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Why the student college application essay is often ‘a con job’

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The best college admissions essays, it is often said, give admissions officers a glimpse into who the applicant is and what he/she values. Really now? (Not the ones written by the applicant’s parents. Not the ones in which students pretend to care about something they don’t.)

In this post, college counselor Scott White gets directly to the point in questioning the value of these essays, asking if they aren’t really more like a con job by students who are good at producing them.  White was director of guidance at Morristown High School in New Jersey for several years and recently opened his own independent college counseling firm. In the post he references Bard College in New York and its “Entrance Examination, which allow applicants to bypass regular admissions processes (and taking college admissions tests) and allow to take an essay test that closely mirrors college coursework.  He blogs here. 

White posted a version of this on the email exchange of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors , and he gave me permission to publish it.

By Scott White

Are we woefully off track with the college essay?

I had this student, Martin, who was truly brilliant and also a really sincere and wonderful kid.  He wanted to write an essay about a time he was working at a camp for economically disadvantaged students and was asked to run the basketball activity at the camp, which included getting a competitive team to play other camp teams. He laid it out for me:  He was a short white kid with minimal athletic skills who had been asked to coach kids who were tall, athletic, all kids of color and who knew way more about basketball than he could ever know.

The essay had promise and he kept bringing me draft after draft.  I knew this kid could write — but personal narratives weren’t his thing.

One tgtday a University of Chicago representative came to visit me and I shared with him Martin’s final draft.  “It’s serviceable,” he said.

Martin had so much going for him that the essay really only needed to be serviceable.  He was admitted to Harvard University and had a great academic career.  A few years after graduating, he wrote “Equity and Access in Higher Education" with ]former Princeton University president] William G. Bowen and Eugene Tobin, a seminal work.

So here is my point:  Isn’t the college essay just a project, in many cases, of how good a con job a kid can do?

Let’s be real here. We are dealing with 17-year-olds who are often incredibly unformed.  The personal reflective essay expects them to display a written essay that is engaging, thoughtful, somewhat witty, readable, self-reflective and a “window” into the student.

But like most on-line postings that these students produce, isn’t this really just how students want you to see them, not necessarily any reflection on who they really are?  We speak about students “crafting” an essay, and this is really what it is about, isn’t it:  presenting an image of oneself.

Secondly, there is NO connection between those who can write strong personal narratives and those who can write what one is expected to produce in college. So why not make college essays like Bard College’s optional admissions essay?  Let kids write college essays to get into college.

You could even have a random essay generator.  A kid would complete part I of the application and then be assigned a unique essay which involved research and footnotes and technical writing.

You’re admitting or denying a kid based on how well you think they can do college level work. You should ask them to do college level work to apply.”