The Best College Essay Money Can Buy

You could base an entire blog around the demented class dynamics that play out in New York Times lifestyle features.* Take this past Friday’s “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” and its utterly dismaying nut graph.

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application in which to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

For example? [Emphases and annotations my own.]

A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety[1] that summer must be used constructively[2]. Students can study health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University, or learn about Sikkim, India’s only Buddhist state.

Let’s talk about anxiety[1]. Anxiety over what? Some neurotic compulsion to help one’s fellow man? Discover one’s true calling? Better one’s self? Nope: as the nut graph makes clear, this all about one’s need to have a sparkling college application.

Now let’s talk about constructively[2]. If your goal is to get into a good university, what’s constructive about studying veterinary medicine in the Caribbean? Sure, there’s value in studying veterinary medicine if that’s the sort of track you intend to follow in college — but why the Caribbean? What does that signal?

A personal statement about one’s sumer internship in the Caribbean (or Rwanda, or India) might very well signal to admissions officers that the author possesses an unusual amount of intelligence, eloquence, maturity, or civic virtue. But the one thing it is guaranteed to signal is the author’s affluence. Because that shit is expensive, yo.

So basically this is an incredibly costly way to circumvent the ostensible need-blindness of so many elite American universities. Just another competitive advantage for the advantaged. And oddly, the New York Times article on this trend — like so many similar New York Times articles — seems to exist in an alternate universe populated solely by those advantaged and no one else.

Take this gem of a sentence: “Suddenly, the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past.” As a matter of fact, working as a waitress** or a lifeguard is still the norm for hundreds of thousands of American teenagers who can’t afford to hit up their parents for textbook money, much less a trip to Nanjing. Lots of people wait tables after college, too. In fact, there are waiters and waitresses working in your home town, at this very instant, who will never attend college. Crazy, right?

If the Times is going to keep feeding its audience wealth porn (and hey, I don’t judge, because there’s clearly a market for that stuff) then it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the existence of the other 98%.

*In fact, maybe I’ll make a regular thing out of it! 20 points to whichever commenter comes up with the best name for the ongoing post series.

**Aside: dig the unnecessarily gendered noun.

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