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.