How would you approach this college admissions essay prompt?
June 9, 2009 10:26 PM   Subscribe

How would you approach this college admissions essay prompt? "Discuss anything you wish you understood better than you do now. "

Background: At this point in his life my son has wide ranging interests: politics, American history, economics, web design and web hosting/servers.

He has worked on several political campaigns and has won a couple awards/honors in web design competitions.

His biggest strength is leadership. He's worked as a project leader on several successful projects, team captain of most of his sports teams, etc.

Biggest weakness: He's extremely concise when writing and thinks this prompt is really not very open ended. From his POV, if he wanted to "understand something better than he does now," he would just do it! He wouldn't spend 3 days writing an essay about it, he'd google it, listen to a podcast, or read a book about it.

To a 17-year-old homeschooled kid who has grown up in the age of information at his fingertips, a question like that is foreign to his vocabulary. Still, this essay has a due date looming...
posted by caroljean63 to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I actually had almost this exact prompt for a composition class. I decided I didn't understand girls, so I wrote about that.

Ended up winning an award, so it was at least a valid choice.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:28 PM on June 9, 2009

This prompt is about demonstrating insight about one's lack of knowledge in a certain area that one has interest in. It is designed to allow an admissions essay reader to gauge a student's level of motivation, their self-awareness, their problem-solving ability, how they reach goals, what avenues they choose, are they process-motivated, are they unphased and bold or are they cautious and calculating when approaching this task? This, and many other things. The reader could give a crap less about the subject matter. It's just the vehicle.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:38 PM on June 9, 2009

He needs to think bigger - something that he can't learn in just a day or two of browsing. "Discuss" gives him room to talk about why he wants to understand it better, as well as how he might like to go about understanding it better. Try the question this way: if you have an entire semester to study one topic and could go about learning it any way you wanted, what would you do.
posted by metahawk at 10:42 PM on June 9, 2009

Has he heard of the phrase, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know?" I am currently writing a dissertation and I wish I understood my own field a lot better than I do now.

Don't think of it like grabbing some random topic he doesn't know and writing about how he doesn't understand it. Googling and reading for three days gives a person only the most superficial understanding of a topic. It's when you really learn more about something that you realize how many questions are out there. Surely there are topics that he may know a lot about but that continually raise questions.

I like the example about girls.
posted by kosmonaut at 10:43 PM on June 9, 2009

The answer is straightforward (for me at least). Myself. It was true when I was about to enter college, and is still true ten years later.

Higher education is about coming to understand yourself more than anything else.
posted by kyle.obrien at 10:46 PM on June 9, 2009

It doesn't necessarily have to be a research topic, as your question implies. How does Google, a podcast, or a book teach you to understand something like love, wonder/awe, or how much soul the music of Charles Mingus had? Basically, the question is in the application to weed out automatons.

Possible topics, at least based on your background info:
posted by LionIndex at 10:46 PM on June 9, 2009

"From his POV, if he wanted to "understand something better than he does now," he would just do it!"

This is not what a college admissions board wants to hear, especially considering that one way of characterizing college is as a two or four year supported experience in learning to "understand something better than he does now." If he honestly can't think of something, then college is probably not for him. Perhaps he would grasp the question better if it were reframed as "Discuss a topic/field that you'd like to learn more about"?

Writing college essays is difficult and stressful, and for what it's worth, when I was in his shoes I came up with many similarly ridiculous excuses for why I couldn't seem to successfully answer any given prompt. He's copping out -- this is not about "growing up in the information age," it's about being a teenager.
posted by telegraph at 10:47 PM on June 9, 2009

Tell him to do some research on what it's like - subjectively - to be a black South African woman taking a tour of rural Japan. Good luck with that.

There has got to be something this kid doesn't know. Not all knowledge is objective and can be found in books.

Also, you could refer to the poet Donald Rumsfeld:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 PM on June 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would meta this one. If someone asked me this today, I'd say something about wanting to have a better mental landscape of what I knew and what I didn't. For me, one of the most exciting parts of learning is realizing just how much I DON'T know, and I find I only hit that moment right after think I've got a handle on a subject.
posted by lauranesson at 11:09 PM on June 9, 2009

Has he heard of the phrase, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know?"

Or as Einstein put it, "As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it." But to the question at hand:

To a 17-year-old homeschooled kid who has grown up in the age of information at his fingertips...

Here's another meta approach: I'd like to better understand how to determine whether information is reliable.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:18 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Biggest weakness: He's extremely concise when writing and thinks this prompt is really not very open ended. From his POV, if he wanted to "understand something better than he does now," he would just do it! He wouldn't spend 3 days writing an essay about it, he'd google it, listen to a podcast, or read a book about it.

For real? He's never googled anything and still not understood it? You mention his growing up with "information at his fingertips", there seems to me to be a big difference between "information" and "understanding". (I also suspect if he's getting some kind of 'silly college application question!' vibe from his parents that might not be super productive) Maybe he's not wondering about things that are very tricky. Did he listen to a podcast about what's gonna happen to you when you die?

I'll tell you how I would _not_ interpret it: however someone on a website said to. That's going to come out sounding all crappy and coached.

