To get into college, fake it

Applying to College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions, writes Julia Ryan in The Atlantic. Elite colleges’ admissions essay prompts pretty much demand that students “pretend to be something you are not,” she charges.

Brown University is asking applicants for the Class of 2017: French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?

The University of Chicago would like high-school seniors to tell them: How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Tufts would simply like to know: What makes you happy?

“Applying to college shouldn’t be the intellectual equivalent of dressing up in your mother’s clothes,” writes Ryan.

Many of her commenters liked the prompts. (They made me very glad that all this is behind me.)

Universities have automated admissions, writes a commenter who designs admissions software. An outside service will use “advanced OCR and ICR recognition software plus semantic analysis” to turn the transcript and extracurriculars into a single number. Essays are turn through plagiarism software. “If a university is particularly prestigious they *might* read the essay, but the counselor is reading about 15 to 20 an hour.” The essay reader is probably an untrained graduate student or unemployed graduate making $11 to $13 an hour, he writes.

Hacking the Common App has good advice on writing admissions essays. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Bard’s new admissions option — submit four research papers instead of grades and scores — is begging to be gamed by the wealthy, writes Jordan Weissmann.

Rather than submit a full battery of grades, teacher recs, SAT scores, and personal essays, Bard applicants will be able to choose to hand in four 2,500 word research papers, which will be graded by faculty. Applicants who earn a B+ or better on their writing will be accepted . . .

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview.

Who’d choose this option? Someone who’s gone to a very good college-prep high school and learned to write a college-quality research paper, but hasn’t earned Bard-worthy grades or test scores. That’s a small group. Or, as Weissmann suggests, someone who can afford to pay a “college consultant” to write the papers.

About Joanne


  1. Fifteen years ago, my then HS senior son decided to send in a good paper he had written rather than the usual “tell me about yourself” essay. Worked for him, but at the time it was taking a risk.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    Our 11 and 13 year olds get questions like this at school. They keep getting asked to write things in journals or about their own lives and the parallels to literature, etc. But these kids have only been sentient for about 10 years and have almost no life experience to draw from.

    Our younger kid, who’s reluctant to share personal stories, started picking stories from his friends’ lives instead or flat-out making up stories. Last year, he based journal entry on “his” dog (actually his friend’s) which got its paw run over by a car (which he made up.) We told him that was fine, but the teacher wasn’t thrilled.

    Making teens and preteens try to draw out deep personal meaning from lives in which they’ve done little but shuttle between home and school is a bit pointless.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      It’s completely understandable and appropriate if a kid wants to relay a personal story to illustrate a point. It is utterly contemptible to insist that they do so. Public schools are government institutions. There’s something a little bit fascist in insisting individuals “share” and punitively punishing them (bad grades) if they don’t.

      It’s just creepy.

      • I do so agree. I would have hated this practice of insisting that children share feelings or experiences in public. It’s like…rooting baby plants up to see how they’re growing. And I would bet that it makes some kids feel coerced and bullied.

  3. Schools ask far too many intrusive questions of kids; kids’ emotions and personal lives should not be mixed with academics. It’s an invasion of their privacy and that of their families. Journaling is an awful practice, in my opinion; it’s both intrusive and worse than useless – because grammar, spelling, organization and format are usually not corrected; thus reinforcing bad habits. Certainly, school personnel should appropriately refer kids about whom they have specific concerns, but they should respect kids’ privacy. And, as previously stated, text-to-self exercises are academically useless; the text should stand alone.

  4. cranberry says:

    I like the prompts cited. I think you’re missing the context. Ms. Ryan attended Phillips Exeter. Read “The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School,” by Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez for a depiction of the attitute some boarding schools inculcate in their students. The title’s a good clue to the contents.

    An applicant to an elite school should be able to write a 250 to 500 word essay about themselves, effectively answering, “why should we select you?” At the time of application, Harvard et al. have test scores, grades, recommendations and interview reports in hand. None of that shows any of the applicant’s personality. They reject more than 90 applicants for each spot.

    The new crisis in college applications is the Common App’s done away with the “topic of your choice” theme. Last year, the Common App didn’t “go live” until some time in August. I believe the colleges want to level the playing field between students who have the resources to attend application essay writing camps (or, ahem, Exeter), and the naturally bright and interesting students who don’t.