Woe, woe is the college essay. For teenage applicants, it’s a perennial source of anxiety as they try desperately to figure out what tale of personal courage, generosity, resilience, or insight will get them into the college of their choice. For admissions officers, the essay is a recurrent source of tedium and dismay as they face thousands of folders each year containing essays that are mediocre at best and plagiarized or ghost-written at worst.
In fact, just about the only people with any affection for the college essay are those who make a living by doctoring young people’s personal statements or, in especially unscrupulous cases, inventing them out of whole cloth.
Many of the concerns about the current college essay can be traced to the popularity of the Common Application. The Common App makes it easy for students to apply to as many colleges as they like with the touch of a button and an authorized credit card. By enhancing the ease of application, colleges attract more applicants and thereby increase their selectivity -- and in the college ratings game, as we all know, selectivity is the Holy Grail. So it is no surprise that 456 institutions across the country, from small religious colleges to major research universities, are part of this one-click network.
Unfortunately, the vast differences in culture and mission among institutions that accept the Common Application mean that its essay topics appeal to the least common denominator. This fact makes for both bad writing and, often, a bad experience for the writer.
There are two fundamental problems with the essay questions on the Common App. First, the topics are extremely general, ranging from "Evaluate a significant experience you have faced and its impact on you" to "Describe a character in ﬁction that has had an inﬂuence on you," to that petrified chestnut, "Topic of your choice." Essay prompts are effectively empty of specific content -- and the essays themselves often follow suit.
A second problem is that the topics avoid controversy by focusing almost exclusively on the applicant's interior life rather than their ideas about the world outside them. Such questions invite applicants to write about what they know best – themselves. But in doing so, they also confirm precisely what all students fear; namely, that the admissions decision is more a judgment about them as people than their suitability for a particular college.
Is it any wonder, then, that even the best students perseverate over their essays and that many applicants submit either clichéd tales ("winning the big game" and "my grandfather, my hero") or content largely written by someone else? With anemic prompts that invite self-centered reflection, we should expect little more.
In fairness, many individual colleges that accept the Common Application require the completion of a supplemental essay that demands both substance and analytic rigor. (One of these is the traditional undergraduate campus of Bard College, of which my institution is a part). Yet the Common App, precisely because it is so widely used, largely sets the tone in the applications process. Indeed, at most colleges, brief supplemental essays – often capped at 250 words -- simply invite applicants to share any additional information they consider relevant to their candidacy.
Some critics have suggested that college essays are so unpopular, and the insight they offer into applicants so unreliable, that colleges should minimize their importance or eliminate them entirely. Such a view, however, is shortsighted. What the essay needs to become meaningful is not further dilution but greater rigor and specificity.
At Bard College at Simon’s Rock, intellectual engagement is a core element of the campus culture. So we don’t use the Common App at all. Rather, we ask students in their essays either to comment in a thoughtful way about an issue raised in a short passage by a significant thinker (last year it was an excerpt from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society) or to walk us through their solution to a complex mathematical problem. (Essay questions can be found on pp. 25-26 of the Simon’s Rock application here. ) The topics are clear signals to students of what matters to us, and a wonderful way to gauge students’ willingness and ability to write cogently about a challenging issue. As a bonus, such prompts also invite thought-provoking essays that our admissions officers actually enjoy reading.
A specific essay topic is a boon to an institution: It communicates the college’s values and tests students’ inclination and aptitude to engage in the kind of thinking its academic program requires. But it’s also a boon for students, since it helps them understand what’s distinctive about a college and whether it’s the sort of place where they will thrive. Essays like ours do demand more of applicants, but that turns out to be a virtue, since we know that a student who has completed our application is truly interested in attending.
A more general essay topic, or an easier one, might increase the number of applications to an institution and enhance its selectivity in the published rankings. But in the admissions process, as in their classes, colleges ought to choose substance over appearance and intellectual challenge over glibness. Learning how to think well is at the very core of an education. That education should begin with the application essay.
Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon’s Rock.