Things that make me feel slightly better about the world: in my current stack of 75 applications for a prestigious honors program at my university, four of the 150 essays have been about the use of slurs like “the R word” to describe people with disabilities. That strikes me a somewhat encouraging ratio given the sheer breadth of topics available for these kids to write about.
Things that make my forehead scrunch: more than a quarter of these essays have been about how a person with a disability taught the student A Very Important Lesson about perseverance, overcoming adversity, or being grateful for what one has.
I understand why essays about disability come up a lot, particularly among this cohort. Just about every single one of us knows a person with some form of disability, and these kids spend many of their volunteer hours providing care at summer camps and group homes. I think it’s tremendously commendable that they commit their time in this manner, but I want to caution students away from writing this particular kind of essay or, at the very least, only writing this sort of essay with some of the following problems in mind. Teachers: if you’re in a position to give advice about this sort of thing, feel free to pass it along.
1) Almost all of these essays sound exactly alike. The formula goes something like this:
First paragraph: “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [name], who suffered from [disability]. Initially, I thought [stereotypical and somewhat offensive preconceptions] about that disability, but [name] changed my perspective through her [remarkable qualities like innocence, perseverance, or courage].”
Second and Third paragraphs: a chronicle of what you did for this person while working at [summer camp or group home for persons with disabilities]. This section is ultimately about how wonderful and generous you are for providing this sort of care. There is often mention of having to help this person in the bathroom or shower and how that uncomfortable intimacy helped you grow as a person.
Fourth paragraph: summary of how your life changed because of this experience (usually a single week or a semester of bi-weekly volunteering). Usually contains truisms about counting your blessings and emulating that person’s cheerful attitude.
Essays that don’t clearly differentiate you from the pack won’t get you far with a selective college or honors program, so you want to avoid the formula essay as much as humanly possible. I have seen spectacular riffs on the sort of essay outlined above, such as an essay on how a sibling’s disability made the student aware of the myriad accessibility issues in his school and church, but unless you can provide unique insights that stem from long-term experiences with disability, I would steer away from this topic.
2) The essay is ultimately about how wonderful the applicant is. Yeah, that’s sort of what you’re supposed to do in a college essay, but it’s icky to appropriate another person’s life in this way, and some application readers are going to be sensitive to that fact (your reader may, in fact, have or be closely related to a person who has a the same diagnosis). Furthermore, you typically have to flatten that person’s personality traits in order to fit the narrative of what a kind, generous person you are and how you learned this important lesson, and that ultimately makes for writing that sounds (and is) disingenuous and uninteresting.
3) Your essays are an opportunity to talk about something that either can’t fit into a resume line. Your time volunteering at that camp one summer–most of your short-term volunteer activities, in fact–will come through on a resume just fine. In fact, it’s sort of expected from the types of students who apply to selective colleges and programs. In other words, write about something that is a bit closer to your own personal experience.
Nothing points to the need for a better public discourse on disability than the ubiquity of this particular sort of college essay. A person with a disability is always presented as an opportunity for an able-bodied person to learn a lesson about how great they have it, about how to accept adverse circumstances cheerfully and courageously. Furthermore, it strikes me as a problem that such individuals are subjected to inexpert care from a person they will never see again in order for privileged college juniors to have something to write about. Ditto for impoverished children in the developing world, people who frequent soup kitchens, people with terminal illnesses, the impoverished child you tutored for a semester, etc.
I don’t necessarily read college essays looking to see my own political commitments reflected back to me. I don’t expect seventeen year-olds to be able to deconstruct privilege or fault them for using a vocabulary that the vast majority of able-bodied adults think is compassionate but is actually pretty infantilizing and problematic. I do score these essays based on the quality of the writing, which usually isn’t very good. It’s the oh-so predictable homogeneity of these essays–the prosaic quality that emerges any time someone is trying to expound on something that they lack the long-term experience or intimate involvement to be able to adequately describe–that earns them only middling scores. It’s the symptomatic nature of these essays that makes my forehead scrunch.