To new readers, to readers not as tuned into the inner workings of my mind as I am: When I say I'm not a fan of "holistic" in college admissions, I don't mean that I oppose affirmative action, using race or class. That I'm fine with. No, what I mean is this notion that colleges accept or reject not an application, but a person. It's supposed to sound better not to be thought of as a number, a mere faceless sum of your test scores, GPA, and whichever other qualities. But if you're rejected as a person, that just has to sting more than if you're turned down as an applicant to a particular college.*
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
All of this is my longwinded prelude to the latest from Michael Winerip, a journalist who will have you know that some of his offspring were/are mediocre students, and who finds a way to work that in whenever at all possible. The piece opens with a bit about what a wonderful person its author is, a professional writer, helping the neighbors' kids with their college essays. And I suppose this is a credit to Winerip as a writer, because he almost has you convinced that he's doing something pro-social-justice. Don't write about your fancy vacations, he advises these kids. Write about the little things in life! What matters isn't what you have, but who you are!
Which sounds nice and all, until you infer that the people Winerip is offering a boost to are those who need it least. Expanding the audience for his advice from his wealthy neighbors to NYT readers is maybe a slight improvement, but still hardly the height of altruism. Do the children of NYT-reading parents need an edge?
But set aside the problematic nature of Winerip's own project. What do we make of the content of his advice? I suspect he does correctly describe the formula - what it is colleges want to see. And what they want to see is evidence of who you are as a person. In other words, what they want is confessional writing. They want memoir. The college essay, I suppose, is where dirty-laundry writing meets holistic. What, then, of the kid who isn't comfortable sharing, or sharing in this context? Maybe something tragic or merely embarrassing happened, and the kid doesn't want to tell this story to perfect strangers on an admissions committee? Or maybe there's a fine story there, but it's about the parents' divorce, and the parents (as they so often do) are reading essays? Why do we need to teach young kids (who already have too much of this message) that nothing is private?
I see why an essay of some sort is necessary in gauging whether someone is prepared for college-level work, and why the content of essays could be useful in finding some applications to toss (a guy writing in about how he loves torturing ants, say) and which to give a leg up (although an unverified sob story... still, a lot can be read between the lines.) But maybe the topic could be something like, 'why do you want to go to college?' or 'why this college?' and not a call to confess.
* Why do we have "holistic"? So many reasons. There's the sinister one - well-roundedness as the legacy of anti-Semitic discrimination. There's also the fact that nowadays everyone needs to first have this general degree before specializing (via grad school, internships, etc.), so you're applying to a school not as a pre-law but as a human being. And, of course, there's the desire on the part of those who run colleges to make the process seem fair and painstaking, to make every applicant feel as if he was given proper consideration. You still need to pay for each application, right? I guess it's thought that 17-year-olds' sense of justice will be shaken if they're judged via algorithm. As for whether anyone other than yours truly sees the downside to "holistic" I've just expressed, I have no idea.