It's the most horrible time of the year once again: college admissions season, when high school seniors across America wait with bated breath for the roll of the dice to tell them who they will be--I mean, which college they will attend. Years of effort lie behind them: the endless standardized tests, the arduous transcript-building, the painstaking accumulation of community service and sports and extracurricular activities. Not to mention the innumerable college visits, interviews and essays that loomed over senior fall. Now their fate is in the hands of exhausted admissions officers, tasked with assembling the best possible classes for their respective institutions, based on whatever mysterious algorithm is currently in vogue.
When I applied to college, at the end of the go-go 1980s, elite institutions wanted "well-rounded" students, so those of us with aspirations dutifully participated in everything, logging our official participation as we went. Even I, a single-minded musical theater performer and literature lover, spent a season on the track team and took physics as an elective.
A mere decade or so later, colleges had shifted their focus from well-roundedness to mastery: no more Renaissance students, dabbling in many fields. Instead, you had to publish a novel, win a gold medal, or receive a patent on an innovative invention. Once again, high-achieving students (and their desperate, well-meaning parents) complied, becoming ever more specialized and accomplished.
Now it seems, students have to be masters of everything in order to gain acceptance to an elite university. Win that Olympic gold one summer, spend the next running a homeless shelter, and learn Tagalog in your spare time to demonstrate of your innate intellectual curiosity. Oh, and you'd better keep your GPA at 4.0. As parents of children who will be applying to college in the next decade, my friends and I keep a wary eye on the process (all the while acknowledging that most of us wouldn't have a shot these days at the colleges we attended, with no false modesty).
I've kept a toe in the application process over the years, as a volunteer interviewer for my alma mater and also offering to cast an eye (gratis) on any application essays my friends' children are writing. I peruse the op-eds around this time of year with interest, I devoured the wonderful "Admission," and I have a copy of Frank Bruni's "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be" on my bedside table (full disclosure: I haven't read it yet--though I love it for its title alone--but I'm hoping it's half as incisive as his recent article on Stanford's super-selective results this year.)
As an observer and casual participant in the admissions season, I am dismayed by the crop of articles that seems to spring up as reliably as the daffodils about students accepted to multiple elite colleges. Two years ago, the viral admissions sensation was a senior admitted at every Ivy League school; photos of him beaming in front of eight school banners circulated widely (he went to Yale). Last year, two students took the Triple (Octuple?) Crown of college admissions. The gist of these articles, to be sure, is aspirational and positive: look at these amazing kids and what they've achieved! And none of these students were private school blue-bloods with an inside track: they are public-school kids who had the ambition to try their hand at the equivalent of a college hat trick. Though to call them "ordinary" overlooks the herculean effort they surely expended to rack up those admissions results.
This year, the buzziest of these articles is about a young woman who has been accepted at...wait for it... five Ivies (and Stanford). This may seem like small potatoes--only five (and Stanford)?--but there's a new spin on the story this year. Business Insider (which is apparently ground zero for these stories) broke the news thus: "This Essay Got a High-School Senior into Five Ivy League Schools and Stanford." "Essay About Love For Costco Wins Student Admission to Five Ivies," says the headline on NBC News's site. Her essay, published along with both articles, is an extended simile comparing the student's love of learning with her love of shopping at Costco.
You can see why the story is appealing: the student herself is adorable, all braces and floppy hat, and it's a winningly unpretentious topic for a college essay. When I imagine the horrors college admissions officers must experience as they plow through thousands of essays about the deep lessons learned, awful hardships endured, and accomplishments racked up by a bunch of callow 17-year-olds, I can see why this essay stood out. It's no "What I learned by volunteering at a soup kitchen/homeless shelter/developing country" brag piece. And I am thrilled for the girl herself, who now has choices and opportunities any student would envy; she is remarkable, with a 4.9 GPA and potential for miles. But the coverage, not to mention this trend in general, still leaves me with a sour taste.
There are so many reasons why this latest story sets me on edge, starting with the ridiculous notion that the essay "got her" admitted. Anyone who knows anything about college admissions knows that the personal essay is low on the list of what matters in an application. Furthermore, the essay itself, if I'm being honest, is not strong writing. It's full of inaccurate word choices that suggest sloppy thesaurus use, bad grammar, and grandiose, overblown metaphors. The idea is cute, but I expected inspired writing, and this is far from that. It feels mean to criticize a 17-year-old for writing a mediocre essay, but when you publish it and hold it up as some kind of gold standard, that's what you're asking for. I wouldn't suggest it as a model, except perhaps as an example of choosing a clever humble-brag for a topic. I also hate how this story perpetuates the fallacy that students should aim for admission to as many Ivy Leagues (and Stanford) as possible, rather than looking for a college that suits them best. In this age of single-digit admissions figures, when the top students all apply to the same ten schools and cancel each other out, surely we should be aiming for a better process?
But what bothers me most about this story, when I really boil it down, is the effect it will inevitably have on college applicants. I first heard about this magical essay from a high-school senior who's currently choosing between the schools that admitted her, all of which were her "safeties," and none her top choices. I am so impressed by this young woman, who has a drive and focus I utterly lacked at her age, as she reckons with her disappointment and pragmatically sizes up her options. Yet she mentioned the magical essay with a tone that suggested if only...if only she had written such a great essay, perhaps her results would have been better. And this feels so wrong to me. Not only is it objectively not a great essay, not only is it not what "won" her these enviable acceptances, but the hype around it implies it is the students who fall short in their attempts, rather than the process which is failing them.
As if high-achieving high school seniors and college applicants don't already have enough pressure on them, now we want to tell them that their application essay is also a make-or-break proposition? An essay that already poses enormous challenges in asking 17-year-olds to be reflective and mature and wise beyond their years? It's not fair. I want to tell each and every student setting out on the grueling applications process that this is bogus and untrue. But instead, I suppose admissions officers had better prepare themselves for a slew of metaphors about Walmart, Target and Office Depot next year.