May 16, 2011

How To Write A College Application Essay Or Personal Statement


Sometimes you know something but the full significance never makes it to consciousness, because your very soul rebels against the implications: we've been doing it wrong all this time?

NYMag: You've Got Mail: Inside a top college's admissions room.  That college is Sarah Lawrence.  Ring a bell?  Some of you silly people will remember that Blair on Gossip Girl got rejected from there, but anyone over 30 will no doubt remember The Simpsons:

Mr. Thai [Thai restaurant owner] to Bart: Put flyers on doorknobs.  Then I get more business. Send daughters to small liberal arts college. Swarthmore. Maybe Sarah Lawrence. Call professors by first name.  Dynamite!

Bart later tosses them in the dumpster, and when the restaurant owner finds out:

Mr. Thai: You a quitta!  Quitta boy!  Now restaurant fail. Children go to state college. Serious students powerless against drunken jockocracy. Baseball hats everywhere.

Sarah Lawrence evaluates a student's performance in three spheres: academics, writing, and "personal", defined as extracurriculars and "other background." I'll leave the merits of "other background" to The Weekly Standard.  The issue for us here is the college essay.

Read this:

Standardized tests are supposed to correct for the ways high-school grading systems vary, so to make up for that, Sarah Lawrence's committee uses a sample essay graded by a high-school teacher to determine the curriculum's rigor. But the samples also tell something about the readers. "I had one essay that said how awful Twilight was"--the essay was about damaging themes of female submissiveness in the series--"and I was like, 'Admit her!' " says Melissa Faulner, a 2006 grad on the committee. Whereas what the readers wryly call TCML essays--"theater changed my life"--are looked at more skeptically.

No doubt, NO DOUBT, critics of higher education and multiculturalism will jump on the implication that the committee leans left, way left, and will favor those applicants  with similar predilections.  WRONGINGONTHEFLOORLAUGHINGMYASSOFF.  Read it again, you've missed something crucial.

'Admit her!' " says Melissa Faulner, a 2006 grad on the committee.
Still don't see it?  There's a very good chance that the only person who will ever read your college essay is 25 years old.


In every college admissions website, they are referred to as "Admissions Officers."  While I didn't assume they were in the military, I suppose I did assume they were... old.  er.

And some are, I guess, there's got to be an Admissions Dean in the building somewhere.  But the average applicant is writing an essay that he thinks an adult with a suit and three kids would want to read.  Instead, it's probably being read by someone who can't wait for the new iphone and still bites their nails.  Ten grand says they think Jon Stewart is "a freakin' political genius."

But surely there are some adults on the committee?  The article focuses on Tom Marlitt, director of West Coast Admissions.  They don't give his age, they give a physical description. Media-- and The New Yorker is probably the wost offender of this--   offers a physical description of their subject as a code about their character in exactly the way the media would never allow a regular person to do.  If they profiled me it woudl start, "Wearing a disheveled undershirt clutching a rock..." and leave it to you to make an objective assessment (="drunkard, likely unbalanced.")   What they say about Marlitt is: "a spiky-haired man in all beige."  That's media code 50 year old acting like a 25 year old.

Look, nobody likes 25 year olds more than me, especially ones that are too pretty to get into Sarah Lawrence.  And there's little sense in arguing the merits of college admissions being determined by a 25 year old vs. a 50 year old when the whole college game is a carny act that works only because we agree to pretend it does, runs FIFO, and is subsidized by the government.  It is what it is. 

But if 85% of the applicants have already been weeded out before it gets to the committee, and they have been weeded out by a 25 year old, or a 50 year old who thinks he's a 25 year old, it would make more sense to write an essay for a 25 year old.  Not for a 50 year old, which is what most people do, employing the maxim, "What essay would make my Dad happy?"   So you get: quote from some uncontroversial famous person; affirmation of one's heritage/parents; generic sycophantic praise of the school; vague promises of changing the world.

college essay.PNG
Admit him!

Before you write your essay, profile your Admissions committee members.  They, not "the school", are the ones accepting you, and writing an essay for a theoretical "Admissions Officer" is like having sex with a theoretical "vagina."  Yes, it means you'll be submitting different essays to different places, but this kind of information may save you from describing  how much you admire Kissinger's foreign policy:

tom marlitt.PNGIf you're targeting a(n actual) 25 year old, i.e. someone who through no fault of their own has been conditioned to prefer brevity, appeals to emotion, and branding, here are the words you want to include in your essay: "sex" (as self-expression, not conquest), individuality, curiosity,  hypocrisy, naked.   25 year olds have hypertrophied BS detectors, so nothing contrived.  Bonus if you can include some dialogue in your essay, everyone loves a supporting cast.  Triple points if it can be read ironically, or if it is funny, especially in a self-deprecating way.