The Evolution of the College Essay

As we go through the college selection process, I find myself drawn in to the different aspects of it and wanting to learn more. Things were far different when I was in high school, and I certainly don’t remember dealing with the amount of prep work and stress associated with the process these days.

One of the most important pieces of the application is the essay. It’s important to be prepared and be sure that going in to it, you’re aware of any changes that have been made to the applications you’re working with the year you fill them out. A big example of this is the Common App. I knew you were limited in the number of words you could write, but had no idea how the changes to the Common App this year influenced what you could actually write about. Here’s the article I ran across on it earlier:

Frankly, only two of those come off as questions I’d want to answer if I were a student that wanted to stand out.

Before I get in to this any further, I want to take a second and be clear on one thing: This is my daughter’s essay, not mine. She’s welcome to select whichever topic she wants, and write about whatever she wants. I honestly don’t believe that the parent should be sitting over the child’s shoulders coaching them at this point in their lives. I know as parents, we have a tendency to want to help our children with everything, regardless of what it entails, but this is something they need to do on their own. Will I answer one-off questions? Of course I will, but I think it’s a disservice to help the child choose a topic and write the essay.

Now that I got that out of the way, on to the new questions. In my honest opinion, the new options reek of having been written by the behavioral experts that coach companies on what questions to ask in job interviews. Maybe the goal here is to get an idea of who’d be a good fit on campus from a behavioral aspect, or maybe even to see who’s going to succeed in post-graduation job interviews. Whatever it is, I’m sure there are some well thought out reasons behind them, but as mentioned earlier, I only really see a couple of these as being ones I’d target. Let’s review them:

“Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

This one’s too vague in my opinion. I assume the removal of the ‘topic of your choice’ was to prevent kids from writing an essay that falls into one of the most common traps admissions officers see (I’m referring to #1 here). This question puts that trap right back in place. Maybe the point is to see if those who choose this can find a way to avoid that and make it their own, or maybe it was just to leave a more open ended question out there.

“Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

Personally, this is my favorite. I’ve seen something similar asked in interviews, as it gives you a good insight into someone’s character either positively or negatively. If I were choosing, this is probably the one I’d answer, simply because it has the potential to show the reader that you’re not afraid to admit failure, and you know how to learn from it when answered honestly. I’d love to see a breakdown of the percentage of applicants that actually selected this one, because admitting failure generally goes against everything we’re taught.

“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

This is my second favorite option in the list. When answered properly (and honestly), it has the potential to show that you have conviction about something and that you’re not afraid to stand up for what you believe in. What I do find odd is that this question ever passed legal muster. I’m no lawyer, but in the real world, anything you ask an interviewee that could possibly lead them to disclosing any beliefs is generally off limits.

“Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

I admit I’m not a fan of this one at all. I would have thought that admissions counselors would prefer to hear experiences out of your comfort zone, but maybe this kind of introspection is showing them different personality traits they want to see. Maybe they just want to see how you approach and analyze it, or get an idea of what it is that you actually find blissful to gain insight into your personality. Depending on the topic the applicant chooses to write about here, I feel like the essay could come off somewhat dull.

 “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

I’m not a fan of this one either. In my opinion, it’s rare that a single event and/or accomplishment defines anyone’s transition from childhood to adulthood, and the best examples that come to mind are times of hardship. If a child lost a parent suddenly, or has some other negative home experience, is this really asking them to re-live that on the application? The other possibility I see here would be students going the cultural route, talking about things like Quinceañera or Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. While obviously important to the child and family from a cultural aspect, is that really helping the admissions adviser make a decision on the student?

So there’s my take on it. Incidentally, I was talking to a friend about this today (he’s got a son in my daughter’s class) and his opinion was very similar. While we were talking about it, he mentioned one of the questions on Wake Forest’s writing supplement that he found really intriguing:

“Some say that social media is superficial, with no room for expressing deep or complex ideas. We challenge you to defy these skeptics by describing yourself as fully and accurately as possible in the 140-character limit of a tweet.”

He said his son had a harder time with that than any other part of Wake’s application. I can see why, and I absolutely LOVE this question. It’s fairly challenging to write about yourself to start with, but to fit it in to 140 characters or less adds not only a new level of difficulty, it also ties in to a very popular form of social media with this age group. To me, this is far better than any of the essay prompts on the Common App this year, and I hope that those in charge of both shared applications and individual application supplements start to look at things like this as ways to make the application process more interesting to their target audience.

Another question he mentioned from Wake’s form:

“Give us your top ten list.”

That’s it. Really. I’m a big fan of that one, too. You have the potential to see some real creativity in those answers. Sure, it’s possible that you end up with a handful of kids who just give the category and a list of the top 10 things in it they like, but those who stand out will be giving you insight in to why they chose the category they did and why each of those 10 things were ranked where they were. Counselors have the possibility of seeing some real critical thinking skills in action, all without the applicant feeling that the question was written by the same people who write the DSM. I’m not trying to bash the Common App, but I just get tired of the same old “describe a time/place/feeling/environment/person” questions and I’m glad to see someone mixing it up a bit.

Oh the joys of applying to college these days, right? I certainly don’t envy the stress kids are under these days. Maybe it was my lack of forward-thinking when I was in high school, maybe I didn’t have nearly the support structure at home that my daughter does, or maybe it was the difference in schools, but whatever the reason, the process just didn’t feel as burdensome as it is today. That, or maybe I’m just caught up in an “the olden days were so much better” thought pattern at the moment. I was in her shoes only 22 years ago, so I can’t be that old, can I ? 🙂

This is all just my take on the college application processes as it stands today, and as mentioned, is simply my opinion. I would be interested to hear what any admissions counselors out there think about the new options mentioned above, so if you disagree or just want to comment in general, feel free!


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