The Wall Street Journal had an interesting–though not original–article today in which they asked 10 university presidents to answer their school’s essay questions, including our very own Robert Zimmer.
The piece focuses on something that most high-schoolers know: writing a good essay can be damn hard. To self promote just enough without being cocky, and to try and stand out among thousands of others who are trying to do the same thing. Michael Roth, Wesleyan presidents, struggled with choosing someone too personal in his description of a person who had a signifigant influence on him.
“It occurred to me, that must be the question our applicants ask themselves,” Roth said. “I can write this about my history teacher or a public figure, what you’d expect, or should I write something more meaningful to me, but riskier?” Roth’s piece, about a brother who died at age 5, before Roth was born, was one of the best.
I was struck by how bland most of the questions were (evaluate the impact of a signifigant experience and four essays on people who influenced you, though two were narrowed to historical figures) and was looking forward to Zimmer’s answer to see a more interesing question.
No luck there. The WSJ, which selected the questions for the presidents, choose one of the least-Uncommon prompts in a while: “At present you need to live the question.”—Rainer Maria Rilke. Where’s former math professor Zimmer described as a function on a Cartesian plane? Where’s the gallon of mustard?
Oh well. Zimmer’s essay sounds familar to other speeches I’ve heard him give, but was definately better than some of the others, which promoted their iniatives and sounded like they were writtenby their public relations staff (“We need to adjust to the new economic realities while maintaining our commitment to access and affordability,” wrote Catharine Hill, Vassar president).
Zimmer further quotes Rilke, asking the reader to love questions themselves, after describing what living the question is like:
“[Living the question] demands intellectual risk-taking and a preference for analysis, inquiry and complexity over easy solutions or comfort. It requires a habit of challenging one’s own assumptions, even while analyzing and questioning others. Importantly, questioning also requires listening.”