In the spirit of the 'girls' response, and to keep this from being a complete non-answer, I'll throw in an example from my pops. My dad told me that when he was your kid's age, old men would always say, "Oh, lordy, to be 17 again. If I only knew then what I know now..." My father, being a real practical sort, would go up to these guys and be like, "well, jesus, what do you know now? JUST TELL ME! I actually am 17!" He said every time he asked somebody this question they'd just laugh it off and go back to what they were doing or maybe drop some aphorism on him, except one guy. That guy kind of smiled and laughed to himself and as he looked off he said, "well, you know, I tell you...I'd keep the car I had when I was 17. Damn, that would be sweet to have now." In addition to being a practical sort, if a bit literal at that age, my pops is a real gearhead (or as he would say, "I know my wrenches"). He'd miraculously cobbled together some sort of a ride out of an old (even in those days) '48 Dodge with suicide doors. So, taking this advice at face value, he held on to the car. He's been lugging that musty heap from place to place for the better part of his whole life now. I don't really know how he looks on this episode at this point, but I know he still has the car, and I also know the car itself brings him no joy. Far as I know it is not driveable. It's like a rosary; getting it to start and moving it every year or two is his decade. I think maybe his takeaway is something along the lines of "there are real lessons that you can't learn from being told, but that doesn't make them less real."
posted by jeb at 11:19 PM on June 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I agree your son needs to think more broadly here. This isn't about facts, but about perspective and understanding. He's a 17 year old homeschooled kid. Does he ever wonder what it'd be like to be a kid who went to regular school? That's not really something google can tell you.

This question would be pretty easy for me to answer. I'd like to know more about how people in the world, especially those in East Africa, live and work and play. I could read a few books, but to really understand this, I'd need to study languages of East Africa and spend time living there. I'd also like to know a lot more about the natural world, plants and animals and geography. I could spend a lifetime learning this stuff.

You said your son likes American history. Would he like to know more about what it was like to be a 19th century Massachusetts citizen?

Think of it this way: if he had to choose one thing to study for five years, what would it be?
posted by bluedaisy at 11:26 PM on June 9, 2009

What telegraph said. The point of going to college is to gain, not just trivia, but in-depth understanding. What a podcast or a book or a week-long seminar can't give you. You need a theme - not "I would like to know what events happened in 1999 with Y2K" but "I want to understand how people react to major milestones" or "I want to understand how fear/expectation of the End Times has changed over time". Knowing some fact or conclusion that other people have reached is not the same as having the understanding necessary to reach that same conclusion and intelligently evaluate books on the subject rather than look to them for answers.

I actually love this question, because it gives you such a great opportunity to really ask yourself what the big questions are you're interested in, to work out what the driving force is behind the things you like learning. My main interest is physics - I'd like to better understand how basic laws cause the large-scale phenomena. That could easily be a life's work - reading the work in the field, studying a variety of phenomena and applications, learning ever more and more math to back up my understanding, etc. A secondary interest is linguistics; I'd like to understand what the factors are that make it so hard to acquire a second language in the same way as you do the first. A third is psychology; I'd like to understand what it is that makes some people able to resist the pull of corrupt or evil authority when others yield. Get him to brainstorm ideas like that. What's he interested in and what are the deep questions he has?

Now, picking something with the right amount of content to be the correct length is difficult. But being a concise writer is a virtue rather than a strength here (as in so many places) because it means the page limit won't prevent him from addressing a broad and interesting question.
posted by Lady Li at 12:54 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

* a virtue rather than a weakness
posted by Lady Li at 12:54 AM on June 10, 2009

Life is a process of learning, about the world, about others, and about ourselves, through knowledge-seeking, knowledge-sharing, and experiences both sought and thrust upon us. This is the journey, but it is also the destination.

There. Stretch that into an essay. Easy enough to do.
posted by davejay at 1:01 AM on June 10, 2009

nth-ing the suggestions that he think much broader than something he can simply Google to learn.

As with all college essays, they are of course looking for writing skills, ability to argue a point of view, maturity, etc. But the content of his answer -- as well as the subject he chooses -- gives some insight into what makes him tick. In the case of a relatively small school, it will help the admissions people build sufficient diversity and depth into the student body.

If your son were to take someone else's suggested topic for the essay, the final product will probably end up sounding shallow and perhaps a bit smug. Rather, I would recommend that he think about someone he admires, identify something that person has/knows, and write about that.

For example, you indicated that leadership is a strength of his. What leader (current or through history) just really blows his mind? What sets that person apart from other leaders as well as your son? Maybe it's being able to intuitively understand what makes people tick, or being able to inspire other people, or...or...or...

The fact that your son is struggling with this topic means he isn't digging deep enough.
posted by DrGail at 6:15 AM on June 10, 2009

I really think girls might be the best topic out there.

You have to consider the reader. If a man is reading it, he will empathize and relate to your son. If a woman is reading it, she will be able to connect her life experiences to what your son is writing about. The key would be to write it in a way that is charming and self-effacing and not stereotypical or even the slightest misogynistic. And somehow tie in the fact that learning about girls is actually learning about yourself (or something to that effect).
posted by ruwan at 7:40 AM on June 10, 2009

I actually think that writing about girls would be a weakness because it doesn't show any intellectual passions or interests. Now, how he writes about it might show those things - he could write about psychology or studies of biology vs culture, etc. But as a topic it doesn't tell me anything interesting about him or make me think, "wow, neat, I totally want to learn about that too now!"
posted by Lady Li at 10:25 AM on June 10, 2009

From his POV, if he wanted to "understand something better than he does now," he would just do it! He wouldn't spend 3 days writing an essay about it, he'd google it, listen to a podcast, or read a book about it.

In that case, what on earth does he expect to get out of college?
a) drinking and frat shit because he already knows everything: his essay will be shit and he should just make something up.
b) something more serious: write about that.
posted by jacalata at 11:42 PM on June 10, 2009

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