One Yale applicant wrote that she peed her pants rather than break off a conversation with an admired teacher. Another wrote about his small genitalia, recalls Michael Motto, a former Yale admissions offer. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Oversharing has gone over the top in college admissions essays, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. that assessment. “There are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction.”
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
But going too far “can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.”
Affluent parents pay admissions counselors to help students come up with just the right amount of angst.
Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
One of my daughter’s high school friends wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. It got him into an Ivy League college. He’s not gay, but at least he did his own lying.
“The unlived life is not worth examining,” responds Robert Pondiscio in a comment.
To a significant degree, these kinds of self-involved, narcissistic essays are explicitly taught and encouraged in K-12 schools from elementary school onward. New York City schools in particular have long been dominated by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project approach to writing, made (in)famous by literacy guru Lucy Calkins, which teaches children as young as third grade to plumb the depths of the seven-year-old souls for “seed ideas” for personal narratives for their “writer’s notebooks.” Those ideas are then painstakingly massaged into “small moment” pieces, personal narratives and even, yes, memoirs.
The kids . . . learn to conflate the confessional and self-involved with “great writing.”
“If elite colleges stopped asking for personal essays as an admission requirement and instead asked for two piece of graded academic writing — a research report, an English or history paper — the market for confessional writing would dry up by sundown,” writes Pondiscio. “It would also be a better barometer of college readiness.”
And perhaps it would dry up the market for $14,000 four-day college-app cram camps.
Pondiscio, who’s just signed on as senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at Fordham, has more in a post on a Fordham blog.