Essay Prize 2020
The Robinson College Essay Prize is open to all students currently in Year 12 (Lower Sixth, or equivalent) at a UK School. It is designed to give students the opportunity to develop and showcase their independent study and writing skills. By creating the opportunity for students to experience the type of work that they might be expected to do at Cambridge, we hope to encourage inquisitive and industrious students from all backgrounds to apply to the university – and hopefully to Robinson College.
We welcome entries from interested students studying any combination of subjects. Entrants are invited to submit a response to any one of the questions below, which should be no longer than 2,000 words (including footnotes and captions). The questions may be discussed with reference to any academic discipline or area of interest. All sources must be appropriately acknowledged and cited, and a bibliography (including websites consulted) should be attached, although this is excluded from the word count. Up to three entries may be submitted per school, so please discuss your application with your school prior to entry.
There are many angles from which to approach the questions and we encourage applicants to ‘think outside the box’ and answer through the lens of a field or subject that greatly interests you. Good essays will present a clear and concise argument using specific examples, but beyond this there is scope to interrogate the questions in any way you please.
Three prizes will be awarded, each person receiving book tokens to the value of £100. Further essays will be commended for their high quality. Winning and highly commended entrants will be invited to the College for a prize-giving ceremony and celebratory lunch with fellows and Directors of Studies at the college [Update: in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible that the prize-giving ceremony will not go ahead in the planned format. Essay Prize Winners will be informed of arrangements in due course].
The deadline for submiss ion of essays is 5pm, Friday 14th August. All entries should be sent via the online submission form below where you will be asked to upload a pdf/ word document of your essay and your completed covering sheet. Entries will not be valid without this information. Please note: due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have removed the teachers' section of the covering letter, and teachers do not need to fill out or sign any part of the form. When using the google form, you will be prompted to confirm you have discussed your entry with a teacher.
Please note: a Google account is required to complete the form below. If you do not have a google account, please send your essay via email to email@example.com by the deadline, with the cover sheet attached. Please write 'Essay Prize Submission 2020" as the e-mail's subject. In the body of the email, please state your full name, school and question you answered.
1. "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” (Benjamin Franklin) Do you agree?
2. Does the theory of evolution by natural selection tell us anything interesting about how we should live?
3. Watch the following TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. TED Global. (2009) Available online via: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story. What are novels for? Answer in light of the TED talk and any one or two text(s) you have read recently.
4. “A true war story is never moral. […] If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.” (Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990). Write about any piece of war literature or art about war in light of O’Brien’s claim.
5. There is no such thing as ‘untranslatable’. Discuss.
Essay Prize 2019 Winners Comments
Winner: Magnus Bonner
Magnus’s essay focuses on Black liberation in the US, which is an original and creative way of approaching the question. This is a passionate, well-researched and articulate piece of work. Magnus certainly answers the question, and in doing so sheds fascinating light on the essence of politics (and its relationship to capitalism in particular). At times Magnus’s phrasing wobbles, but the essay is urgent and compelling.
Recommended: Satyam Verma Birkdale
Satyam’s essay begins by exploring the origins of democracy in Ancient Greece, before exploring in detail the extent to which politics is inextricably linked to conflict. Satyam has submitted a well-researched, wide-ranging and very thoughtful response to the question. At times the argument suffers slightly as a result of the breadth of the material, though some good evidence is provided along the way. This essay is impressive, and the conclusions are subtle.
Recommended: Tony Zhao
Tony’s essay engages subtly with abstract concepts, sketching carefully the main philosophical issues at stake within political systems. The abstraction is balanced by thoughtful reference to a number of important thinkers (including Hobbes and Hegel). The conclusion of the essay involves a sharp critique of Fascism, though it does feel a little anticlimactic in suggesting that the essence of politics is ‘all about a language game’. There might be a more interesting way to think about the relationship between politics and language?
Winner: Myah Ojla
Myah has presented a remarkably thorough, wide-ranging and insightful essay. Ranging from Roman Civil Law to Elizabethan theatre and through to contemporary legal criticism, this is a very articulate response to a complex question. Myah writes with considerable poise and the discussion of intellectual property towards the end of the essay is particularly sharp.
