Alumni dauntlessly go toe to toe with this year’s uncommon essay questions.
by Laura Demanski, AM’94 | Photography by Jason Smith
Since 1984, the road to getting into the College has led through some famously quirky essay questions. Although the University adopted the Common Application four years ago to streamline the mechanics of applying to the College, it never stopped requiring applicants to write an essay in response to one of several strikingly original—and increasingly imitated—prompts designed to exercise high-schoolers’ creative thinking.
According to admissions staffer Evan Cudworth, AB’09, the biggest hit among this year’s six essay options was one that asks applicants to trace a path from Play-Doh to Plato. Early action applicants, whose materials were due November 1, he says, favored this question.
So did the few, the brave—the alumni who accepted our challenge last fall to join Class of 2016 hopefuls in slaying one of these rhetorical dragons.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON: 2011 ESSAY OPTIONS
“What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?”—The 2011 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt List
Every May, the University of Chicago hosts the world’s largest scavenger hunt. As part of this year’s hunt, students raced to find the shortest path between two seemingly unrelated things by traveling through Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia is so passé. Without the help of everyone’s favorite collaborative internet encyclopedia, show us your own unique path from Play-Doh to Plato.
—Ayla Amon, AB’10; Daniel Citron, AB’09; and Benjamin Umans, AB’10
Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment, Analysis, Conclusion; since the 17th century, the scientific method has been the generally accepted way to investigate, explore, and acquire new knowledge. The actual process of intellectual discovery, however, is rarely so simple or objective. The human mind often leaps from observation to conclusion with ease, rushes headlong into hypothesis-less experiments, or dwells on the analysis, refusing to conclude.
Tell us about your non-scientific method. (Diagrams, graphs, and/or visual aids allowed within your essay.)
—Megen Cowett, AB’11
Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it.” Give us your guess.
—Jill Hampshire, AB’08
While working at the Raytheon Company, Percy Spencer noticed that standing in front of a magnetron (used to generate microwave radio signals) caused a chocolate bar in his pocket to melt. He then placed a bowl of corn in front of the device, and soon it was popping all over the room. A couple of years later, Raytheon was selling the first commercial microwave oven.
Write about a time you found something you weren’t looking for.
—Ashwin Acharya, an entering student from Hunter College High School, NY
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.
Don’t write about reverse psychology.
—Andy Jordan, AB’13
WHAT DOES PLAY-DOH HAVE TO DO WITH PLATO?
by James Read, AB’80
1. Central to Plato’s philosophy is what he calls the Forms, which are inscribed in the eternal harmonies of the universe. Forms are also central to Play-Doh. Go to the website for details.
2. In his dialogue “Meno,” Plato’s hero Socrates argues that our understanding of pure geometrical figures like circles, triangles, and squares does not come to us through experience. Instead, we were born with those ideas. With the help of Play-Doh, small children are constantly putting this theory to the test.
3. Among the ingredients of Play-Doh is a small quantity of salt. Plato, too, should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt.
4. I regularly teach a political philosophy course that begins with Plato’s “Apology” and ends with one or two 20th-century political philosophers. Courses of this kind are sometimes labeled “Plato to NATO.” When the Soviet Union fell, we thought that NATO might disband and we would have to give the course a new nickname.
But as it turns out, NATO is still with us.
So is Plato.
So is Play-Doh.
Which of these three things is most likely still to be here a thousand years from now? That is your next essay assignment.
James Read, AB’80, is professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict at St. John’s University.
WHAT DOES PLAY-DOH HAVE TO DO WITH PLATO?
by Ken Monahan, AB’95
So, obviously we are not allowed to use a pseudo-homonym for Play-Doh and go directly to Plato. So I’ll use the fact that “doh” is also an expression of frustration by Homer Simpson, the longest running sitcom Dad, who, by virtue of being a cartoon, never ages. Homer Simpson shares his agelessness with Marcus Flaminius Rufus, a centurion during the time of Diocletian and the hero of the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Immortal.” In the story Rufus becomes immortal when he drinks from a magical river and thus never ages; after a few centuries he has lived so much that he has essentially lived the lives of all men and the impossibility of novelty destroys his will to live. He thus spends many centuries trying to die until he discovers the Fountain of Death.
This ability to find something unpleasant for which one is searching is the opposite of serendipity, the gift of finding pleasant things for which one is not searching. The etymology of the word “serendipity” is, more specifically, the gift of the three Princes of Serendip, who are the heroes of an eponymous Persian fairy tale. Serendip was the Persian name for Sri Lanka, which, along with Brazil, was granted to Portugal when the Pope divided the non-European world between Portugal and Spain. When I set up the office of Deutsche Bank in Sao Paulo in 1999 I learned from an interview candidate named Carlos Hashimoto that the largest population of Japanese people outside Japan was not in the United States but in Brazil.
Hashimoto had the same name as the nom de guerre of Carlos the Jackal. Carlos the Jackal is famous for holding the ministers of OPEC hostage at their headquarters in Vienna. OPEC was headquartered in Vienna because it could not get recognition from the Swiss as an international organization, and so it could not be based in Geneva as so many other organizations are in the neutral country. The effectiveness of Swiss neutrality led many countries to try to emulate it, including the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. This interesting concept of an alliance of the nonaligned was championed by India. It was on the shores of the Indus at the edge of India that Alexander the Great knelt down and wept, mistakenly, for the lack of additional worlds to conquer. Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle. Aristotle’s tutor was Plato.
Ken Monahan, AB’95, lives in New York and works in finance.
