Okay, here it is. The Costco essay of 2017. You may remember last year’s chatter surrounding the observant and vividly written essay that helped a teen ride a giant shopping cart (filled with bought-in-bulk frozen burritos) to admission at five Ivy League schools. In an increasingly competitive admissions environment, in which acceptance to the country’s top tier schools is a crapshoot, even for the most qualified of applicants, parents and students alike are obsessed with these singular incidents of success. This year, I am already bracing myself for the refrain, “Should I do something like that #blacklivesmatter essay?” The inquirers, just on the precipice of their own admissions adventure, will be referring to a response to Stanford’s 2016-17 supplemental essay prompt “What matters to you and why?” for which one clever student dared to reply with a string of 100 “#blacklivesmatter” hashtags, repeated back to back. The applicant in question received his Stanford acceptance letter (along with invitations from Yale and Princeton) just a few weeks ago.
When I first heard this success story, it rung of classic admissions essay lore, like the rumor of the student who was asked by Harvard to “take a risk,” sent back a one-sentence answer and was summarily accepted (of course he was). But current junior, Ziad Ahmed, did indeed submit a series of hashtags as one of his short essay answers for Stanford, and it may very well have played a role in his acceptance. It may also have not.
Ahmed’s response worked for a number of reasons, all of them related to his background, personal passions and advocacy experience. He is by no means a performative activist (something admissions officers can smell from a mile away), having served on multiple political campaigns – including Hillary Clinton’s – and founding two youth organizations. He even delivered a TedxTalk about the nature and impact of Muslim stereotypes. He has said in interviews since his acceptance that activism and the ideas supported by the #blacklivesmatter movement are integral to his identity. In the context of his greater application, his now infamous answer did not simply deliver an unexpected punch, it reinforced a message about what Ahmed has prioritized for many years of his life. This gutsiness was likely reflected elsewhere on his application; his passion and incisive nature built into his other responses in some more subtle way. In essence, Ahmed’s #blacklivesmatter response was reflective of his personality and who he is at his core. It was sincere, and indicative of the kindness that makes you a good person, even outside of the context of admissions.
Ahmed’s hashtag tactic was also a risk – one that ultimately paid off. This time. For this student. Could Ahmed have earned his acceptance with a passionate reflection on his commitment to the #blacklivesmatter movement? I believe he could have, but we’ll never know. (It is notable that Ahmed has said he intentionally refrained from offering an explanation to reinforce that the idea of black lives mattering should not be something that requires elaboration.) What we do know is, he had a bold idea and he decided to go for it. His looped hashtag worked well within the confines of a very small space (100 word limit), in response to a very direct question and bolstered by context contained elsewhere in his application.
Which is why the answer to the “shouldn’t this be more like the Costco essay or the #blacklivesmatter essay or the whatever-gets-the-next-spurt-of media-attention essay?” question will always be “no.” The idea that you need a gimmicky submission to get admissions’ attention is a fallacy. Yes you want to burn an image of yourself into an admissions officer’s brain, but that can be accomplished in myriad ways. Strings of viral articles will tell you the hashtag essay is “the reason Ahmed got into Stanford,” but, as always, they will be wrong. The admissions process is dependent on a complex cocktail of interrelated factors – no one element “gets you in.” It is always about the sum of the parts and there are infinite ways to woo a reader.
So don’t start brainstorming your hashtag in preparation for this year’s admissions cycle. We are not all avid activists and bold risk takers, just as we do not all see the world through Costco colored glasses. Instead, start to think about what truly matters to you and how you can express your passions sincerely and memorably to admissions. Be true to who you are – that will be enough.