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College Essays


1999-2000 Essay Question

Mary Oliver teaches literature and writing at Bennington College. In1983, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her sixth book of poems, "American Primitive." This is a poem from her 1990 collection, "House of Light":

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean- -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Copyright Mary Oliver 1990

Write about something that you think is worth paying attention to. It does not have to be a creature that lives in the grass; it might be a person who works at the store on the comer, or the manner in which your grandmother answers questions - or any other subject that you find fascinating.

University of Chicago

1999-2000 Essay Question

The late eighteenth-century popular philosopher and cultural critic Goorg Lichtenberg wrote, "Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, etc. . . . at times before they're worn out and at times - and this is worst of all - before we have new ones." Write an essay about something you have outgrown, perhaps before you had a replacement - a friend, a political philosophy, a favorite author, or anything that has bad an influence on you. What, if anything, has taken its place?

1998-1999 Essay Questions

Essay Option 2: Names have a mysterious reality of their own. We may well feel an unexpected kinship with someone who shares our name, or may feel uneasy at the thought that our name is not as much our own as we imagined. Most of us do not choose our names; they come to us unbidden, sometimes with ungainly sounds and spellings, complicated family histories, allusions to people we never knew. Sometimes we have to make our peace with them, sometimes we bask in our name's associations. Ruminate on names and naming, your name, and your name's relationship to you.

Essay Option 3: The late William Burroughs once wrote that "language is a virus from outer space." He's right, of course, and this leaves us wondering what else came here with it. Could this finally explain such improbable features of modern life as the Federal Tax Code, non-dairy creamer, Dennis Rodman, and the art of mime? Name something that you assert cannot have originated any other way. Offer a thorough defense of your hypothesis for extraterrestrial origins, including alternate explanations and reasons for eliminating them from consideration.

1997-1998 Essay Questions

Elvis is alive! Okay, maybe not, but here in the Office of College Admissions we are persuaded that current Elvis sightings in highway rest areas, grocery stores, and laundromats are part of a wider conspiracy involving five of the following : the metric system, the Mall of America, the crash of the Hindenburg, Heisenberg'' uncertainty principle, lint, J.D. Salinger, and wax fruit. Help us get to the bottom of this evil plot by constructing your own theory of how and why five of these items and events are related. Your narrative may take any form you like, but try to keep your theory to under two pages.

Modern improvisational comedy originated in Hyde Park on the campus of the University of Chicago with the Compass Players. Some of the Players went on to form the Second City comedy troupe, precursor to the Saturday Night Live show on TV. With this essay option we invite you to test your own improvisational powers by putting together a story, play, or dialogue that meets all of the following requirements,
1. You must begin with the sentence, "Many years later, he remembered his first experience with ice."
2. All five senses - sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell - have to figure in the plot.
3. You have to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of an erstwhile high school student applying to the University - this is fiction, not autobiography.
4. These items must be included : a new pair of socks, a historical landmark, a spork (the combination spoon and fork frequently seen among airline flatware), a domesticated animal, and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Have fun, and try to keep your brilliance and wit to three pages.

1996-1997 Essay Question

As some of you know, modern improvisational comedy originated in Hyde Park on the campus of the University of Chicago with the Compass Players. Here is a chance to play an improve game yourself (and to complete a college application in the bargain). Construct a dialogue or story that meets the following requirements,
1. Your story should involve two people meeting at the frozen food section of a supermarket, and incorporate your favorite country music song. (We know you have one!)
2. Your story must include in its narrative or dialogue each of these four lines taken from pages 1, 13, 31, and 107 of the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.
a. When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things.
b. How true is that words are but vague shadows of the volumes we mean.
c. Ah the long winter in Chicago --- the lights, the crowd, the amusement! This was a great pleasing metropolis after all.
d. Several times, their eyes accidentally met, and then there poured into hers such a flood of feeling as she had never before experienced.
3.You may arrange the required lines in any order and style you like. All we ask is that you please keep the story to no more than three pages.
Note: The intrepid among you may want to strike out on your own. Tell us what book other than Sister Carrie you have chosen and pick one line each from pages 1, 13, 31, and 107. Have fun! (We insist!)

