College essays reward dishonesty

Abolish the personal essay on college applications, writes Samuel Goldman.

In theory, personal statements allow admissions officers to get to know applicants as individuals rather than the sum of grades and test scores. In practice, these brief texts are the basis of subjective and sometimes highly political judgments about the groups of students that an institution hopes to enroll.

Hard-luck stories — “overcoming adversity” — are favored, reports the New York Times. That gives undisadvantaged a strong incentive to embellish minor hardships or “even invent sob stories,” Goldman writes.

Some parents hired paid tutors. Others help “savvy applicants revise and polish their statements so many times that the final versions are not very accurate reflections of their writing skills–or even their own ideas,” writes Goldman.

Most applicants to elite colleges have similar academic and testing records, a Yale official told the New York Times. So “they might as well make admissions decisions by a lottery among objectively qualified students,” writes Goldman.

If they really need to supplement high school credentials with a writing component, colleges might consider prompts that encourage classic features of the essay such as humor and ingenuity, rather than tear-jerking reminiscences. The University of Chicago is famous for offbeat prompts that encourage applicants to think rather than to recollect or emote.

Another option is to ask applicants to submit a research paper on a substantial topic, suggests Goldman.

One of my daughter’s high school classmates wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. He’s now an Ivy League graduate. He’s not gay. But, at least, he wrote it himself.

About Joanne


  1. Testing’s being vitiated and now essays are found to have flaws so what’s that leave? CAT scans? Casting chicken bones?

  2. “Another option is to ask applicants to submit a research paper on a substantial topic, suggests Goldman.”

    Because, research papers… there’s absolutely no way that a kid could cheat while writing one of those…. (cough)

    • dangermom says:

      At least it would have something to do with academics, not the kid’s ability to spin a sob story.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    There were some classes I took in college where a large component of your grade was figuring out what the instructor wanted to hear in class and read on tests and essays. I see no obvious problem with colleges selecting students based on the ability to write something that someone else wants to read. What is the problem here?

    • I don’t think the issue is that applicants shouldn’t be rewarded for writing something that someone else wants to read; it’s just that it should be clear if fiction is ethically okay or if the personal essay should reflect the actual personal experience of the student composing the essay.I think most applicants believe that essays are supposed to be non-fiction, but that others seem to game the system.

      But I have to say the personal essay bothers me a whole lot less than the reliance on letters of recommendation. Why should a kid’s acceptance into a particular college be tied to my ability to sell that kid and his or her personal attributes? Isn’t that more a measure of my talents than the kid’s?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Presumably there’s something to being able to impress people with such talents.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Some courses? In college? My high school students practically beg me, “Tell us what you want us to tell you.” They get confused and angry if I don’t.

      It’s a mutually reinforcing system. Students have discovered they will be successful if they can figure that out. Teachers know that students will be relatively happy–and will do relatively well!–if the teacher makes it real explicit what he wants addressed to him.y have learned that

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Yes, confused and angry. Frustrated and despairing, sometimes, too.

        Real learning is often occasioned by unsettlement, as Dewey said.

        By the time a student gets to high school, his or her previous teachers have often ingrained the mindless parroting habit quite deeply. It is up to you, Roger, to make sure it’s not permanent. College is too late to try to break a student of what they “know” is the case about school and learning.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “Some courses? In college? My high school students practically beg me, ‘Tell us what you want us to tell you.’ They get confused and angry if I don’t.”
        I was fortunate to go to a high school where I received a very good classical liberal arts education. Almost every teacher was fine with the students disagreeing with the teacher AS LONG AS THE STUDENT COULD COHERENTLY DEFEND THE POSITION in class and in written essays. At one point I turned in an essay supporting global thermo-nuclear war (not nuclear weapons, but using them). I got an A (which appalled the rest of the class). An independent interpretation of literature was, again, fine … as long as you could defend the interpretation with references to the text.
        My college experience was much worse. Within the science and math departments, the teachers tended not to care what you *believed* as long as you understood the math and/or science models. I had a chemistry TA who didn’t believe in quantum mechanics. But he knew how it was supposed to work. I had a chemistry professor who didn’t believe in evolution (I don’t think), but he didn’t care if you did (and it isn’t like this mattered for his field of research).
        Outside of science/math things were a bit different. Some teachers were like the ones I had in high school. And some based a chunk of the grade on how well the students agreed with them. Sigh.

  4. Crimson Wife says:

    Colleges could select the top 25% or so of the applicant pool for a proctored writing exam. Something more in-depth than the SAT writing section.