In a June 15 New York Times story, columnist Frank Bruni laments a trend toward students “oversharing” in their college application essays. Drawing on the remarks of a former Yale admissions officer, he goes on to describe the high-stakes faux pas of three unsuccessful Yale applicants (a self-described Casanova, a young woman with an unusually breezy attitude toward bodily fluids, and a guy worried about the size of his private parts).
Who Defines Poor Taste?
Bruni accurately highlights the sense of desperation that students and their parents may feel in the face of today’s ultra-competitive college admissions standards–a sense that can lead to disingenuous efforts to stand out from other applicants. He is not out of line, either, to wonder about the judgment of an applicant who submits a soul-baring essay when a more conventional approach might be a less risky option. Less sound, however, is a fundamental assumption that underlies Bruni’s criticism of oversharing: that certain topics–not just the unusually lurid examples he describes in detail, but also “eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, [and] drug addiction”–are simply in poor taste.
One problem here is that taste, unlike GPA or SAT scores, is neither an objective nor a quantifiable measure of college aptitude. It is, however, a way that one class differentiates itself from another–specifically and historically, the “haves” from the “have nots.” All too similarly–and despite decades of social and educational reforms designed to level the playing field–access to higher education still skews across class lines.
Taking the Personal Statement Seriously
With its emphasis on matters of taste and convention, Bruni’s critique also overlooks the crucial issue of authenticity. Not for nothing do college officials refer to a student’s central college application essay as the “personal statement.” Some high school students, at 17 or 18, have led sheltered lives. Others have already faced extreme adversity. Both types of students are capable of flourishing in a college environment. Neither type should be penalized for writing candidly about the circumstances that have shaped their lives–and, more important, how they have dealt with those circumstances.
It’s important here to note that colleges explicitly attempt to tease out revealing information (applicants are not, as some assume, given free rein in choosing essay themes). Consider, for example, the following Common Application essay prompts for 2014-2015; nearly all top colleges require a 650-word response to one of them:
- 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.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
For one high school senior, a candid response to almost any of the above questions might center on their efforts to improve their time in the 100-yard dash, and lessons learned about perseverance and self-acceptance. For another, the response might focus on trying to cope with an absentee parent–and, again, lessons learned about perseverance and self-acceptance. The external factors described in these essays are, by definition, personal, specific, and unique to the individual writer. The real takeaway of a strong application essay, however, is unvarying. The point is not the external situation that the student describes, but their own efforts to influence or come to terms with the situation, and the personal growth that occurs as a result.
Candor: Not the Kiss of Death
At Edupath, members of our staff have, in the course of their careers, reviewed hundreds of essays and helped students of differing socioeconomic status gain admission to college. Some of these students have chosen conventional topics for their essays–for example, how traveling, playing sports, being a camp counselor, or learning to embrace their culture of origin enhanced their personal growth. Others have written about some of the same deeply personal topics that Bruni cites as over the top, such as coping with an eating disorder or adjusting to a parent’s unforeseen coming out as gay. In our experience, students who write about more revealing topics in a way that focuses on their personal growth do not fail to receive offers from their colleges of choice, including Ivy League schools.
We would hope that, contrary to what Bruni implies, the three “oversharing” students were not denied admission to Yale solely because their essays included content that he considers in poor taste. With its stringent acceptance rate of just 6.2% (meaning roughly 94% of applicants are denied admission), Yale is among the most selective colleges in the nation. In this competitive atmosphere, only students who emerge as top-tier across a broad range of assessments–including GPA, standardized test scores, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations, honors and awards, and community service–are offered admission. Surely these quantifiable measures influenced the Yale admissions officers’ decisions as much as the content of the “oversharing” students’ essays.
But if college admissions officer are really, as Bruni suggests, dismayed to receive personal statements that are, well, personal, then perhaps they need to ensure that the essay prompts themselves do not invite candid responses. Otherwise, the most successful applicants are likely to be those who have already learned an extremely cynical life lesson: that people don’t always mean what they say.