October 10, 2019

Dartmouth College Essay 2

Dartmouth College

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

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

Kind of a cool question. Dartmouth is generally good at making thoughtful, cool questions. Noice. Now, be extremely careful here because this question is RIPE for a fundamentally YAWN-WORTHY response. Let’s do… not that, shall we?

Let’s do it the COOOOL way instead. Think about a few BORING versions of family history. Think about someone telling you their family history in a way that would utterly bore you. Seriously, imagine versions of exactly how that would go. What would make you go, “Um, is that… uh, anything else besides that enormously predictable thing you just said?” or…. “Is that literally everything you can tell me about your mom and dad and grandparents and great-grandparents? I’m all caught up? … Thanks?”  Try it on your own, and try like hell to imagine boring versions. Here’s what you’ll find. The one thing that will be common to EVERY story that’s boring is… LACK OF CONFLICT.

If your dad was an army general, that might be amazing, but what if he loved being in the army? And wanted to be in the army from a very young age? And made it through without much hassle? And then went and had a great career? And didn’t see any action but had a great time, and came back and lived a great life? Well, good for him (it’s actually GREAT in reality), but for an essay like this, it’s the worst story ever.

Instead, if you found out that your great-grandfather emigrated to this country by pretending to be a woman, because that was the only way he could get by “a Gestapo-like force” … now we’re getting somewhere. Your ears immediately perk up, you probably have TEN questions loaded in the chamber. “Conflict.” “Challenges.” “Obstacles.” These are the key components of an interesting story.

So, first things first, find the conflict! Find what made any aspect of your heritage… tricky. But while this might be interesting as hell on its own, remember, we need to segue into what YOU are all about in relation to all this. Don’t force a connection by the way. Just because your great great-great-grandmother did X Y and Z legendary thing, doesn’t mean your conclusion needs to be “AND THAT’S WHY I FIND MYSELF DOING A B and C TODAY!” It can be connected directly, or it could even be “um, given all that, how crazy is it that *I’M* the current issue of all that!” Or it can be a different relationship entirely, that’s where your creativity will come through. And there’s an art form to making a smart connection OF SOME VARIETY. But you do need to connect it all somehow.

Now, what do you do if there’s no CONFLICT in your family history? Well, then YOU need to be the interesting one against a background of plainness. You are the Technicolor character in the black and white movie. In this case, you need to represent CONTRAST to something.

OR——if neither of those leads anywhere good, your final option might be, if you and your family are fairly even and aligned in most ways, the CONTRAST between y’all, and other peeps (the community, whomever), may be the answer. Contrast of some sort usually needs to be a part of the soup here.

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

The operative word here is ACT. The question is not, which of the world’s troubles… troubles you? There may be TWENTY answers to that question. Twenty things that boil your blood, incense you, shape your world view, blah. Congrats?

But which one has ALREADY compelled you to TAKE ACTION, or CHANGE COURSE, or RESPOND in some way? And that you plan to continue acting on?

Don’t shoot too high here, folks. If you seem like a get-it-done guy with a practical brain, that will carry more weight more than the guy who’s “outraged … more” with “the grandest designs to solve everything” but… with very little evidence that there will be any action behind the intention.

C. In The Painted Drum, author Louise Erdrich ‘76 wrote, “. . . what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?” Tell us about something beautiful you have made or hope to make.

Can you make something that’s beautiful and simultaneously doesn’t feed the world? Sure. You can think about that as “something that is beautiful only to you, the absence of which would not affect anyone or anything else positively or negatively.” For example, I just went into the kitchen, and with a broom swept the dirt and dust on the floor into a pile in the corner. I made that. I find it beautiful.

Um, congratulations? Now, imagine I don’t tell anyone about this inch pile of dust, and that life continues exactly as it has been. This may tick one of the boxes, but it doesn’t really tick the other one. The opposite version can be true, too. There may be something that you “do” that is wildly important and feeds the world somehow, but is also something you didn’t truly “make.” Imagine yourself as “Person Number 64” in a giant assembly-line, whose end product is some kind of essential nourishment that allows mankind to survive. Important? Yep. Feeds the world? Yep, literally. But did you make it? Naw.

So, what we’re talking about here is something that originated from within you. An idea that you brought forward in some way. It doesn’t have to be a physical thing. It could be a “party game” that’s really fun to play and ends up leading to an unusually interesting psychological exploration that expands the minds of everyone who plays it. Or it could be a methodology—how to “sweep the kitchen floor”—that allows a single parent to shave five minutes from that task and apply those five minutes to “spending time with their children” or “self-care.” Something you made, that feeds the world? Hell yeah.

Of course it can ALSO be physical. The thing you need to grapple with is where did it come from, within you? What needed to come out? Why? Why is it a good that it DID come out? One way to help get to this is to imagine what might have happened if you were PREVENTED from “issuing” the thing (whatever it is). Why would the world have been worse off? Explain it. When people HAVE experienced it, or have been “kissed” by it directly or indirectly, how are they “better” for it?

A good answer here reveals a sense of what a constructive contribution is, which requires an understanding of what “the world needs” which is . . . rather tricky. Because, who the hell are YOU to tell the world what it needs? If you’re not careful, you’ll overplay your hand and describe a thing YOU think is beautiful and elegant and feeds the world, but that the adcom doesn’t quite buy. So, if you’re going for this one, you need to spend a little bit of time EARNING it by building a case for why the world needs the thing you’re about to bestow on it (or have bestowed). Without that argument, your essay might not play.

