If you needed any more evidence that the college essay has become a trite exercise in telling college admissions officers what they want to hear, look no further than the New York Times. A few days ago, the paper of record published what its editors thought were the best of more than 200 essays that were submitted. And almost without exception they were essays about the racial and class oppression that students experienced.
A Hispanic girl describes the bare-bones offerings in her refrigerator and how she and her family have to huddle together for warmth in the winter because they can’t afford to fully heat their apartment. Another describes how he was able to get to where he was because his mother earned a living cleaning other people’s homes. “Ultimately, the suction of the vacuum is what sustains my family.” Another one complains about the way that guests at a Bed & Breakfast treated her mother. “There exists between service workers and their customers an inherent imbalance of power.”
In many ways, these essays are deeply inspiring. They are signs that the American dream is still possible, that children from families with next to nothing can attend institutions of higher learning that are the envy of the world. Many of these young men and women are probably receiving full scholarships thanks to the generosity of donors to these schools.
But what these essays do not demonstrate is any ability to think about the world outside of one’s own upbringing. It’s not that I expect high school seniors to have some deep understanding of global affairs or wisdom beyond their years. But none of them even mention a book they have read or a historical event that has made an impression. With only one exception they do not even talk about the subjects they wish to study in school. I suspect that all of these kids are capable of doing these things, but the college essay has for decades been nothing more than a contest to see who has the biggest sob story.
Which leaves middle class kids in an awkward position. The one essay picked to represent this group was written by a student named Erica Meister from Northville, Michigan. And, frankly, it is the only kind of essay that a “privileged” child can submit these days. She writes, “The more enterprising students of Northville High School specialize in the selling of three goods: marijuana, Adderall and test answers, all goods many of my peers don’t think twice about using.” After explaining that her peers are basically racist, ignorant, spoiled brats, she concludes, “My most prominent goal has always been to leave Northville behind, to find a world in which people act consciously, aware that their actions affect others, and choose to delve deeper by asking questions and seeking legitimate answers that may differ from their limited understanding.”
I’m sure she’ll find that down-to-earth vibe when she gets to Stanford in the fall. Let’s hope she’s leaving soon, though, because in her effort to show admissions officers that she has the politically correct attitudes necessary to get into the school of her dreams, she has thrown the rest of her classmates under a bus.