Admissions Essays Don't Need to Be a Misery

Give applicants something interesting to gnaw on.

Because I only applied to two colleges, one of which (the University of Illinois) required only one’s class rank and ACT score, I only had to write one application essay.

The essay was a requirement for Duke University, where my older brother was a student already, and which I had visited for a long weekend as a sophomore and had the kind of good time you don’t tell your parents about when you come home.

I do not remember the specific phrasing of the Duke essay prompt, but it was something about a time when you’d overcome some challenge in life and what you’d learned from it. I was aware that I’d had an incredibly charmed life to that point — thanks to the circumstances of my birth — and no particular challenges came to mind.

There was that time when I was around ten and my hair had grown a little long. Some bully on the summer camp bus said that I looked like a girl and then proceeded to lead the entire bus in a chant of “Girl Girl! Girl!” I dreaded going to camp the next day, but the bully had already picked out a fresher target by the time I stepped on the bus, so my life had been (thankfully) minimally challenging into my high school years.

I knew that the Duke admissions committee was looking for an example that demonstrated my youthful dedication and grit, but not possessing either of those traits, I fell back on an ability my teenage self had in abundance, a rough hewn gift for sarcasm.

The result was a smirking little number about the difficulty of driving the family Pontiac sedan to school — when Dad wasn’t using it that is — and parking it in a lot larded with BMWs and Volkswagen Cabriolet convertibles. 

There is no doubt something gross about a child of privilege mocking the values of children of families of even greater privilege, but at least the sentiments were sincere at the time and the essay, as I recall, had a decent line or two. Long story short, when the guidance office overseeing our college prospects took a look at it, I was told I was not allowed to submit it as part of my admissions package. Having been pleased with my stunt up to that moment, I did not take this very well. I don’t remember what I wrote as an alternative, but suffice it to say, I am not an alumnus of Duke University.

There’s a number of lessons to be learned upon reflection. For one, I suppose I could’ve been less of a turd and avoided the whole thing by admitting to myself and others that going to Duke was not an actual ambition of mine. Moreover, a guidance office more attuned to the specifics of individual students might have tried to channel my particular talents in a different direction.

Also, and this is the most important part, Duke could’ve provided a prompt that was actually interesting in an effort to see what kind of lively minds prospective students may have possessed.

I assumed that things had improved on the admissions essay front over the last 30-plus years, but then I saw a tweet thread from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon about the essay prompts his child was provided as part of the Common App, a digital application system used by 900 member schools that is designed to make college applications easier and more accessible.

The prompts Chabon shared were every bit as stultifying as what I experienced a couple generations ago, including: 

Chabon’s verbal response to these uninspiring efforts is not printable in a family blog like this one, but I share his general emoji sentiment:

EE’s Erin Garcia reminded me of The University of Chicago’s unique approach to application essays, new (and often unusual) prompts every year, including ones suggested by admitted students themselves, such as:

What if the moon were made of cheese? Or Neptune made of soap? Pick a celestial object, reimagine its material composition, and explore the implications. Feel free to explore the realms of physics, philosophy, fantasy…the sky is the limit!

And…

What’s so easy about pie?

While these sorts of prompts may be over-engineered for the types of students likely to be drawn to U of C, and it is no doubt difficult to come up with a prompt as part of a standardized application that offers a fair and equitable assessment of student writing abilities and past experiences, but surely we can do better. 

Chabon shared some of his own ideas:

Readers will notice an immediate difference between the old standby Common App prompts and Chabon’s attempts, namely that the old brain juices start flowing immediately in considering Chabon’s questions. On the other hand, the Common App questions summon cranial tumbleweeds as the writer wracks their brain for something to write about.

One of the blanket problems I identify with the structures around writing curriculum in schools in my book,Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities is that the subject matter and assessment restrictions rarely allow students a chance to show themselves off to the best of their abilities. 

Those uninspiring prompts are a good example of the phenomenon. If we want to know who students are, what they’ve experienced, and whether or not they can express themselves effectively in writing, at the very least we should give them something worth doing. 

Treating the essay as a hoop to jump through — and disconnecting writing from its potential to help students achieve a sense of agency, self-knowledge and knowledge of the wider world — is a waste of everyone’s time, including admissions offices’.

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At Educational Endeavors, we’re trying to do something to combat the trend of uninspiring and alienating writing with writing workshops rooted in my book, The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction WritingClick here for more info.