New York Times Scholarship Essay Example

Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.

A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.

For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere

While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.

Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.

A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.

Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.

10 Things Students Should Avoid

REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”

LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”

THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.

YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.

SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!

ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.

CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.

WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.

RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.

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We write as scholars of the Middle East and the Muslim world with long, collective experience on Gulf and Arabian Peninsula policy issues to express our amazement, concern and anger that the New York Times would publish Thomas Friedman's recent essay "Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring, At Last."

We understand that opinion writing allows for some degree of license in the interpretation of events and issues. But Mr. Friedman's description of the situation in Saudi Arabia is so divorced from reality as to call into question his competence as a journalist or opinion writer. The so-called "Arab Spring" was an attempt by young people and, soon thereafter, large sections of the population of several Arab countries to force their governments to democratize their political systems; to resist stifling of speech and expression; and to halt large-scale systematic torture and physical abuse of citizens by security forces. Not only has the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman not addressed any of these issues, all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion—that his growing power has been accompanied by a ramping up of censorship, arrests, imprisonments without (fair) trials and other forms of violent repression against dissent.

Even worse, Mr. Friedman has nary a word on the unmitigated disaster that is the Saudi war in Yemen, which has now surpassed Syria as the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. The evidence for bin Salman's leading role in executing this illegal, murderous war that has done immeasurable harm to tens of millions of Yemenis and thrown the entire Arabian peninsula and Gulf region into chaos is incontrovertible. We cannot understand how any professional journalist (which Mr. Friedman describes himself as at the start of the article) could engage in a long-form interview with bin Salman and avoid interrogating the issue in any detail, essentially giving him a pass for being the mastermind of an illegal war that has devastated the lives of millions, and today borders on genocide.

In this context, Friedman's focus on the possibility of bin Salman's "reform" and rebranding of the extremist Islam long fostered by the Saudis betrays either a complete ignorance of the history, religious and political dynamics, and present geostrategic ambitions of bin Salman’s agenda; or, worse, complicity in a completely false narrative of what is really happening on the ground. At the same time, his gullibility regarding bin Salman's alleged efforts to fight corruption in his country defies credibility—as the New York Times itself reported last year, this is a prince who bought a $500,000,000 super yacht on a whim while vacationing in the Mediterranean. And while a Saudi woman might soon be able to drive, bin Salman has shown no willingness to clamp down on Saudi funding of many of the most extreme religious forces in the Muslim world.

Mr. Friedman's empirically, factually and logically challenged columns have long provided a bit of comic relief for scholars of the Middle East and broader Arab/Muslim world. But with a horrendous war continuing apace in Yemen and a proxy conflict with Iran entangling the entire region in potentially explosive conflicts, the world's paper of record must do better to ensure its readers and the global public get the most accurate and grounded reporting and opinions available. Friedman's column, particularly in the context of decades of New York Times' faithful reporting of faux-Saudi "reform," "modernization" and "anti-corruption" efforts (as documented in detail by Georgetown scholar Abdullah al-Arian here) continues a dangerous history of the Times passing off the Saudi regime's PR as if it represented at least a plausible and comprehensible take on reality. Indeed, it's hard not to wonder whether there was some sort of quid pro quo between the writer and the prince for publishing such a ridiculous piece. This is not opinion writing; it's pure propaganda.

The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for printing Friedman's column; and Friedman should be investigated and perhaps even suspended for writing it.

Signed,

Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Lisa Hajjar, University of California Santa Barbara
Toby C. Jones, Rutgers University
Mark LeVine, University of California Irvine
Joshua Stacher, Kent State University
Bob Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania
Jessica Winegar, Northwestern University
 

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