Every year more than a million students use the Common Application, a standardized electronic form accepted by more than 1,000 colleges, to apply to college. And every year since 1976, the Common App, as it’s known, has asked teenagers to write an essay where they reflect on who they are and what they want to be. Now is a good time for college admissions offices to reflect on who they are and what they want the application essay to be.
Some people who work in college admissions are very concerned about students using ChatGPT to write their essays, but colleges should treat this challenge not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to, as the Common App puts it, “learn from the experience.” Colleges should make the admissions process a lot more straightforward and a little bit fairer by asking students better questions, requiring simpler, shorter answers, and dumping the personal essay
While the intention behind the creation of the personal essay might have been to give students a chance to shine, it took less than a decade for it to congeal into a genre thick with clichés and conventions. By 1986, admissions officers at a national convention were already complaining “about dull essays piling up all around them” and saying that “if things didn’t liven up, the essay could soon disappear altogether as an admissions tool.” The essay did not disappear, but it also did not liven up.
If anything, essays grew duller. Guidebooks, English teachers, and private college consultants have increasingly taught students to follow a formula that goes something like this: Start with an arresting sentence that leads into an anecdote about some experience that shaped your character. Make sure the story leads to a lesson learned. And do it in 650 words.
It’s a “really difficult” exercise, as a dean of admissions at Princeton University once admitted, “where students are asked to write what makes them unique. No adult is ever asked to do that.” Pretty much no college student is either. The application essay is a one-off that bears little connection to the kind of writing people do at work or in college. Sure, applicants to graduate school usually write a statement of purpose, and job applicants need to write cover letters, but they do not need to tell their “story,” as people—just in relationship to the opportunity at hand.
That’s a phrase you hear often inside the college admissions industrial complex—the essay is your chance to tell “your story.” But perhaps at the age of 17 “your story” is not over yet, and you cannot be reduced to a character in a narrative. One of the worst ideas in college admissions right now is the notion that colleges should be taking character into account in the admissions process. I’m sure that’s going to be wonderful for students, telling them they got rejected on the basis of their character instead of their grades.
This idea that people need to tell their story has become all too familiar from social media and brand marketing, where consultants and business school professors are always telling companies they need a story in order to sell their product. What makes this exercise even worse with the personal essay is that students don’t have a product to sell. They are being told to think of themselves as the product.
Colleges might think that essays help open up opportunities for students, but the opposite could be true. A new study by Taylor K. Odle, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Preston Magouirk, a data scientist at the District of Columbia College Access Program, looked at the nearly 300,000 students who started but never submitted an application through the Common App. They wanted to see if there were any patterns that would explain why a quarter of the people who started an application never sent one to a college. The element most commonly associated with starting but not completing an application—more common than being a first-generation student or living in a low-income neighborhood—was the failure to write an essay.
To be fair, there is something of a chicken and egg thing going on here. Does a student not bother to write an essay because they have decided not to submit an application, or does having to write an essay push them not to submit an application? Odle and Magouirk’s research cannot answer that question, and they are careful to say that they are making no causal claims about the correlations they identified.
It is not hard to imagine that at least some of the students who bailed on the Common Application did so because of the essay. Writing the essay is hard, so it’s no wonder that so many teenagers turn to tired formulas for writing essays and that many of them will likely be turning to ChatGPT this fall to write something like this.
In the midst of a sunny middle school afternoon, I find myself embroiled in a Pokémon battle tournament with my closest friends. The vibrant trading cards sprawl before us, and the excitement in the air is palpable. We’ve all gathered in my backyard, our youthful enthusiasm infusing life into the colorful creatures on our cards. The Pokémon craze has consumed our lives, and today, we’ve decided to settle, once and for all, who among us is the true Pokémon Master. The rules are straightforward: We’ll take turns battling each other, and the winner will claim the illustrious title.
The lessons learned?
As the sun sets on that memorable afternoon, our friendships have weathered a severe test. This middle school Pokémon challenge, marked by cheating and redemption, has left an indelible mark on our lives. It serves as a poignant reminder that honesty, communication, and fair play are guiding principles that continue to shape our journey through the complexities of life.
It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. Which means it’s like almost all college application essays, which do an applicant neither harm nor good in the college admissions process. That’s a fact missed by those who thought that dropping test requirements would give the wealthy a greater advantage in the admissions process by making essays more important. The reality is that researchers and admissions deans have acknowledged that the essay does little to help assess an applicant’s ability to succeed at an institution. The essay’s role in admissions committees’ decisionmaking reflects that common knowledge. A Penn admissions dean once admitted that “maybe one in eight” essays played a role in an admissions decision. A University of Virginia dean put the number at 5 percent, with a majority of those having a negative effect.
Hiring an expensive college consultant, some of whom charge $15,000 or more to help with applications, is one way to make your essay stand out, assuming that the consultant is good at their job. Although companies that outright write the essay in exchange for cash do exist, most college consultants take the ethics of their work very seriously and limit themselves to assisting with identifying topics and editing drafts. Even so—and I say this as a person who has been paid to help students with their application essays—it is very hard to keep a clean line between helping a student with their essay and shaping that essay. In the real world, of course, editors often significantly contribute to a writer’s work. Great writing is often collaborative, but the college application encourages an illusory notion that writing is a product of a single person working in total isolation.
