The recent arrests in Operation Varsity Blues put the entire college admissions structure under well-deserved scrutiny. In addition to exposing the wealthy parents who allegedly bribed, cheated, and lied their children’s way into elite universities, the scandal brought increased attention to the many legal-but-sketchy ways affluent families have been able to move their offspring to the head of the queue.
Rich kids can raise their numbers with the aid of tutors and test prep courses, and they can enhance their resumes with expensive “public service” vacations, unpaid internships, and private lessons in sports like crew and water polo. And if all else fails, there are always outright contributions.
Even in such a badly broken system, however, there is one component that does not need to be fixed. It just needs to be scrapped completely. I am talking about the dread personal essay, which is too easy to falsify, and mostly worthless even when it hasn’t been faked.
As revealed by a recent investigation by The Daily Beast, there is a cottage industry of “essay coaches” whose job is to help applicants devise, polish, and perfect their short-form literary efforts until they shine like stars, ring like bells, and stand head and shoulders above the rest—although hopefully having first been purged of clichés and trite allusions.
While many coaches provide legitimate composition and grammar instruction, while leaving the students to fashion their own essays, far too many appear to be pretty much ghost writers, at the cost of as much as $1,000 per essay. As one coach explained to The Daily Beast, “whether that means lying, making things up on behalf of the student, or basically just changing anything… about 50 percent were entirely rewritten.”
In other words, the essay section of the application virtually invites all sorts of covert assistance, and sometimes outright cheating. High school grades and test scores can be boosted by expensive tutors, but they ultimately reflect the students’ own effort. No matter how rich they are—and barring parental chicanery—the kids have to submit their real grades and take their own tests. The essays, however, can too easily be the product of co-authorship, with no way to distinguish between the contributions of the student and the coach.
Making things even worse, some elite colleges apparently give inordinate weight to the essays. Writing in The New York Times, one consultant called the essay “the purest part of the application” because it can show whether the student is kind, resilient, curious, creative, or fun. Even a prize-winning novelist would be hard pressed to convey just one of those qualities in a 500 word character sketch, and the chances of getting an accurate picture from a 17-year-old novice are essentially nil.
The essay prompts on the Common App (used by over 750 schools) are predictable and mundane. The options in 2018-19 allowed applicants to describe their accomplishments, the obstacles they’d encountered in life, or the problems they would like to solve. These questions are little more than invitations for stock answers delivered in stock formats (and more so under the guidance of a coach). Anyone who is tempted to stand out—using humor, poetry, or graphics—is probably more likely to harm her chances than help them, no matter how much the colleges insist that they are looking for signs of individuality.
At best, the essays create an illusion of individualized assessment, while some top colleges show off the creativity of their application drafters. The University of Chicago, for example, boasts that it “has long been renowned for our provocative essay questions,” which have included “Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose,” and “What do you think of Wednesday?”
The most honest answers to the latter question would be short and uninspiring: “Not much,” or “Only when I have to.” After that, good many applicants would probably think first of a variation on “hump day,” perhaps alluding to a familiar insurance commercial featuring a talking camel. Of course, those essays would quickly be devalued in the admissions office as too boring and unimaginative, when they in fact prove that those students actually did their own work
No professional coach would allow an applicant to write about something as obvious and dull as hump day. No, the high-priced consultants would throw topics back and forth until the team effort came up with just the right idea–something that combines quirkiness with optimism, erudition with grit, and all tied brilliantly back to the Platonic ideal of Wednesday. Sure, some youngsters might come up with such stuff by themselves, but it will be impossible to separate them from the ones who brainstormed with a pro.
And even when independently written, what do the essays really show? High school grades and test scores correlate well with college performance in the first year, but there is no reliable way to quantify essay performance, and thus no way to tell whether they have any predictive value at all. Yet, for every student accepted on the basis of an essay, there must be a rejected applicant whose entire high school career has been discounted for lack of a catchy punchline.
One application counselor explained the objective of an essay as convincing the admissions office “that you would make a great roommate.” Here is some advice to high school seniors, with apologies to Groucho Marx. You shouldn’t want to attend a college that would admit you for your value as a roommate.