On Campus Why Are “Good” College-Application Essays So Awful to Read?
For many, our education in first-person writing begins with the college application essay, which rewards uplifting narratives with neat-bow conclusions. This is a bad thing.
I started thinking about the Common App essay when I was in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t remember who—my parents, my English teacher, a copywriter of fear-mongering college emails—but someone had told me it was never too early to begin brainstorming, and so I set out to choose a topic.
My brother had written his essay on the beauty of math; my mom, on the importance of education in her immigrant household; my dad, on living in the shadow of three high-achieving older sisters. (He tells me now, however, that he didn’t actually feel that way. He just thought it would make for an interesting story.) There was no single right answer, they said, which should’ve put me at ease, but their advice didn’t end there. There was no single right answer, but there were wrong ones. My aunt’s college-admissions essay was about the suicide of a family member. It was not uplifting, salvific. There was no positive spin. When she was rejected from her top choices, despite her stellar scholastic achievements, everyone assumed her essay was the reason why.
College-essay prompts are vague enough to seem capacious, but, in practice, they accommodate very little. As Kate Sonnenberg, a college-admissions consultant and former application reader at Princeton, tells students , if they want to write about more negative experiences, “they need to make sure that the personal quality they are conveying in that essay is a strength, like resilience.” They should want their readers “to fall in love with them, to feel like the campus needs them and will be enriched by their presence there.”
Unsurprisingly, colleges themselves tend to be more reticent about what they’re looking for. But sniff around and you’ll find a tip sheet from Stony Brook University, which advises to “be careful to not offend your reader” and to avoid writing “overly risky” essays. Or consider UNC at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center, whose guide to (graduate school) application essays allots an entire section to “taking risks.” UNC’s verdict? Just a casually ominous directive: Be warned . If an applicant wrote, say, “an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school,” such an essay would be “risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.” And heaven forbid the reader should be called on to infer things!
So here’s the story I told in my college-application essay: I was performing in the original Broadway cast of School of Rock the Musical (humblebrag much?) when my thirteen-year-old voice started to change. “I could not believe the sound that had escaped my mouth—strained and croaky,” I wrote of a particularly humiliating rehearsal, because who doesn’t love a cringey opening in medias res?
I was cast to play a fourth grader and expected to sing melodies of a wide vocal range, so I began speaking solely in my falsetto register—think more Mickey Mouse than Prince—because I was terrified that, at any moment, I might be fired from the show simply for daring to grow up. I walked around with my knees bent and head compressed into my neck, anything to shave a couple inches off my giant five-foot frame. But—as I explained in archetypal college-essay fashion—I overcame these adversities, “found my voice,” and generally Learned A Lot Along the Way.
I could’ve written that, in denial of a burgeoning pubescence, I consulted three voice teachers. The first recommended I drink hot tea with lemon and cayenne. The second handed me a mini LED flashlight, which I was supposed to shine at the back of my throat as I raised and lowered my uvula, but I have a hair-trigger gag reflex and, accordingly, found myself in a perpetual state of dry heaving. And the third was so fascinated by the mechanics of my malfunctioning voice—the way my speech had cleaved into the manly and the murine—that she presented my case at a vocal-studies conference. “I hope that’s okay,” she told me, though I wasn’t sure if she was posing a question or proffering a declaration. At the time, this all seemed too scattershot for a 650-word piece. How were these anecdotes related to the very clear lessons I’d taken away?
I could’ve written that my fourteenth birthday party was a karaoke party, because of course it was. It was my last month in School of Rock , and, joined by a fellow actor, I kicked off the night with a rendition of Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You.” I sang in my falsetto. After, I asked my mom how it sounded.
“Good,” she said, “but I couldn’t really hear you.”
For the rest of the evening, I sat in sullen silence. A disco ball bathed the room in glittery light; I was tucked away in the corner booth, struggling to evade its glare. I was angry with my parents for making this the theme, angry with my castmates for belting fifth-octave notes I’d never again be able to reach, angry with my body for its powerlessness to resist time. But including any of this in my college essay might’ve reflected poorly on me, especially when I hadn’t yet come to terms with it all. Why was I so ungrateful, and, besides, if I didn’t want a karaoke party, why didn’t I take initiative and say no?
I could’ve written that I haven’t sung in public since leaving School of Rock in 2016. And not just on a stage—I’m talking singing along to the radio when friends are around, humming to myself on the sidewalk if others are present. But that wasn’t the redemptive resolution I was going for.
The random, the unflattering, the brutally honest: These qualities rarely have a place in the college-application essay.
For many of us, the college essay serves as our entry into first-person writing. At our most impressionable age, we are instructed to eschew risk-taking and nuance in favor of uplifting narratives with neat-bow conclusions. It would be one thing if the indoctrination ended here, if we could renounce these highly curated renderings of post-traumatic growth and leave them in our teenage years.
