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.