The essay is perhaps the most daunting part of college applications, alongside standardized tests. SATs and essays essentially act as bookends to the admissions process. While students will not be let in on their SAT or ACT scores alone, for many selective colleges these results function at least as a simple “sorting hat” that divides the possible admits from the merely hopeful. Similarly, while an outstanding personal essay will probably not overcome the weight of poor grades or lukewarm letters of recommendation, they help admission officers choose from among a surfeit of strong candidates.
They’re mattering a lot more. The percentage of all colleges, public and private, for which the essay is a significant factor in selectivity, has increased from 14% in 1993 to 25% in 2012, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling in its latest annual report. Inevitably, the more selective private institutions with their growing pools of high-performing applicants tend to review applications more holistically and, therefore, place the most emphasis on non-quantitative elements such as the personal statement.
Given the opaque but obviously significant role of personal essays in American applications, it is not surprising that a recent blog post that revealed essays written by students admitted to Columbia’s class of 2017 elicited the vitriolic response that it did. While some decried the release of these “sacred texts” and the public mockery of their young writers, others pointed to the banality, absorption and self-aggrandizement of the published examples.
Admission officers at highly selective institutions like Columbia are well aware of the skill, social breadth and intellectual depth they can reasonably expect from some of the world’s highest performing students. But they also remain deeply conscious that they are poring over the writings of high school children.
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Common Application (the online application used by 400 universities) to radically overhaul the personal statement has once again highlighted the role of the essay in an American college application. Some counselors responded strongly to the new absence of an open-ended “topic of your choice,” while others sighed in relief on behalf of admission officers who will have fresh horizons of teenage angst to explore as questions change each year. Many others, including me, have pointed out that the new questions are effectively asking students to address the same essential ideas, and perhaps that is a good thing.
Inevitably, as admission officers slog through literally thousands of essays, they will continue to develop a personal catalog of the kind of essays that annoy, bore or simply leave the reader cold. In my own experience as a former Ivy League admission officer, the worst college essays tend to fall into definable categories within which they can be tagged by type. They leave the reader with questions about the creativity, good judgment and depth of the writer.
- The road less traveled is oddly crowded. The problem with countless essays about courageously traveling off the beaten path and boldly exploring new places is not that admission readers will doubt the students’ sincerity, but rather the fact that teenagers usually lack the perspective to know that notwithstanding their desire to be different, others have already arrived at the same places, explored the same worlds, and wrote essays about it.
- Poor but happy peasants. Summer trips and mission tours to exotic locales, both overseas and in the Deep South, have become grist for the college essays of both affluent Americans and their counterparts in countries like France and Singapore, where students still refer to their activities by blunt reference to “charity” work. However good their intentions, or those of the parents footing the big bills, these students’ essays often persuade readers that their experiences have been so sheltered that they return home with no deeper understanding of the impact of their unequal access to resources on those they went to serve.
- I have overcome. Many students apply to US colleges having struggled against and having overcome astonishing odds. Such inspirational accounts leave those who have lived happy, secure lives casting around, however, for a hook on which to hang their own stories of growth and change. Admission officers will not doubt the sting a teenager felt on being overlooked for the varsity captaincy or on scoring a poor grade, but they can and do expect bright 17-year-olds to take the relative measure of their suffering.
- Take me to your leader. Given their recruitment pitches, admission officers often have only themselves to blame when they are deluged by essays in which students treat leadership not as a process in which they participate and their hard work is reflected in the regard of their peers, but as a trophy to achieve and display on the mantle piece that is a college resume.
In contrast, admission officers will recall great essays in specific details. The teenager who sits on a Queens rooftop at night to ponder her city; the Boston boy who sees in the condition of his mother’s feet, her sacrifices on the factory floor on his behalf; the wannabe comic honing his skills in comedy clubs, usually with mixed success; the mathematician trying to describe the beauty he sees in Mandelbrot sets—these are essays I still remember because each offered a distinctive insight into the specific experience of an individual teenage life. But even the exceptional essays play a role only within a broader narrative that encompasses all the academic and social choices a student made throughout high school. They are the exclamation points to that story, not the centerpiece.
