004–2005)

- If you could balance on a tightrope, over what landscape would you walk? (No net.)
Inspired by Emma Ross, a graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Plainsboro, NJ (2003–2004)

- Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Propose your own original theory to explain one of the 16 mysteries below. Your theory does not need to be testable or even probable; however, it should provide some laws, principles, and/or causes to explain the facts, phenomena, or existence of one of these mysteries. You can make your theory artistic, scientific, conspiracy-driven, quantum, fanciful, or otherwise ingenious—but be sure it is your own and gives us an impression of how you think about the world.
Love, Non-Dairy Creamer, Sleep and Dreams, Gray, Crop Circles, The Platypus, The Beginning of Everything, Art, Time Travel, Language, The End of Everything, The Roanoke Colony, Numbers, Mona Lisa’s Smile, The College Rankings in U.S. News and World Report, Consciousness
Inspired by Akash Goel, a graduate of Saint Bede Academy, Peru, IL (2003–2004)

- How do you feel about Wednesday?
Inspired by Maximilian Pascual Ortega, a graduate of Maine Township High School South, Park Ridge, IL (2002–2003)

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

How NOT to Write a College Application Essay

July 1, 2010
Washington Post

I had lunch recently with two rising 12th-graders at the Potomac School in McLean. They are very bright students. They told me they had signed up for a course in column-writing in the fall.
Naturally, I was concerned. There is enough competition for us newspaper columnists already: bloggers, TV commentators, former presidential advisers, college professors. Many of them
write well and make us look unnecessary. The idea that 17-year-olds are getting graduation credit to learn how to do my job fills me with dread.
But I think I know what the Potomac School is up to. They aren't teaching these kids to write columns. Their real purpose is to show students how to write their college application essays.
Think about it: College essays are essentially columns, little bits of persuasive prose designed to be both personal and instructive, without too much wear-and-tear on the reader.
This reminded me, once again, that I have not matured at all, intellectually or emotionally, since I was 17 and a heck of a college essay writer. My favorite part of being the parent of college applicants was the chance to lecture on the principles of college essay-writing to a captive audience. I wrote a book about college admissions in order to inflict my views on a wider audience. If you have read this far, you know I am doing it again.
Let's dispense quickly with the basics of writing a college application essay. The first rule is, do not dwell on your good grades, top scores, club presidencies and other triumphs. The essay is supposed to reveal something the college admissions people have not already learned from the rest of your application. If all you do in your essay is talk about what a star you are, you will be rejected, because no one wants to inflict such a bore on an unsuspecting freshman-year roommate.
Do not be careless with spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don't forget the best writing has short sentences and active verbs. Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White before you start typing.
What else should you do? Write about something you care about, some quirk or habit or interest that defines you in ways not obvious from the rest of your application. One of my children wrote about his Little League coaching. One described her talent for identifying a song on the radio from the first few notes. One explained why he loved Howard Stern.

They found ways to use these themes, even the odd ones, to reveal a personal value that was important to them and, hopefully, impressive to admissions officers. I advised them to take one more step, the only original suggestion you will find in this essay. Reveal an endearing flaw, I said, some bit of self-deprecation that will convince the college that you would be a pleasant person to have around.
Is the essay about your love of chess? Describe the day you set your high school team's record for being checkmated. Are you writing about your effort to ride every bike trail in the state? Say how you felt when you got hopelessly lost in the woods and had to be guided to safety by a passing Cub Scout troop.
Let others read your work. Listen to their suggestions, but trust your instincts. Be true to yourself.
I am sending this column to that teacher at Potomac who seems to think he can teach anybody to do what I do. If he gives me a grade, I may tell you what it is, as long as it doesn't rupture my adolescent level of self-esteem.

By Jay Matthews