Long before the Internet provided a platform for the mass critique of a seventeen-year-old applicant’s painstakingly polished prose, writing the personal statement has been a process fraught with tension and self-doubt. But as several new additions to Columbia University’s class of 2017 recently discovered, even after your essay secures your admission to the school of your dreams, it can continue to be a source of anxiety.
Last week, college gossip site IvyGate stumbled upon a Google Drive folder (since deleted) containing the admissions essays that gained 70 students acceptance into one of New York City’s most esteemed academic institutions. Almost immediately, sites like Gawker rushed to poke holes in these students’ attempts at creative self-definition and expression. As a college essay advisor with a decade’s worth of experience helping students hone their admissions essays, and a woman with a twisted sense of humor, I will admit, I found myself cackling at Gawker’s excision:
“Set the Scene: Remember, god is in the details. What did your cheeks do? They burned. What is your mother? A wild horse. How is your skepticism? Radiant.”
Still, my takeaway from this sampling was in favor of the kids. Because whether they wrote about hipster identity or an imaginary conversation amongst alumni playwrights; females in rap music or the sub-prime mortgage crisis via tortoise-and-the-hare metaphor; the students who offered themselves up for accidental profiling embodied the honesty and fearlessness required to grab the attention of today’s Ivy League admissions boards.
Successful admissions essays can run the gamut from an academic exploration of a mundane topic to a thoughtfully scripted (and well-edited) entry that could have been ripped from a student’s diary. The personal statement challenges students to excavate and expound upon experiences reflective of their larger personality traits. This is not an easy enterprise. Self-reflection in writing often involves equal measures of pain and embarrassment – and it is almost impossible to have an objective view of a person you’ve known all your life. Some commentators have been throwing around the word “pretentious” to describe the overall tone of the Columbia student writings. I challenge you to find a seventeen-year-old asked to write about him-or-herself, perhaps for the first time ever in a scenario with such direct future impact, who can manage to avoid this pitfall completely.
Still, why did these students feel the need to post college essays in a public forum for their peers? The college essay is likely one of the more stress-fueled assignments a high school student stumbles upon in his/her twelve-year school career. You spend months mulling over your topic, weeks grinding your brain to paste over a rough draft, endless hours meticulously editing, and every second after submission wondering whether you missed one crucial error that might make the difference between rejection and acceptance. Then you send your applications off into the Common App cyber bank, to be read by maybe a dozen strangers, total. If you wanted to share your writing success with more than the one or two admissions officers who happened to graze over your essay with the two minutes on average allotted to each applicant, I can’t really blame you. In fact, a student’s desire to post his/her college essay for others to admire is reflective of a confidence in the final product to which few can lay claim.
My own college essay, which gained me admittance to Boston University’s College of Communication over a decade ago, expanded upon an undeniably corny metaphor comparing icons from my favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, to my lifelong scholastic journey. The road to college was the Yellow Brick Road; Boston University was The Emerald City. The piece begins with a recitation of the chorus of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which is reprised at the end of the essay, asking “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I?” just before my grand finale of “I can fly. AND I WILL!” All caps. I would be content to bury this document under the pyramids of Egypt, never to see the light of day again.
Still, when I read through my essay in full, the piece is so clearly reflective of seventeen-year-old Stacey. While the standards for admissions essay writing have risen in the past ten years due to increased competition amongst applicants – and, frankly, more pervasive outside counseling and editing from professionals like myself – the core of the essay should be a direct extension of the teenager who writes it. Scanning through the Columbia student essays, I was invigorated by some and unmoved by others; but all felt sincerely delivered by young adults wading their way through the world towards uncertain futures. If this particular group of students felt confident revealing a slice of their inner reflections and most pressure-driven written experiments to their contemporaries — even if only before their writing landed on a national and exponentially more judgmental stage — they are more confident than most of the high school seniors whose self-penned treatises will pass before the eyes of admissions officers in the years to come.
Forget what the essays actually say. It is clear the same self-assurance that would allow a student to share an essay with his/her peers is likely to have shown through to the admissions board. We can judge all we want, but these kids got themselves into Columbia, and their willingness to open themselves up to the world might just be the reason.