College Guide


February 18, 2013 12:30 PM College Essays Make Kids Stupid and Selfish

By Naomi Schaefer Riley

Quick quiz: Which of the following is not an essay topic on the latest version of the common application to gain admission to U.S. colleges?

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event — formal or informal — that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.

6. Discuss a particularly significant Facebook status update. What prompted it? Where were you when you posted it? How did you feel when only four of your friends “liked” it?

The common application, which is now accepted by more than 500 colleges, is the best example of how the admissions process has become an exercise in encouraging 17-year-olds’ narcissism. Also new this year, rising high-school seniors will be allotted 650 words in which to indulge themselves. Was that because the 500 they have been given previously just didn’t do these topics justice?

Changing Standards

The college essay as absurdist self-reflection isn’t new. When I applied to Middlebury College some two decades ago, I was asked to answer the question: “What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?”

Alas, this was no passing fad. “Many people involved in the admissions enterprise believe — or want to believe — that personal essays are essential,” Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in a blog post after interviewing a number of admissions officers. “As long as students are free to write autobiographical vignettes and creative riffs on quirky topics, then nobody can say the process is just about numbers, which it often is.”

Well, often it’s not. More and more colleges are dropping the SAT requirement. Measures of every sort of diversity — race, geography, religion, sexual orientation — compete with grade-point averages.

It’s discouraging enough that colleges have increasingly discounted hard measures in favor of essays, which are often “edited” by the adults in their lives. Hoover interviewed Danya Berry, a member of the common application’s panel of counselors, who said the essay requirements are a way to measure writing skills: “If you can’t write a succinct, five-paragraph essay, you’re not going to succeed in college.”

Fair enough. Yet the essays themselves don’t ask college students to do the least bit of critical thinking. They are merely exercises in what Twitter users label #humblebrags.

Of course, this generation of social-media-savvy teens already excels at trying to show how each moment of their lives is filled with significance. There is no need to encourage it. How about asking applicants about a favorite author? Sure, it’s possible it will become an exercise in how reading “Old Yeller” (does anyone read that anymore?) reminded you of the death of your pet turtle. But it’s also possible that it will make you offer some insights beyond your own, no doubt fascinating, autobiography.

Historical Influence

What about a historical event that influenced you? Again, there will be plenty of opportunity for reflection on your own life when you reveal that the Emancipation Proclamation actually released your great-great-great-grandparents from bondage.

Or that learning about the Holocaust made you change your view of Judaism and whether God is good. Or perhaps that reading about the women’s suffrage movement turned you into an ardent feminist. But it won’t be all about you.

How about an invention that most changed your life? You might write that it’s the cell phone or the iPad. You would at least have to reflect on why that is the case, know something about its development, what life was like before it, and even — here’s the key — construct an argument for why this particular thing was more influential than other things.

The navel-gazing essays require only telling a story, a “narrative” about yourself, as college administrators have it. Sure, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. It could be in a “five-paragraph” format. But it doesn’t reveal much about how you think — just how you feel.

The thrust of the essays I’m proposing would be different. They would suggest that you are aware of the important ideas, events and leaders who came before you, who made it possible for you to spend the next four years of your life in this thing we call college.

Naomi Schaefer Riley , an occasional Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of "The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For."


  • Dave Mazella on February 18, 2013 4:21 PM:

    Wait, isn't this writer the right-wing troll fired by the Chronicle of Higher Education for writing a dopey contrarian essay calling for the elimination of African American studies? What is the rationale for digging up this woman, who is surely doing fine writing for some right-wing think tank, for a purportedly liberal website? Just curious.

  • Daniel on February 18, 2013 5:21 PM:

    Eh, it was an interesting piece. And the author is not a right-wing troll; she's a conservative journalist who often rights controversial pieces.

  • Wes F. in Morris on February 18, 2013 6:50 PM:

    Spot-on, Dave. That is exactly who it is, and I took more than a little of "How can I reinforce the Dead White Guy hegemony in my application questions?" in her essay.

    As someone in academia who is most likely going to be a dead white guy someday, I heard all the dog whistles.


  • ceildith on February 18, 2013 7:02 PM:

    She may be a right winger and for sure she's got her dog whistle on diversity right there. But she's absolutely right about the personal essays. They are junk. And what she didn't say is that they favor the kids whose lives are "interesting," at least to the underemployed recent grads who sit in the admissions office.

  • beejeez on February 18, 2013 8:50 PM:

    Just a few minutes' reflection reveals why Ms. Riley, however well-intentioned, is full of hooey on this complaint, at least.

    Measuring one's writing ability is only one of the functions of an admissions essay. The essay is also supposed to reveal valuable but less objectively measurable information about an individual applicant for a university. So, yeah, I'll take writing about yourself as a reasonable request. The essay also should be easy to check for plagiarism; this is difficult to do when an articulate topical essay can be cut-and-pasted from millions of existing sources. It's not so easy to describe your triumphs overcoming black poverty if your return address is Montpelier, Vt.

    What's more, I suspect that the effect of writing a college application essay on developing a narcissistic personality may be a bit overstated.

  • mfw13 on February 18, 2013 10:42 PM:

    Admissions essays are useless as a measure of a student's writing ability given that they are rarely written solely by the students themselves.

    At competitive colleges, you have to think probably 90-95% of all admissions essays are "adult-assisted".

  • Dave Mazella on February 18, 2013 11:37 PM:

    @Daniel: "Controversial"? Is that what they call race-baiting nowadays? Fortunately, I haz the Internetz and I can easily find statements of hers like this one from the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

    "Ms. Levy's dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.'" The assault on civil rights? Because they don't favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights?"

    So a badly researched, badly argued hit piece on African American studies, at the expense of a bunch of otherwise unknown young scholars, qualifies her for this column? Looks like standards are going down around here. Either that, or the Editors are offering up link-bait to Drudge readers.

  • J Hass on February 19, 2013 7:11 AM:

    The author got her start writing a college application essay and has since gone on to become the queen of narcissistic turds in essay form.