Quick quiz: Which of the following is not an essay topic on the latest version of the common application to gain admission to U.S. colleges?
1. 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.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event — formal or informal — that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.
6. Discuss a particularly significant Facebook status update. What prompted it? Where were you when you posted it? How did you feel when only four of your friends “liked” it?
The common application, which is now accepted by more than 500 colleges, is the best example of how the admissions process has become an exercise in encouraging 17-year-olds’ narcissism. Also new this year, rising high-school seniors will be allotted 650 words in which to indulge themselves. Was that because the 500 they have been given previously just didn’t do these topics justice?
The college essay as absurdist self-reflection isn’t new. When I applied to Middlebury College some two decades ago, I was asked to answer the question: “What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?”
Alas, this was no passing fad. “Many people involved in the admissions enterprise believe — or want to believe — that personal essays are essential,” Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in a blog post after interviewing a number of admissions officers. “As long as students are free to write autobiographical vignettes and creative riffs on quirky topics, then nobody can say the process is just about numbers, which it often is.”
Well, often it’s not. More and more colleges are dropping the SAT requirement. Measures of every sort of diversity — race, geography, religion, sexual orientation — compete with grade-point averages.
It’s discouraging enough that colleges have increasingly discounted hard measures in favor of essays, which are often “edited” by the adults in their lives. Hoover interviewed Danya Berry, a member of the common application’s panel of counselors, who said the essay requirements are a way to measure writing skills: “If you can’t write a succinct, five-paragraph essay, you’re not going to succeed in college.”
Fair enough. Yet the essays themselves don’t ask college students to do the least bit of critical thinking. They are merely exercises in what Twitter users label #humblebrags.
Of course, this generation of social-media-savvy teens already excels at trying to show how each moment of their lives is filled with significance. There is no need to encourage it. How about asking applicants about a favorite author? Sure, it’s possible it will become an exercise in how reading “Old Yeller” (does anyone read that anymore?) reminded you of the death of your pet turtle. But it’s also possible that it will make you offer some insights beyond your own, no doubt fascinating, autobiography.
What about a historical event that influenced you? Again, there will be plenty of opportunity for reflection on your own life when you reveal that the Emancipation Proclamation actually released your great-great-great-grandparents from bondage.
Or that learning about the Holocaust made you change your view of Judaism and whether God is good. Or perhaps that reading about the women’s suffrage movement turned you into an ardent feminist. But it won’t be all about you.
How about an invention that most changed your life? You might write that it’s the cell phone or the iPad. You would at least have to reflect on why that is the case, know something about its development, what life was like before it, and even — here’s the key — construct an argument for why this particular thing was more influential than other things.
The navel-gazing essays require only telling a story, a “narrative” about yourself, as college administrators have it. Sure, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. It could be in a “five-paragraph” format. But it doesn’t reveal much about how you think — just how you feel.
The thrust of the essays I’m proposing would be different. They would suggest that you are aware of the important ideas, events and leaders who came before you, who made it possible for you to spend the next four years of your life in this thing we call college.