Why Today’s Students Can’t Write College Admissions Essays Without Talking About Victimization

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.

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  • What pretentious know-nothings. I learned so much about my life and the world in that first year of college. I returned to my hometown with a completely different view of people. And it changed again every year I was in school. Most of these kids don’t bother to consider that people are too busy trying to make ends meet to care how they might be slighting people with an unintentional eye roll or a vague comment.

  • Julian Grunauer

    This article is absolute trash. Your lack of research and incorrect citing of material is astounding. The essays you commented on were used specifically for an article called “4 Standout College Application Essays on Work, Money and Class.” So of course “almost without exception they were essays about the racial and class oppression that students experienced”! That was what the article was about! To take one article written about just 4 college essays, misrepresent it, then state that the college admissions process is just a “contest to see who has the biggest sob story” takes crazy to a whole ‘nother level. And I commend the young lady that wrote her personal statement about the superficiality of her classmates. We need more people like that to fix what is incorrect in society. I recommend that you do your research before wearing a guise of a journalist and shaming others on the internet.

  • Michelle Jeong

    Naomi Schaefer Riley, are you kidding me? I would like you to consider your positionality. You are a white American talking about the college essays of minorities. These students are writing these stories because it accurately represents their life. The reason why students write these stories is because minorities in America are the victims; therefore, minorities have been and constantly are being victimized. Maybe students wouldn’t write these essays if issues like racism and wealth inequality didn’t exist in America. Oh but guess what? They do! And by the looks of it, issues like racism and wealth inequality are not going away anytime soon. In addition, your statement on the American dream being possible is a VERY privileged statement. The reality is that, the American dream really does not exist. The American society is set up so that the poor remain poor while the rich continue to get rich. If I were you Naomi, I would check my privilege (education, class, status, race, etc.) and maybe do a couple more rewrites before publishing something like this.

    • noufa

      Riley never challenged the authenticity of the anecdotes.

      That aside, you seriously don’t see a problem with treating college applications like a suffering olympics?

    • Steve Sunny

      You are so far down the hole, I really don’t know what to say. And anyways, if the American dream is not possible, then how on earth are these “minorities” being accepted into top level colleges? Seems like the American Dream is perfectly possible to me.