What is most irritating about all the hand-wringing over ChatGPT’s threat to the integrity of the admissions essay is that it assumes the essay ever had much integrity or value. It has always been possible to pay for help on college essays, but as long as the cheating was mostly limited to the rich, it seemed to have been cool with admissions officers.
It’s an idea that lines up with what the writer Emi Nietfeld has suggested is the ulterior motive of the college essay, namely to prop up the mythology of elite universities with stories of individual triumph. “This narrative of overcoming is especially dangerous because it’s used to justify certain institutions having all of this power,” Nietfeld says. “It’s used to justify being in such an unequal world.” It allows colleges to believe that they are “solving issues of structural inequality, rather than perpetuating them.”
College applications’ reliance on stories and characters reinforces a fundamental human tendency, known as correspondence bias, which attributes a person’s condition and actions to their character rather than to the situation in which they act. That means a student born with a slew of advantages might look more accomplished than someone who had much more to overcome but doesn’t have the chance to shadow her aunt in the oncology unit or the opportunity to co-author a paper during a summer internship.
Some applicants, especially people of color or those from low-income households, feel compelled to compartmentalize their experience in a story that foregrounds the adversity they have faced and “put their pain on display,” as the scholar Aya M. Waller-Bey puts it. For many students, that pain is likely raw and real, but for others it might be largely tactical. “The basic strategy,” one Harvard student bravely confessed, “was to highlight the worst parts of your life to distract admissions officers from the reality that, on the whole, you are very privileged.”
These trauma narratives are likely to become more common as a result of the Students for Fair Admissions decision. While the Supreme Court effectively banned the consideration of racial identity in admissions decisions in June, Chief Justice John Roberts also wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” It is hard not to interpret that comment as an invitation, if not a demand, to students of color to center their personal essay around their racial identity. Some students will want to do that; only students of color will feel compelled to do that, even if they might prefer to write about punk rock or kombucha. Privilege means getting to write whatever you want, while other students have to think carefully about how they perform their identity.
Some colleges that formerly considered race as one element in their admissions process have found a way around this problem by adding a short question to their application about an applicant’s identity, experiences, and/or communities. Harvard, for example, gives applicants 200 words to answer their new supplemental question: “Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?” While it may be a net win that students are still allowed to talk about how race and identity has shaped them, this question puts the burden for diversity on the shoulders of students of color, who are pressured to present themselves in a way that lets Harvard acknowledge how their racial identity has shaped their experience, even as admissions officers cannot take that identity itself into account.
Figuring out how to answer the diversity question is no small thing to ask a 17-year-old to do. It’s made worse by the fact that Harvard and other highly rejective colleges have done so little themselves to mitigate the harm the Supreme Court decision will do to diversity on campus. They continue to cling to admissions practices, such as legacy preferences, athletic recruitment, and heavy reliance on students from expensive private high schools, that primarily benefit wealthy white applicants. Maybe Harvard needs to explain how it is contributing to diversity.
Add to all these problems the fact that more than 90 percent of undergraduates attend an institution that admits most of its applicants. Why do a million high school students have to go through this painful exercise when it probably will not matter in the end? If everybody can now get a bot to write the essay, and admissions readers at even the most selective colleges do not get much value out of it regardless, why not scrap it altogether?
I have advocated for that position in the past, but conversations with people who work in admission have convinced me that abolition is not the answer. While most essays have little impact on an applicant’s getting into a college, there is that minority for whom it makes a difference. What makes a difference is not really in the story or the writing, however; it’s the revelation of something about an applicant that doesn’t show up anywhere else in the application. Rich students pay consultants to help them write an essay that will impress, but what colleges want are essays that inform.
So here is the very simple answer to all the problems with the admissions essay: stop asking teenagers to tell stories. Get rid of the personal essay and just ask them more straightforward questions that speak to what a college is looking for in a class of students. Limit their answers to 150 words or even less, so there is no room for anecdotes or evocative quotations from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Travis Scott. And make it clear that how applicants express themselves does not matter. If a college cannot come up with these kinds of questions, then it should not ask any.
Lots of colleges already ask more straightforward questions on the Common App, in what are called “supplemental questions,” that tend to ask for factual information rather than narratives. Many colleges use a version of this question from Occidental, which is perfectly fair to ask an applicant: “Why are you applying to Occidental? Why do you think Occidental is the right place for you to pursue your interests?”
Also common is this style of question from Emory, which asks students what they want to study and why: “What academic areas are you interested in exploring at Emory University and why?” You do not need ChatGPT or a consultant to answer that question.
Even better, Emory also asks students to fill out a checklist of the resources they used in the application process, including paid college consultants and essay coaches. All highly selective colleges should be moving in this direction, asking for important contextual information, including whether someone paid for a test prep or academic tutor in high school, in a yes/no format. They could even give applicants space to provide some context on their answers, if they liked.
If colleges limit themselves to asking questions requiring short, factual answers, ChatGPT loses its power, since it does not know a single thing about an applicant. So, too, do expensive college essay consultants, who make most of their money working on essays with students. If an application just asks questions that—perish the thought—students are already prepared to answer, why bother to spend thousands of dollars on an independent educational consultant? With very little effort, highly selective colleges could wipe out one of the most corrupt elements in the admissions process and make it a little bit more fair.