D. “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

This one’s all about the word “reveal.” If you took that word away, it would be a very different question. Books and stories that “capture our imagination” are not hard to find. For a work to be revelatory, it has to have a much bigger impact than just drawing you into its world for the hours you’re reading it. Imagine yourself as an object in motion along some path, a “road” say. You’re traveling along, and as we’ve learned from Newton, you’re gonna keep heading in this direction, because that’s how physics works. Unless… something external forces a CHANGE in your direction. Or, a NEW path reveals itself. Or, an unexpected FORK IN THE ROAD interrupts your path, forcing you to MAKE A CHOICE.

When did a book or story REVEAL an idea to you (or way of thinking) that went AGAINST something you’d believed up until that point? Or inspired you to see something a different way? Imagine you never read the book or story, and continued on as you were, without being exposed to whatever ideas were in it. If your life would have ended up more or less the same, either the example isn’t the right one, or you haven’t dug deep enough to figure out how it changed your path.

Once you’ve identified that revelatory work, we can start writing the essay. The key idea here is that the essay is NOT, repeat not, about that book or story itself. It’s about the IDEA the book revealed to you and how you interacted with it. We don’t need a plot summary, a book report, or a review. Instead, focus on the conflict between you and the idea the book interested. The story here is “I thought ABC way, then I read this book, and learned about X idea, and at first I was like ‘that’s wrong,’ but the more read, the more I realized… maybe I was the one who was wrong! Now I think in XYZ way.”

Once you’ve identified that change in your thinking, we can wrap up the essay by connecting it all to your desire to go to Dartmouth. How does “thinking XYZ way” instead of “ABC way” lead you to Dartmouth? In what ways did the ideas revealed in this work lead you to take action or change your goals? Prove to the adcom that you can engage intelligently with ideas, and plan to continue doing so on campus.

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

Here’s what’s going to happen. A hundred people are going to put their curiosity on display here, and only a few of them are going to GRAB THE READER, and make them excited to meet this applicant. The others? They’ll give perfectly reasonable examples, genuine, all that, and yet… ho hum. What’s the secret? How to make sure not to be ho hum, and instead light a fire?

Well here’s a big part of it: by itself, curiosity doesn’t matter all that much. Think about it: anyone can be curious about many things. But it’s only when that curiosity MOTIVATES you to ACTION that things get interesting. It’s not about the curiosity, it’s about the ACTION. That’s the difference between “guy who watches Shark Week each year” and “gal who became a marine biologist and is actually in the cage with the Great Whites.” Not just evidence “that you have curiosity” or “are curious in theory,” but WHAT ACTIONS IT LED TO – and those things you did are what makes the curiosity meaningful. Now you’ve created a distinction between you and the next guy, who only had the curiosity, but didn’t do anything about it. What we need to see evidence of, is how you respond TO YOUR “CURIOSITIES.”

Let’s take it one step further. If you establish your curiosity well enough, your reader will automatically IMAGINE what actions should follow. If your actions MATCH those predictions exactly, you’ll be right back into ho hum territory. “Hey so I was curious about the REAL depth of Lake Superior.” Okay, we understand the curiosity. It would be “reasonable” to expect that curious person then to… Google it? Or, ask his Earth Sciences teacher? If those were the next steps, um, who cares? What if it went this way instead:

  1. I was curious about the REAL depth of Lake Superior
  2. So, naturally, I attempted created a mock Great Lake in my bedroom. Needless to say, it was a complete bust, but I’ll walk you through my approach…

Doesn’t even matter what the student writes next, we’d be sold. No one could have predicted THAT. Can you see why this is more compelling evidence of “curiosity”?

So to recap, you need two things. (1) Evidence of things you’re curious about, and (2) UNPREDICTABLE/UNUSUAL/INTERESTING actions that resulted FROM that curiosity. If you can provide an example or two of those two things, you’ll be in a rocking position.

F. Labor leader Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the organization now known as United Farm Workers. She said, “We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We’ve got to jump right in there with both feet.” Speak your truth: Talk about a time when your passion became action.

It’s one thing to be an arm-chair expert and talk a big game from the sidelines. It’s a whole other thing to hurl yourself into the fray, put yourself on the line, and walk the talk. In order for an essay here to work, there needs to be plenty of reasons why it would have made sense for you NOT to have done what you did.

Imagine an old lady is crossing a street, stumbles and falls, and can’t get up. The light is still red so there’s no real traffic, but at some point, sure, maybe a car will head in her direction. There’s plenty of time for you to rush into the middle of the street, help her to her feet and to safety. Imagine using that as an example of “and that’s when I decided to take action!” Um, it’s not that brave if “anyone in their right minds would have done the exact same thing, and you didn’t really have that much to lose.”

While this is an exaggerated example (on purpose), there IS a tendency of folks to overrate actions they’ve taken because they had a big impact. But that’s not what this prompt is looking for: A truly brave act, one that’s worthy of inclusion here, is one that required some fearlessness, that included a high potentiality for failure of some kind. Failure that had stakes.

“If I didn’t {insert action}… then THIS NEGATIVE THING would have resulted.”

“I decided to go forward with it, even thought I stood to lose THIS IMPORTANT/SIGNIFICANT THING.”

“In spite of the headwinds, I persevered and committed, because I knew that if I didn’t try XYZ thing would have happened.”

These kinds of statements may be useful in helping you find (and frame) a topic for a solid response here. There needs to be CONFLICT, and your success needs to have been DIFFICULT.

That’s ingredient #1. Ingredient #2 is your PASSION. I.e., “I did something because I care about XYZ… and if someone didn’t care about XYZ, they wouldn’t have done the same.” This reveals the other problem with the old lady example above—it’s safe to assume that everyone thinks old ladies shouldn’t be run over by cars. Everyone is passionate about “people not dying.”

In this essay, we want to identify something that you are passionate about that many (perhaps most) people aren’t. Then show how that interesting passion led to action in the face of adversity. The bigger the adversity, the more impressive (and passionate) you look overcoming it.

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