College App Essays Run Amok: A Coach's Advice, Sympathy and a Word About Spiders

I know, I'm a coach. I'm supposed to do the coach thing: cheerlead, encourage, help high school students brainstorm, find great essay topics and figure out what about their interests, experiences and passions would work best on the page. In other words, help them stand out in the piles of dazzling applicants to the highly competitive University of Fill in the Blank.

This is what I do 99 percent of the time. But there are some days and weeks when I encounter articles and trends that make me cynical about what's expected of students, what's expected of parents and where we as a country are headed. Last week was one of those weeks.

While most of my time was spent answering questions about which prompt might work best to discuss a life-changing experience living in the woods for three months, or how to do the research to tell a college why it's your first choice, I encountered a number of disturbing news items that gave me pause about the extreme nature of the game that college admissions has become.

On the one hand, if students don't "play," don't go along with the rules and regulations, they're shut out. At the same time, it's worth pointing out some of what's really going on here, for students and their parents, because the system has become so demanding, byzantine, and just plain hard to make sense of.

My head-scratching began with a spider. I was going over the supplementary essays at the University Richmond with a student. From the website: "Please choose ONE of the two essay prompts: (1) From small, faculty-led classes to funded undergraduate research, the University of Richmond offers the benefits of both a liberal arts college and the opportunities and resources typically found in large research universities. Tell us how you would utilize these resources in order to reach your goals; OR (2) Tell us about Spiders."

"Spiders?" I said, perplexed.

"It's the school's nickname," the student explained.

"Oh, do you want to write about that?"

"No, I would just go to Wikipedia and regurgitate whatever's there."

Spiders. I filed that away with a long-running list of what I call Eccentric College App Essays. The University of Chicago used to corner the market on these, but in recent years, admissions offices have plunged headlong into creative writing and come up with all sorts of wild and crazy prompts. Among the stand-outs: From Tufts: "What does YOLO mean to you?" (YOLO=You Only Live Once, AKA Carpe Diem); Stanford: Write a letter to college roommate; "Take a risk in 150 words and tell us anything you want." UNC: "You're giving a speech at the White House. What's it about?" Brandeis: "What one invention would you uninvent if you could, and why?" Lehigh: "Describe your favorite 'Bazinga' moment." Dartmouth: "Every name tells a story: Tell us about your name -- any name: first, middle, last, nickname -- and its origin."

How did college essays come to this place of schools outdoing one another on eccentric questions? Of college admissions officers telling applicants to "entertain" them while reading their essays? How is it that high school students who apply to schools elsewhere in world manage to gain admission without writing essays? (Three-day exams, that's how!) Since when are Americans so keen on creative writing that we have to require examples of it for admission to hundreds of schools?

Some history. When the Common Application organization came into being in the 1970s, the point of it was to streamline college admissions, create one application and one essay that would do everything. Great idea, right? Yes. And no. The Common Application made it so easy to apply to schools that students began doing just that, and once personal computers came along, schools were deluged with applications. Thousands of students who had no particular interest in a school were applying. Things got complicated when thousands were applying who had top grades and top SATs and were generally "superkids" in every way -- extracurricular activities galore and community service that would put the United Way to shame. Suddenly, schools were swimming in smart applicants, but there was no way to tell Smart Kid #5 from Smart Kid #6543. Enter the supplementary essays.

Because it's so easy to apply to dozens of schools, the essays and short answer questions are there to help the admissions officers make distinctions -- often fine distinctions -- between students. Hence, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia ask students for multiple essays and a good number of questions: the names of favorite books, recordings, websites, quotes, and cultural outings -- information that reveals a student's level of sophistication about intellectual and cultural matters. Yale asks a series of questions to which they want 40-word answers, including "What have you changed your mind about in the last three years?"

Beyond helping admissions officers make distinctions among highly qualified students, the essays exist to encourage or discourage applicants (fewer essays=more applicants), and sometimes to help admissions offices read between the lines and get a feeling as to whether a particular applicant is serious about their school.

Here's what I mean: Since students can so easily apply to so many colleges, colleges end up admitting far more students than will sign up. At Harvard, about 75 percent of the admitted students decide to attend. At Skidmore, Brandeis and Boston University, it's closer to 25 percent. If students feel getting into their top school is a challenge, admissions officers often feel that getting the top students to agree to come to their schools once they're admitted is just as tricky. George Washington University's efforts to make sure that students who apply want to go there led them to ask applicants for a 500-word essay on Why GW? -- quite a bit longer than the usual Why This School? question.

Adding essays to the application process can help winnow out students who don't really want to go there -- and eliminating essays can increase the applicant pool, thus helping a school entice students who might not otherwise make an application.

And there are the schools that want to encourage applications because a high applicant/low admission rate helps school's ranking on the U.S. News and World Report list.

What does all of this layered information amount to? 1. There's a lot more going on than meets the eye. 2. The essays serve multiple purposes and varying purposes from school to school -- and from year to year. 3. College admissions is always an evolving, work in progress. 4. The essays matter, but sometimes not for the reasons you think they do.

It may or may not be useful to understand some of these backstories as students write their essays. As I plow through articles of all kinds about college essays, college admissions, tips on writing essays, topics to avoid, etc., etc., sometimes I want to scream at what this process has become. At the lack of transparency in all of it. At the cost of education. At the cost and complexity of applying to college. At the continuing ways in which the playing field is not level.

Two articles that came my way last week added to my gloom about where we're headed. One, in Business Week, was about Mr. Steven Ma, a former hedge fund analyst, who charges $600,000 (yes, that many zeroes) to "guarantee" admission to an Ivy League school under certain conditions. His clients seem to be Chinese citizens with certain ideas about what a top degree can do for their children. The other article from the Washington Monthly, a much broader critique of college costs and aid, is essential reading for families who need financial aid.

In the meantime, there are many counselors, myself included, who post information of all kinds on the web about how to tackle these darn essays. Here are my thoughts about the five prompts on the Common Application. The advice I give students about "Why X College?" is to study the school's course catalog looking for courses that interest you, professors you want to work with, aspects of the school's philosophy that appeal to you, the extracurricular activities you might pursue, and what appeals to you about the location and the atmosphere. If you've visited the campus, say so. If there's a major you know you want, read about what it involves. If the school allows you to take courses at other divisions -- the arts school, the film school, the business school- and that appeals, say so.

The most common question students ask me as we go through the essay questions -- whether they are the ordinary questions or the highly eccentric ones -- is: "What do they want me to say here?" If the question is "why this college" I can be pretty specific (see above). Otherwise, the school wants to know your particular response to the question. There is no right answer. If the question is one you can't answer, perhaps that's information about yourself that you need to know. Maybe this isn't the right school for you right now. Maybe you haven't done the research. Maybe you don't know enough about the school. Maybe you haven't thought enough about yourself as a student and what you want from college. Maybe that's the work you need to do first. Bottom line: If you have nothing to say about spiders except what you can read on Wikipedia, answer the other question.

But please don't think you're the only one who's having a hard time with this. I've gotten into the habit of telling the students I work with -- just once, but I think once is enough -- that I think the current system has become a complicated game, and that, like learning to take SATs and ACTs, it's a game you have to play to be in the game. There are of course rewards for playing well -- and the rewards can be serious and meaningful. They're like playing scales or doing warm-up exercises, sending thank you notes and minding your manners: annoying and necessary, even when it's hard to see the long-term benefits.