Other people’s problems: NZB application essays

A brief look at the 2013 NZB Essay Prompts.

I just took a look at the NZB Essay Prompts 2013, and, wow. I really had a much easier job than current applicants.

Here they are:

1. What do you consider to be the most aching problem of today’s world and why? How should it be solved and who, if anybody at all, should interfere?

2. Describe an invention/trend/institution that will shape the future of the world in the next 20 years. Why is it important? What will be the specific impact?

3. What you said was hateful and offensive, but I respect your right to say it. Is absolute freedom of speech and expression worth striving for?

Prompt (1) implies that you should observe the totality of the world’s problems to pinpoint the greatest and the most acute one and explain why it’s greater than others. (Sure, you can just pick a big one at random and make the case, but that’s cheating.) Prompt (2) involves massive amount of forecasting and/or fortune-telling - if I could tell with any reasonable accuracy what trend is going to be dominating in twenty years, shouldn’t I be writing proposals for seed capital like crazy instead of trying to get short-term college funding? But (1) actually shares (2)’s problem: the world’s largest problem needs to have a demonstrated future relevance, and if you can identify it, you should be raising funds for the solution, not for your college education. (Which means that most essays will have to argue why an investment in their education within a chosen field is actually a means to solving the problem.)

By contrast, Essay (3) is almost too easy - I foresee a roughly 60-40 split between freedom of speech is good, but we really shouldn’t tolerate incitement toward violence and absolute freedom of speech is the only acceptable establishment in democracy. (I might be overestimating the former, because I have a tendency to assume that everybody has done some form of policy debate; it’s probably reasonable to assume that quite a few people will simply hand-wave fringe cases. And by hand-wave, I mean not give them even the “marketplace of ideas” treatment.) A really courageous essay writer would argue for greater censorship - which might be a much more unique and possible strong essay, but would probably dip the applicant’s chances considerably.

My bets for winners are on well-substantiated domain-specific answers to (1)/(2) [arguably, they’re the same thing] and eloquent, balanced responses to (3), in roughly 30/70 measure. (Last year was dominated by the seductive “Skinner on education” quote, and “Tolstoy on change in the world v. the self” the year before that; Voltaire has some of the same appeal, but I think the general topic of free speech is much harder to approach than either schools or self-absorption.)