Recommended: Anna Curran
Anna’s essay is grounded in historical detail, comparing ancient Rome to ancient China, and turning briefly to Galileo’s encounter with the inquisition in 1633. Anna has an excellent grasp of the key issues in this debate, covering a remarkable range of ideas without losing argumentative focus. This is an excellent response to the question, perhaps slightly weakened by a conclusion that struggles to draw together the various argumentative threads.
Recommended: Cerys Bean
This essay is intelligent, focused, and demonstrates evidence of good research into the key issues at stake. Cerys identifies several important literary texts, including both DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, all of which combine to form an excellent discussion of censorship. The case that Cerys makes is nuanced and imaginative, though perhaps slightly lacking in detail towards the end of the essay.
Winner: Asya Janmohamed
Asya has produced a nuanced essay, with a critical approach that makes use of some outstanding, and crucial, examples. This work is well-written and researched, navigating some complex issues with clarity and care. The passage dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in the development of guidelines for IVF was particularly effective. Overall, this is excellent work.
Recommended: Cameron Mitchell
Cameron’s essay is extremely balanced and works systematically through a number of important issues, none of which have easy answers. Cameron writes with clarity and poise, skilfully incorporating a wide range of examples (and critical sources) into the argument. Ultimately, the essay would have been more convincing had Cameron come to a stronger conclusion (‘it is necessary for scientists to be somewhat influenced by politicians’), but this lack of certainty is also a virtue, signalling the care with which Cameron constructed the essay.
Recommended: Hannah Sutton
Hannah’s essay demonstrated a nuanced grasp of the issues, evaluating the main questions critically and with an impressive alertness. This essay is well-informed, is at times passionate and ultimately is largely convincing. This is an imaginative, ambitious approach to the question and deserves great credit.
Winner: India Hill
India’s essay was a philosophically alert, well-informed piece of writing. India carefully unpacks moral relativism, using a wide range of philosophical reference points while at the same time managing to keep the details of Shakespeare’s Hamlet firmly in view. This essay is particularly good when thinking through the implications of Nietzsche’s writing, moving persuasively through a nuanced, compelling argument.
Recommended: Madeleine Pearce
Madeleine’s essay takes an original turn in focusing primarily on Gothic literature (specifically Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Wuthering Heights). This essay is alert to the intellectual context of the period, noting the psychological and scientific breakthroughs, while also incorporating some subtle close readings of the texts. Madeleine manages a thoughtful, insightful account of the issues.
Recommended: Valierie Kporye-Gyamfi
Valierie has written an ambitious, searching, and carefully prepared essay. The combination of philosophy, theology and historical context is excellent. The essay is a little weaker when presenting psychological explanations for some of the issues explored (‘a subconscious standard above our individual reasoning that orchestrates what we view as good or bad’), but overall there is considerable evidence of quality in this work. Valierie is really pushing hard at some complex questions and his argument is alive to nuance.
Winner: Adam Birch
Adam has submitted an excellently argued and thorough essay. There are some fascinating observations made with reference to economics and psychology. To extend the essay, it might have been worthwhile thinking a little more about the extent to which technological developments are relevant to the discussion. Overall, however, this is an impressive piece of work.
Recommended: Lucas Fraser-Taliente
Lucas submitted a very focused essay, thinking specifically about the way in which the food system might be impacted by climate change. This essay presented some fascinating details, and the care with which Lucas makes his argument is persuasive. The essay might have been enhanced by widening the discussion and reflecting upon the climate change crisis in its totality.
Recommended: Ben Spire
Ben’s essay is expansive and sharp in theoretical and technical detail. This is a very well-researched, thoughtful essay and some very pertinent examples are offered as evidence throughout the course of the discussion. Ben is adept at moving between scientific evidence and broader considerations, though at time the coherence of the argument does suffer slightly. This notwithstanding, the work is urgent and persuasive.