The college application essay has matured into a true American literary genre. Millions of young people labor to distill their very beings into short missives that they hope will auger the favor of admissions officers at the highly selective and invariably costly schools that have become de facto gatekeepers to the upper-middle classes. High school guidance counselors work overtime to lend polish to the paragraphs—which not infrequently have been drafted in consultation with underemployed Ph.D.’s hired by anxious parents.
Remarkably, all this scribbling has almost nothing to do with whether the student gets in. Instead the hold that the admissions essays has on American psyches comes from other sources entirely.
As a sociologist who studies higher education, I spent 18 months in the admissions office of a top-tier liberal arts college, working right alongside admissions officers to get a sense how decisions were actually made. I learned that the absolutely most important things in every application were not ineffable traits but hard numbers: GPA’s and standardized test scores, class rank, counts of AP and honors classes. Numbers mattered on the extracurriculars too, especially in athletics, where college coaches often made meticulous and precise comparisons among candidates on the basis of their swim or running times, skill rank, or win records. Admissions officers took for granted that “the numbers,” in their parlance, did most of the evaluative work. Applications with clearly high or low composite metrics, relative to the college’s overall applicant pool, were ruled on quickly. It was the files in the messy middle of each year’s applicant pool, whose numbers made them neither obvious “admits” nor clear “denies,” that got more extensive attention.
Yet even in these middling cases, personal essays rarely got even cursory attention from admissions officers. There were simply too many files to consider in too small a time frame, and too many other evaluative factors that mattered much more. How likely was an applicant to accept our offer of admission? Had we already accepted anyone from his or her remote zip code? Had the applicant received any special endorsement from a college alumnus or a faculty member? Did someone in the office owe a favor to the applicant’s guidance counselor? Those are the questions that get debated before a verdict is reached. But during the hundreds of deliberations I sat in on over two admission cycles, I literally never heard a decision made on the basis of a personal essay alone.
Which is not to say that college essays are not important. These acts of compulsory writing can in fact serve valuable purposes for both applicants and schools. Even if they’re not ones most people think of first.
Psychologically, the essay requirement lets young men and women focus on the one feature of their profile that has not yet been determined by the fall of their senior year of high school. Come November, there's almost nothing left for a candidate to do to assemble a more admissions-worthy identity: no earning of better grades on coursework already taken, no substantial extracurricular milestones to reach, and precious few state athletic championships to be won in advance of Early Decision deadlines. Barring a last-minute move to South Dakota (with its smaller pool of rival applicants), the dye has been cast. In an ever more harrowing race to seats at top colleges, giving applicants and their families something to direct their anxiety towards provides a paradoxical kind of comfort. You can worry about this, the essay questions promise.
Meanwhile, for colleges the questions themselves can be great marketing. It is easy for people on the other side of the desk to forget that the admissions game is fiercely competitive for schools as well. Officers on even the very most selective campuses know they will fight tooth-and-nail with peer institutions for top picks. Capturing recruits with the strongest academic numbers is key to reputation management, since third-party raters like US News use aggregated high school class rank and average test scores to determine college rankings. Competition is especially fierce for academically accomplished students whose families can afford to pay full tuition. The bottom line matters. Only a handful of schools are wealthy enough to promise need-blind admission.
So colleges use whatever means at their disposal to distinguish themselves in a crowded field. This includes the essay prompts admissions officers and marketing consultants dream up each year—a subgenre, if you will, that’s become the stuff of dormitory war stories and sitcom satire.You are invited to dinner with George Washington during which you will have the opportunity to discuss any topic. What questions will you ask him and what do you hope to learn? (George Washington University.) What’s so odd about odd numbers? (University of Chicago.) Each question is an advertisement for the institution doing the asking, a come-hither in a courtship of mutually high stakes. This is how tiny Goucher College in Baltimore recently made national headlines by asking students to submit video clips describing themselves to admissions officers. It was this year’s most distinctive act of one-upmanship in the buzzing annual college bazaar.
The common thread running through these transactions, of course, is an imperative for applicants to display themselves as distinctive individuals. Every name tells a story: Tell us about your name—any name: first, middle, last, nickname—and its origin. (Dartmouth.) What do you do? Why do you do it? (Lafayette.) For those who have organized their high school years around accumulating the right application ingredients, this is the chance to show just how truly special they are, in 500 words or less.
There seems to be a pattern to the questions schools are using now. To confirm it, I asked a Stanford research associate to crawl the web and compile a dataset of this season’s essay prompts among top colleges and universities. He used the US News rankings and then sourced the applications of the most highly ranked national liberal arts colleges and research universities: 113 schools and 280 essay prompts in all. After aggregating this text, he used a simple algorithm to see if particular words were used particularly often.
Community, experience, intellectual and goals all had high frequencies. But far and away the most common word in the essay question vocabulary, more common even than to (n = 286) and the (n = 335) was the advertising industry’s favorite term of all. With a total of 381 uses, the word is you.
Never mind that your answer will have little say in whether you make the cut: both sides have too much invested in pretending that it does for the admissions essay to ever go away.