At our most impressionable age, we are instructed to eschew risk-taking and nuance in favor of uplifting narratives with neat-bow conclusions.
But does this negotiation of self-presentation ever truly end? You get to college, and there may be application-based classes that call for similar essays. Postgrad, you have cover letters, grant proposals, work-permit statements of purpose: all nonfiction “forms” whose primary intention is to impress a reader. Given the literary industry’s instability, even criticism and book reviews can fall into this trap, when they become “ an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine .” (Certain corners of the publishing and entertainment worlds, as well, incentivize artists to “solve” their traumas in the span of a couple thousand words—ongoing struggles be damned—and defang their stories in service of a reader’s catharsis.)
If the end goal is for your audience to like you, to find you impressive, to “accept” you—odds are your writing won’t get to that register of candor and rigorous self-examination that forgoes easy answers, chronicles the true messiness of our lived experiences, and helps distinguish a quality work. The college essay, then, is only the initiating point into an entire economy of mildly (if not wildly) dishonest grandstanding. It’s a single assignment, sure, but it’s also a mode of writing that comes to shape students’ entire worldviews on composition and craft.
Can the Platonic ideal of the college-admissions essay not be such a terrible piece of writing? Maybe, if admissions staff and other gatekeepers are the ones encouraging audacious, boundary-pushing work. If they expand word counts, so that students don’t feel forced to “chop down all the emotion” of their statements or fictionalize components to save space. If institutions revise their rubrics, become open to sentences that don’t explicitly corroborate a capital-T thesis, and offer examples of less-formulaic submissions. Because, presently, there is a kind of formula to this genre—a formula refined and perpetuated by counselors, tutors, and the like. I know I followed one: From my family, I gained an understanding of the right (and wrong) sorts of topics; from my high school’s college advisor, I realized I was meant to expressly name the wisdom I’d gleaned through my misadventures.
One could argue this standardization lends some sense of fairness to a subjective procedure of evaluation. But not everyone has access to college-prep counseling and tutoring. Not everyone has relatives with successful blueprints to emulate or cautionary tales to learn from. Behind the ostensible open-mindedness of college-essay prompts lies a minefield of unwritten rules. If admissions readers truly welcome all kinds of essays, though, and not strictly the customary, simplistic templates, perhaps the application process can be just a little bit more egalitarian. Not everyone, after all, has conquered their hardships. Not everyone’s story has a happy ending.
When I hear guidance that amounts to “exploit your trauma, but do it tastefully, strategically,” I bristle. I used to think: If I take a bad experience and fashion it into something valuable, then it will all have been worth it. Sometimes I still do. It’s this twisted, unhealthy form of “everything happens for a reason” logic, and in my heart of hearts I try not to give credence to it. But the fact is, when I flattened those moments from my teenage years at School of Rock into a legible narrative—polished them until they were shiny, aseptic—I was rewarded. I was admitted to Stanford University. The convention I’m critiquing is one I’ve very much benefited from.
At Stanford, I’ve sought to take the chances I wish I could have sooner. I’ve incorporated fictional characters into research papers, sent experimental cover letters to various internships. The papers were well-received; the internships, I never heard back from. Risks don’t always pan out, I suppose—that’s what makes them risky. And when they do—how delightful. As I learn to acclimate to the mixed reactions, I remind myself: Growing pains are normal. I should know.
Risks don’t always pan out, I suppose—that’s what makes them risky. And when they do—how delightful.
As for singing—that initial growing pain—I’ve been exhorted to audition for a cappella groups and student-run musicals since coming to campus. I say I’m too busy, but maybe next year. (This part of my story, honestly, I’m still working through.) When people find out I’ve been on Broadway, they get excited.
“You must be a really good singer then,” they say.
And I say, “Yes. Yes, I am.” And they go back to singing along to some parody of Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” while I model my best closed-mouth smile. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve politely nodded along to an “All Star” spoof, I’d have two nickels. Which isn’t a lot—a mere 0.001 percent of Stanford’s application fee—but it’s weird that it happened twice, right?)
I’ve never been adept at endings. The worst portion of my Common App essay might have been its closing line: “I am looking forward to the next part of my journey.” A journey, that is, of unceasing applications and their attendant pressures. I wonder, is it worth it to buck the trend? If I write freely, dangerously, am I doing anything but penalizing myself?
When your voice changes, there’s a period where your range collapses into no more than a few notes. When you become physically incapable of singing more than a narrow selection of songs. Or at least that was the case for me. I waited for the second shift, for the F4s and G4s to return to me. I’m still waiting.
I could wait, too, for admissions readers to change their tune. To see maturity, not liability, in my aunt’s essay. To find value in a work of writing beyond its narrator’s likability. I could wait because I’ve done it before. But I’m not sure I want to.