Teachable Moments: Kwasi Enin's College Application Essay

There are simply not enough places at these few schools for all the students with perfect grades and perfect scores. Which brings me to Kwasi's essay, what it reveals about him, and what it reveals about what top schools seem to be looking for.
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It's wonderful -- and rare -- that the airwaves, Internet and twitter-sphere are abuzz with the story of a young person's academic success instead of, say, a celebrity's wardrobe malfunction: Kwasi Enin's Ivy League grand slam. How many kids get into all eight Ivies? It's a small sample pool, because few -- how many, we don't know -- apply to all eight.

The conventional wisdom is to apply to a few reaches, a few targets, and a few safeties. The CW is not to apply to eight reaches and to three or four of the others -- but the CW is not for everyone. Among families I worked with this past year, two students, both children of recent immigrants, took Kwasi's approach and applied to twenty or so schools each, most of them reaches. When I suggested a more targeted approach -- pick a few reaches you really want to go to -- the parents gave me identical answers: If my kid applies to all these top schools, she might get into one. According to news report, that was Kwasi's thinking too.

It's been fascinating -- and sometimes disturbing -- to see how Kwasi Enin's story has unfolded publicly. In our celebrity driven culture, he's smack in the middle of his first 15 minutes of fame. And in our culture of endless opinions and an infinite number of places in which to express them, we have collectively revealed quite a lot. The good, bad, and the ugly.

Kwasi's story took an unexpected turn two days ago when the New York Post got hold of one of the drafts of his Common Application essay -- labeled Draft#4. I suspect he did not provide it to the paper, and it seems to me a sleazy, invasive move, more typical of the NY Post than, say, New York Times.

Again, much has been said about the essay itself -- alongside the Kwasi phenomenon. Most commenters -- even Beyonce has weighted in -- are congratulatory. Some call him "brilliant." Many talk about their own kids -- that they got higher SATs and have just as many extra curricular activities, and they were turned down at all these schools. Some attribute the school sweep to race and some to Kwasi's child-of-immigrant status. And some news reports slant the story so that it looks as though it was the essay that "got him in" to all these schools. These are three recent reader comments from an article in the Wall Street Journal:

1. We don't want a land of white bread.

2. 50 kids from my high school with better SAT's scores and overall records
were rejected from all of the Ivy League schools. 7+AP exams with 4 or 5, sports, academics, etc.

3. In a fantasy world there is no racism, but this is the USA and there is in fact much latent and outright racism. Doubt that? Just read some of these posts. And if some white kid gets rejected at the expense of some kid of color, I say fine. Minorities have long suffered exactly the same treatment far longer and when whites get a taste of their own medicine they cry and whine that it's horrible.

The admissions process is not a transparent one. Admissions officers frequently offer advice to applicants about what the school is looking for, but a true behind-the-scenes look is unheard of -- though the Washington Post was recently given access to George Washington University's Admissions office in full swing in an article well worth reading.

Beyond what we can learn from the the Washington Post piece, it's not a secret that those who decide who gets into Ivy League schools are not just looking at grades and SATs. There are far too many students with perfect grades and perfect scores to choose from -- and many other considerations, including legacy students, athletic recruits, children of those who have donated large sums of money, students who do not need financial aid (international applicants among them), the need to balance geography and student interests (you don't want a school that's all economics majors and all violin players), and an increasing interest in making college classes look like more the world we live in. Brown University announced this year that 18 percent of the students it accepted are first generation college students.

There are simply not enough places at these few schools for all the students with perfect grades and perfect scores. Which brings me to Kwasi's essay, what it reveals about him, and what it reveals about what top schools seem to be looking for.

It is necessary to have good grades and high SATs for admission, and often a lot of AP courses, and extra curricular activities in abundance -- but in 2014, it is no longer sufficient for these schools. But you might be asking, what else is there that a high school student has to show? How about these? Intellectual curiosity. The ability -- the hunger -- to translate the lessons of one subject to other subjects. A craving for knowledge.

Intellectual curiosity -- a phrase I rarely hear from anyone these days -- is different from "academic achievement." I don't think it's a quality you can fake. And based on Kwasi Enin's essay, he has it in abundance.

The second paragraph of his draft essay says a great deal:

Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music. There are millions of combinations of key signatures, chords, melodies, and rhythms in the world of music that wait to become attached to a sheet of staff lies and spaces. As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onwards, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit in an undesirable situation. In middle school, my mind also started to become adept in the language of music. Playing the works of different composes, such as Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch and Coriolan Overture by Ludwig Van Beethoven, expands my diverse musical vocabulary, my breadth of techniques and my ability to practice in order to succeed in solo performances.

The essay goes on to say a great deal more about Kwasi's world, his sense of community, and his zest for life, music, and friendship, but to me, this paragraph is the essence of what makes him stand out. I suspect that even if his SAT scores were somewhat lower and he had taken fewer AP courses, he might still have gained admission to some or all of these eight schools.

I fear that Kwasi Enin's example -- apply to all eight Ivies and hope for the best -- might become the new normal for many students. I fear that the real lessons he offers us, that the most competitive schools seem to be looking for students with wellsprings of intellectual curiosity and creativity, not just academic achievement, will be lost in the madness of fall applications.

And there is this lesson too, that also gets lost in Ivy Madness: There are many more fine -- even outstanding -- colleges and universities than the eight Ivies. Look widely, look smartly, and search for the schools where your passions and your achievements will be recognized and challenged.

Elizabeth Benedict's Don't Sweat the Essay helps students develop their application essays and college choices. She is a bestselling novelist, editor, former Ivy League writing professor, and writing coach.

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