1995-1996 Essay Question

Modern improvisational comedy originated in Hyde Park on the campus of the University of Chicago with the Compass Players. Here is a chance to play an improve game yourself (and to complete a college application in the bargain). Improvise a story that meets all of the following requirements,
1. Your story must begin with the sentence, "I never knew they could do that with ordinary string," and it must have an ending other than death.
2. Its characters must not have superpowers.
3. It should describe a daring rescue from some dilemma, whether physical, intellectual, interpersonal, or moral.
4. You have to mention the University of Chicago, but please, no accounts of an erstwhile high school student applying to the University - this is fiction, not autobiography.
5. These items must be included : a rubber ball, a domesticated animal, the name of a famous, and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Please keep your narrative under five pages. (It's supposed to be short story)

Other Essays

For a Chinese Bureaucrat in imperial times, a citizen of ancient Rome, a South Sea Islander, or an Onondaga Clan mother among the Iroquois, precise knowledge of one's descent from an ancestor was essential for understanding his or her role in society. However, in the modern United States, it is possible to have a role in society with little or no knowledge of one's ancestors.
Write an essay about one or more of your ancestors and try to imagine what it means that you and this ancestor are kin. Alternatively, what does it mean that you, like some of us, are without knowable ancestors or that you feel no meaningful connection to those ancestors whom you do know?

There are many kinds of times : geological, biological, or astronomical time, for example, and human time in its countless varieties including springtime, periods of grief, musical measures, computing time, epochs in history, game time, or party time. Mechanisms for keeping time have included springs and gears, water clocks, and calendars of every sort - solar and lunar, and even among the Andaman Islanders, a calendar of scent based on the blossoming of fragrant plants.
Write an essay about time. You may approach this essay as a poet -essayist who tries to capture the qualities of our human experience in time, as a historian, as a religious believer, or perhaps as a philosopher. You may even wish to invent a new measure of time. Feel to be serious or fanciful.

The Kinaaldá ceremony marks the transition from childhood to adulthood for a Navajo girl. Over the course of four nights and five days, the girl must prove herself by completing a series of tasks patterned on the career of the goddess, Changing Woman. Throughout out the ritual, the initiate is repeatedly massaged by older women of good character, for tradition states that at the time of her initiation, a girl's body should become soft again as it was at birth. In that way can she be totally receptive to the hands, minds, and speech of those who instruct her in the ways of life as an adult member of the community.
In many cultures the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by a formal religious ceremony rich in meaning for its participants. But in modern industrial societies there is no ritual or religious event to mark the transition, or else the observance pales in comparison to what was once a crucial event in a person's life. Does this mean that after thousands of years of practicing ceremony and ritual, initiation into adulthood is no longer necessary? Does it mean that we experience initiation in different, subtle ways? Has something been lost because we are no longer formally initiated into adult life? What exactly does it mean to come of age today?

In a book entitled "The Mind's I", philosopher Daniel S. Dennece posed the following problem. Suppose you are an astronaut stranded on Mars whose spaceship has broken down beyond repair. In your disabled craft there is a Teleclone Mark IV teleporter that can swiftly and painlessly dismantle your body, producing a molecule-by-molecule blueprint that can be beamed to Earth. On Earth a Teleclone receiver stocked with the requisite molecules can reproduce, from the beamed instructions, you -- complete with all your memories, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. If you activate the Teleclone Mark IV, which astronaut are you - the one who is disassembled on Mars or the astronaut who is produced from the teleporter blueprint on Earth? Suppose further that an improved Teleclone Mark V is developed that can obtain its blueprints without destroying the original. Are you the two astronauts at once? If not which one are you?

University of Virginia

1999-2000 Essay Questions

Answer one of the following questions. Limit your responses to half a page, or approximately 250 words,
a. Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about.

b. If you could cause any one living person to change his or her mind about one thing, whom would you pick and how would you change his or her thinking?

c. "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." So says the lawyer Gavin Stevens near the end of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. To borrow Stevens' words, what small event either from your personal history or the history of the world, is neither "dead" nor "past."

d. Does discrimination still exist? What single experience or event has led you to your conclusion?

e. What is your favorite word, and why?

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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