The Story Only You Can Tell

I was a little bit surprised that my last post on what I affectionately and long-windedly call the “How a PWD made me count my blessings by being like the very incarnation of Baby Jesus” genre of admissions essays turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog.  I was immensely gratified by the thoughtful and honest comments, where we semi-debated the risks vs. benefits of writing about various topics.  My hypothesis there was that this particular type of essay is ubiquitous because high school students and those who advise them, writing about that one week where you volunteered to work with children with disabilities or built an orphanage in Mexico and had a totally transformative experience seems like a good way to pander to the bleeding hearts who tend to read admissions essays.  They stress the more impressive parts of the student’s record and come instantly packed with a certain kind of drama.

This prompted a comment from Anna about her doubts that she as a person from a non-privileged group would be able to successfully write about her experiences without also taking on the stigma of belonging to that non-privileged group. At the time, I agreed with her, but now I sort of want to back off from that.  For one thing, over the course of the intervening month, in which I read over 200 admissions essays, I became more aware of my gut responses to particular types of essays.  Let me just say here that my gut response isn’t the sole factor determining how I score an essay.  As I stated in the previous post, I do not come to these applications looking to have my political convictions reflected back to me.  The score is a measure of the quality of both the writing and the thought behind it.  I recently gave a very high score, for example, to an applicant who wrote about the experience of belonging to a political family, the political family in question being one that I pretty much despise.

That said, essays that adopt cliche approaches tend to receive middling scores because they lack individuality and depth, while essays that talk about intense personal experiences in an emotionally honest and nuanced way tend to be better simply because they reveal more about the student as a person and, because they are intense experiences, feature a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.  In the past few weeks, I have seen excellent essays about dealing with the aftermath of parental abuse or abandonment, identifying as queer in a conservative community, coping with a chronic illness, and assimilating to U.S. culture as an immigrant.  All of these could have invited a certain type of stigma, but I responded to these students well both as writers and as people, and I do not think that this is because I am simply an exceptionally sensitive, social justice-oriented person.  I actually think that most admissions readers would respond well to these essays.

The fact of the matter is that in admissions training both at my own institution and on a national scale, readers are taught to look for evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity in addition to more traditional markers of achievement.  Because of the backlash against affirmative actions, these injunctions are a way of taking all parts of a student’s background into account without resorting to identity politics.  And while it’s probably true that most admissions readers–who tend to be ensconced within the Ivory Tower–are bleeding heart liberals, evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity appeals to bootstrapping conservatives just as much.  When asked to score applications for a pre-med scholarship program, my Reaganite father admitted that he tended to be more sympathetic with kids from less privileged backgrounds at least in part because they reminded them of himself (not that applications should be scored on the basis of personal identification either.)

The essential point I’m trying to make here is that anyone who drives a student away from talking about the more harrowing parts of their background is probably doing that student a disservice.  No one should be pressured into leveraging their trauma in such mercenary ways, but if a student feels moved to write honestly about an experience, I think that student should just go right ahead. Furthermore, no student should feel pressured to embellish their narrative in order to make their personal history more melodramatic than it is.  I have also awarded high scores to students who wrote about the ups and downs of their entirely healthy relationship with their parents or their first experience in a debate competition in original and nuanced ways.  Just because an experience seems mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be the source of an inspired piece of writing.  It just means that the story you tell should be a story that only you can tell in that particular way, because writing from a place of true honesty and sincerity is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience.

Many people commented with their stories about why they chose the essay topics they did and what role they think that played in the fact that they did not get into their first choice institution.  I have one of those stories too.  It goes like this:

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, attending a private evangelical high school in a very affluent area.  That said, I did struggle with depression for most of my teenage (and subsequently adult) years.  One of the sources of that depression was a slow-burning crisis of faith.  Quite devout as a child, my skepticism about Christianity–particularly the conservative version of it that permeated my community–intensified throughout high school.  Though that crisis hardly made me an extra special snowflake, it was the most vivid part of my personal experience at the time, and I had an essay about it written before I threw it away at the last minute.  See, the problem with writing about that experience is that I didn’t feel I could show it to anyone as to do so would be to disclose the very thing that made me feel so alienated from everyone around me and that I feared would invite ostracism.  When I did venture to describe the essay to someone, I was discouraged from sending it in by someone who thought it sounded “whiny.”  So I wrote a generic essay about how I love books instead.

I can say with conviction that this was terrible advice, but I cannot say that sending the first essay would have guaranteed me admission to my first choice, where I was ultimately wait-listed.  The truth is that top programs and top schools turn down amazing people all the time, and usually there is no “one thing” that you can point to that makes one individual just a little bit less amazing than a person who was admitted.  So, basing one’s admissions advice on one’s personal rejection experiences is a bad idea.  As someone who has read thousands of apps and attended numerous admissions seminars, however, I am saying is that college admissions, for all its problems, probably is one of the few places where a student should take a few risks and be honest about who they are.    I know I would rather read an essay that chances a bit of exposure than yet another essay about how some person with vaguely defined characteristics inspired the student with generic positive feelings.

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One thought on “The Story Only You Can Tell

  1. Thank you for this.

    I’m not an American and we have a very different system where I’m from. I actually quite like what we have going but I want to spread my wings and try graduate school overseas. I was wondering if you were contemplating writing anything about the essays you need to construct for grad school apps. It’s quite a confronting way to present yourself when you’re not from a system that uses personal essays.

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