Against the College Admissions Essay
The SAT might have flaws. But the college essay is much worse.
Jeff Maurer is a former late night comedy writer who sometimes writes political-comedy pieces for Persuasion. He also writes his own newsletter, I Might Be Wrong.
I have no special love for the SAT. Aside from the fact that my test came back with a big, red, “NO HARVARD FOR YOU, DUMMY” stamped on it, it always seemed a bit arbitrary. After all: Why should my eligibility for college depend on knowing words like “nefarious” and “egregious”? That seems…there must be a better word for this…crappy. We know that SAT scores correlate with household income, and evidence suggests that studying helps a bit, and though I’m not ready to join those who view the SAT as history’s most biased test that doesn’t involve phrenology, I agree that the test has flaws.
But you don’t have to love the SAT to feel that the absolute last thing we should do if we care about fairness is to increase the relative importance of the college application essay. College essays make Tinder profiles look like sworn court testimony from Lincoln himself. Every alleged problem with the SAT—that it’s arbitrary, that it privileges kids with resources, that it can be gamed—is magnified by a factor of ten in the essay. And, as colleges move away from requiring the SAT, we should consider whether it’s wise to give more weight to an application component that makes about as much sense as having a swimsuit round for federal judgeships.
Let’s start here: It's not fair for us to ask teenagers to describe their personalities. Teenagers are endearing but ridiculous people who can barely heat up a cup of ramen noodles and whose brains won’t be fully formed for two more presidential terms. Any teenager who is asked to describe themselves and doesn’t say, “I am scared and confused and my hormones have sort of turned me into a werewolf,” is lying.
Obviously, parents are writing many of these essays. The “Varsity Blues” scandal—in which wealthy parents paid big money to a fraudulent admissions scheme—showed how far parents will go to give their kids a leg up. Incredibly, many applications include the pointless step of making students check a box to verify that the application contains their own work, which is a verification system so ineffective that it makes the “I am 18” buttons on adult websites seem like the security at a Swiss bank.
Some parents of means will hire a college admissions essay coach. These services, which commonly cost well north of $100 per hour, typically include glowing testimonials from satisfied parents, such as this one from a mother in Rhode Island:
“Julie helped my daughter take her essay from a disjointed, boring story to an essay with great flow and flair.”
Powerful testimony! Apparently, the initial essay was so bad that even someone with a genetic predisposition towards the author couldn’t hide her disgust. The writing was, it seems, such a disappointment that—judging from the words of the woman who carried the author in her womb for nine months—it made a dirty limerick scrawled in a bathroom stall look like Beowulf. But the author hired an essay coach, and now she goes to Duke! What an outstanding system!
A comment on a different site subtly points to another problem:
“I read my son’s essay and I think it’s great — and I also think it’s true!”
Whoa—it’s also true! What a nice bonus! Clearly, truth in an application essay is like toilet paper in a Port-A-John: Nice if it happens, but absolutely not required. Colleges have no ability to verify that everything—or, indeed, anything—in a college essay is true.
There’s so much room for dissemblance and gamesmanship in college essays that a student who has faced legitimate hardship is probably no more able to communicate it through an essay than a student who hasn’t. One recent study from the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis looked at 60,000 undergraduate admissions essays and found that students who wrote about discrimination or stereotypes came from families with an average income of $104,000. They also found that essay content is more highly correlated with household income than SAT scores. College essays are sometimes portrayed as the element that helps admissions officers really know the applicant, but can you really get to know someone in 400-600 words? Or can you only get to know how good they are at bullshitting for 400-600 words?
And even if college essays did provide a legitimate window into a student’s life, are we sure that we want kids leveraging personal hardships to further their academic career? Is that something a healthy society does? Will doctors eventually deliver test results by saying, “It’s malignant, but on the bright side, this puts you on the fast track to get into Brown”? In this New York Times essay, a high school senior “from the hood” objects to being asked to “sell his pain,” writing: “It felt as if I were trying to gain pity. I knew what I went through was tough and to overcome those challenges was remarkable, but was that all I had to offer?” It’s an excellent point. In fact, it’s such an excellent point that I’ve saved it to a Google Doc so that my future children can use it as the basis for a college essay.
College essays are arbitrary—exactly what’s being measured or why is unclear. They’re gameable—much like a pinewood derby car, many of the best ones are made by parents. They seem to benefit the wealthy—not every family can shell out big money to punch up an essay through a concerted program of expert tutelage and not-so-subtle negging. Say what you will about the SAT: The kid has to actually fill in the bubbles. They can’t take the test home and get help from Mom, Dad, teachers, the internet, and a gaggle of advisors that would seem excessive for a medieval child monarch.
In their zeal to discredit and discard the SAT, people have increased the importance of what is perhaps the worst measure in the application packet. It’s hard to see how elevating the essay does anything but punish students who lack resources. The SAT’s opponents are right to seek out ways to measure aptitude instead of affluence, but by removing a measure that’s objective but flawed, they’ve ended up promoting a measure that’s objectively a farce.
We have updated the language regarding the Stanford study to clarify its findings.