Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hyper-personal statements

Frank Bruni addresses a topic near and dear to my heart: the fact that college admissions essays are overshare basically by design. "The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet," he writes, not inaccurately. Or, to (sorry!) quote my own piece, "Even students not the least bit inclined to confessional writing are asked to spill to strangers (and to parents who may be reading the thing over). You’re invited to show your truest self by sharing a story you might normally reserve for close friends."

But that's how it has to be - how can you demonstrate 'obstacles overcome' without spilling re: what the obstacles were? And you have to have overcome obstacles to be an impressive applicant - otherwise you're an example of privilege rather than merit, the sum of all the good fortune you've experienced (even if that fortune was something like having poor but devoted immigrant parents), as versus someone entirely self-made (at 17). It can't just be that a nice-enough home life and good-enough teachers crossed with sufficient raw intelligence brought you where you are today. It has to be that those As were despite some kind of profound difficulties. Not every 4.0 is equal. Students know this, as do the more involved parents. Keeping secrets no longer feels like an option.


Britta said...

I agree with the point about essays (that people do overshare), but I disagree that one has to overshare. If one is an interesting, thoughtful person, then a description of anything can be interesting and thoughtful. The idea you need to have overcome diversity or have lots of "objectively" exciting life experiences to get into a top school seems to be missing the point. I know people who have written fantastic college essays on eating peanut butter out of the jar, or having a quiet revelation about one's parent in the midst of a standard teenage argument about something minor. A friend got into an Ivy League school by drawing a cartoon instead of writing an essay. I wrote my college essay where a small personal anecdote led into my thoughts on a larger more abstract topic (a supposed no no). It worked for me because the abstract topic was something I'd thought a lot about and had something reasonably worthwhile to say on. The point of the essay is to find thoughtful people who might otherwise slip through the cracks. The reason UMC parents freak out about it is it's hard to fake thoughtful adolescent in an authentic way. If people can pay 10s of thousands of dollars and not get into top schools, then the system is working. (It's a bit like campaign finance. That Cantor spent millions and lost the election is a sign that money didn't buy the election, not that he needed to spend more.)

Also, there are plenty of schools for well rounded moderately successful UMC kids. It *is* enough to get good grades, be involved in after school activities, and have a nice home life If your parents can pay most of your college tuition, you'll be fine wherever you go.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It's absolutely true that you can respond to these prompts without overshare, or without anything all that personal. That was my approach - an obviously fictional essay about llamas living in a closet of my family's apartment. And agreed 150% that the system's working whenever paying up on essay prep doesn't help - it probably *does* help some of the time, though. Partially agreed that if you're a good-enough student from a nice-enough, rich-enough family, everything will be fine... but not fully agreed, because downward mobility does happen. Not so much to the children of the very rich, but to the lower end of the UMC, why not? And re: this - "[..] having a quiet revelation about one's parent in the midst of a standard teenage argument about something minor" - I'm not sure how that *isn't* a personal revelation, or how that works with the tremendous likelihood that a parent (UMC or otherwise!) will want to look at the essay.

But the bigger issue here is that it's by no means "missing the point" to use the essay to tell a personal story about an obstacle overcome. That's the assignment! Yes, it's missing the point to imagine that you need a story of growing up in Sudan to get into college, but is it missing the point to write about a parent's alcoholism, or one's own eating disorder?