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For reasons I will never entirely understand, one of the requirements to get into selective American colleges is a personal essay. A personal statement — something that declares “Here’s what I’m interested in, and here is evidence that I can string sentences together” — makes sense. The personal essay is something else altogether.
The 2017-2018 Common Application essay prompts “are designed to invite unencumbered discussions of character and community, identity and aspiration.”
In theory, personal essays are this brilliant sifting mechanism, locating talented underprivileged students and rejecting kids whose life experience thus far consists of tennis lessons and cotillion. The essay requirement inspires fear in well-off applicants and their parents, designed, as it looks to be, to give kids with obstacles an edge.
The thing is, none of this is true. With basic demographic information, colleges can make accurate enough guesses at who has had it tough. Adding a written self-assessment element encourages wealthy students to whip up misleading (if not necessarily factually dishonest) accounts of their childhoods. And, in practice, the college admissions process as a whole favors the offspring of the wealthy and well-connected.
There are further issues. Essays force over-sharing — and encourage kids to come up with a sob story. But not every student who has dealt with a serious obstacle would necessarily even recognize it. When you’re still a kid living at home, your life — privileged or otherwise — will generally seem normal to you. You might very well have faced more challenges than the typical student at the college you wind up attending, but you won’t realize this until you arrive.
It’s also possible that an obstacle you know full well you’ve dealt with — an abusive parent, say — is one you can’t bring up in an essay that your parent (or that parent’s spouse) may read. The very obstacles a college is least likely to be able to deduce from your application may be the ones that are genuinely too risky to bring up.
Furthermore, the line between character-building obstacle and liability is not always clear. A Metro Academic Prep checklist of topics to avoid includes “sex,” “deep confessions” and “sob stories.” But if you take seriously the advice to “recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure” (the second of the new Common Application suggested topics), you might write about a near miss with law enforcement, a bad breakup, or the months of 10th grade you spent in a pot-induced (or to give an example from my own life, “Designing Women”-induced) haze.
With colleges requiring that students demonstrate mastery of a complex literary form, wealthy families find the obvious work-around.
The precise balance applicants are expected to hit — to be able to pay tuition and then some, but also sound scrappy in an essay — disfavors not just poor students but also middle-class kids, whose families aren’t plugged in enough to know how to play that game. The children who have Xboxes and iPhones and other ordinary middle-class comforts could be penalized for insufficiently playing down these (small) advantages in their essays — leading to an effect that is closer to snobbery than social justice.
Last, but far from least: With colleges requiring that students demonstrate mastery of a complex literary form, wealthy families find the obvious work-around: hiring professional writers. This leads to an extra level of unfairness, as more specialized tutors are brought in to guide the process. The fact that college essay assistance is a business ought to be proof that the essay requirement does the opposite of raising up students whom life has shortchanged.
But until the essay requirement is dropped altogether, we have to accept it’s a part of the college application process. In which case, my advice to applicants is simple: Stop feeling that over-sharing is required. It’s not. You can — and should — use the essay to talk about a class you loved, a book you enjoyed or a job that shaped you. It’s evidently possible to get into Johns Hopkins with an essay about the technicalities of growing strawberries in your school locker. (As well it should be; it’s a great essay.)
Unless you happen to be, at 17, a skilled memoirist, do not choose “obstacles overcome” as the theme of your college essay. Nor its cousin: How I Learned That I’m Privileged.
Ignore the seeming requirement to lay bare your psyche, and stick with the more straightforward — and dare I say likeable — path of describing something concrete you’ve done.
Let the part of the essay where you explain why whatever you did matters be the thing that reveals who you are. That’s the greatest revelation colleges are owed.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of “The Perils of ‘Privilege’: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.”