BETWEEN LIVING AND DREAMING THERE IS A THIRD THING. GUESS IT.
by Catherine Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03
Between living and dreaming there is a third thing, which is showering. Living is packing leftovers in a lunch box, putting clean socks on the kids, sending them out the door. It’s checking in with a parent, following up with a client, exchanging a bemused look with a spouse. It’s work and play, conversation and crisis, the pressures of the moment, of the body, of needs and wants and deadlines.
Dreaming is what happens when those pressures falter, overpowered by sleep or sunshine or novel reading. We spend most of our time either living or dreaming and comparatively few minutes showering, but in those minutes we solve, create, compose, and break through. Hot water hits my shoulders, and suddenly I’ve got solutions for the nagging problems that kept me up all night.
I “wrote” the opening and closing lines of my doctoral dissertation (and many a thorny transition) in the shower, even if it was in the Reg that I did all the typing. It should not surprise you that I composed much of this essay while in the shower. It should not have surprised me (but it did) to find the shower to be the right place to do the work of childbirth, once, twice, three times. (By the way, those are the only three times I haven’t felt guilty about using so much hot water.)
When I lived in Ireland, shortly after graduating from the College, I first heard the phrase, “to get your head showered,” meaning, “to clear your head.” To clear your head so that thoughts will flow, so that you’ll feel creative and productive again, doesn’t literally require showering, of course. A long walk, a leisurely drive, a bout of meditation, all gesture toward this same, all-important third thing that is not living, not dreaming, yet makes both of those things possible. But that Irish phrase has somehow stuck with me as my Irish husband has stuck with me. And the next time I get my head showered I’ll figure it all out.
Being from New York, Catherine Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03, wrote about cockroaches in her 1987 application essay. Now a freelance editor, she also serves as president of the University of Chicago Alumni Club of Philadelphia.
WRITE ABOUT A TIME YOU FOUND SOMETHING YOU WEREN'T LOOKING FOR.
by Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03
I’m bad at sports in a way that would make Robert Maynard Hutchins proud. In particular, I’m hopeless with a ball. Don’t ask me to throw one, kick one, or hit one with a stick. I can’t.
So I was surprised when, at 15, I discovered a hidden talent. I’m magic with a shuttlecock.
For years PE had been a daily trial. I’d dropped enough footballs and muffed enough tennis serves for a thousand blooper reels. When Coach announced a badminton segment, I had no reason to think it would be different. In fact, I didn’t care if it was different. I resigned myself to more humiliation.
In the ancient gym, Coach explained the rudiments of the game. He passed out rackets and shuttlecocks. Expecting nothing, I started to play. And:
I was a natural. I was unstoppable. With almost no training, I was astonishingly good at badminton.
In early games, I played my fellow geeks and trounced them. I felt almost apologetic about that. Almost.
Next came a match against a jock. He was an exceptional sportsman, a tall basketball star. He knew I was, by reputation, a hopeless athlete. He smirked as we got ready to play.
After I won a few points, he wasn’t smirking. He looked surprised, then desperate, and finally angry as I cruised to victory. Others like him fell. For a brief moment, I joined a sports elite.
Then the segment was over. I retired my racket, and PE went back to being a trial. But I am cheered by what happened. It suggests I have other secret gifts just waiting to make themselves known. Any time now, secret gifts.
Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03, is arts and entertainment editor of Isthmus, the alternative newsweekly in Madison, Wisconsin.
IN THE SPIRIT OF ADVENTUROUS INQUIRY, POSE A QUESTION OF YOUR OWN.
Beirut Nightlife: “Therapist” or “The Rapist”?
by Sami Moughrabie, AB’04
Moving to the Middle East in December of 2009 was an exciting time. I had never lived in the Middle East and I couldn't wait to get back to my roots and immerse myself in the culture and history that was primarily responsible for the revolution of the mind. I couldn't wait to mingle with the descendants of these ancient geniuses and digest all that intellectual goodness over a double apple hookah. I was wrong. Beirut, also known as “the Paris of the Middle East,” has been eternally doomed by an unstable political situation, mind-boggling corruption, unhealthy amounts of chaotic traffic, and some of the best nightlife in the world showcasing some of the world’s best-looking people.
Over the years, Beirut has seen itself go from one of the most sought-after destinations in the world to, well, one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. Except in the past, Beirut was seen as the intellectual hub in the Middle East, attracting artists, poets, doctors, mathematicians, and philosophers. Nowadays, Beirut's clubbing scene is attracting the superficial elite. The young Lebanese of today are riding the high wave of hard, cold cash that has been so generously handed down to them by their parents without a day of honest, hard work. It has become evident that Lebanon is fast becoming the “Vegas of the Middle East “ (Sinatra Vegas, not Celine Dion Vegas).
The Minister of Tourism credits the Beirut clubbing scene as the one thing that has kept the Lebanese economy afloat during these recent tough times. Beirut has reinvented itself as a playground for the wealthy in the Middle East. I have seen rich Arabs visit after Ramadan and spend their hard earned petro-dollars on numerous vices while they party with Lebanese 18–30 year olds who drive Maseratis and puff on Cohiba cigars. A $50,000 tab is not unheard of.
But at the end of the day, who can blame them? Beirut has become a beacon of hope: a social heroin if you please, numbing the pains of everyday life and burying the social and psychological effects of years of war and constant instability under a façade of Durkheimian collective effervescence fueled by strobe lights, coffee patron shots, and loud house music. Will Beirut’s nightlife turn out to be Lebanon’s “Therapist” or “The Rapist”? Only time will tell.
Sami Moughrabie, AB'04, is managing director of International Trading and Construction Organisation. His charity Children of the Revolution caters to all the needs of inner-city kids. He does not enjoy long walks on the beach and refuses to watch any movie that has Matthew McConaughey in it.