But Mr. Cranberg thumbed his nose at that convention, taking on the tremendous cost of the piles of mail schools send to potential students, and the waste that results from the effort. He figured that he received at least $200 worth of pitches in the past year or so.
“Why, in an era of record-high debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?” he asked in the essay.
Antioch College seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable question and accepted him, though he will attend Oberlin College instead, to which he did not submit the essay.
“It’s a bold move to critique the very institution he was applying to,” said Mr. Bauld, who also teaches English at in . “But here’s somebody who knows he can make it work with intelligence and humor.”
Indeed, Mr. Cranberg’s essay includes asides about applicants’ gullibility and the college that sent him a DHL “priority” envelope, noting inside that he was a priority to the college. “The humor here is not in the jokes,” Mr. Bauld added. “It originates in a critical habit of mind, and the kind of mind that is in this essay is going to play out extremely well in any class that he’s in.”
Admissions professionals often warn people not to think that they can write their way into the freshman class. “The essay is one document that, even in the best of circumstances, is written by an individual telling one story,” said Shawn Abbott, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at . “I don’t believe that any one writing sample should trump what they did over four years.”
Still, he acknowledged that his staff had been taken with the story told by Lyle Li, a 19-year-old resident who applied this year. He wrote about his family’s restaurant and his mother, an immigrant from who once wanted to be a doctor and now works behind a cash register.
“When I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls,” wrote Mr. Li, a senior at Regis High School in . “I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper-middle-class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn. Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”
Mr. Abbott said that N.Y.U. received plenty of essays about the immigrant experience. So Mr. Li risked writing one of many stories about long odds and hard work in an unfamiliar, unforgiving place.
But he did not fall into that trap and will be attending N.Y.U. this fall. “His essay brought his family’s circumstance and background into Technicolor,” Mr. Abbott said. “He paints a very vivid picture of what life is really like in his home. I think he’s proud of his accomplishments and work ethic, but there’s also a humility each day when he takes off his preppy blue blazer in front of his mom.”
The essay by Ana Castro, an 18-year-old senior at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer, N.Y., is about not quite arriving, in spite of having been born in the United States. And her essay for , which she will attend in the fall, centers on her desire to serve in the . It opens with a joke about her hating clowns and leeches and tells a sad story of a visit to the , where her father refused to let her play with the destitute boy next door. “My heart broke, not because I was now stuck eating plantains by myself in the stinging sun, but because that boy experienced a level of poor I never knew.”
Then she makes a startling statement that stopped both me and Mr. Bauld as we were reading it for the first time. “I have never seen the United States as my country,” Ms. Castro wrote. “I have never felt total patriotism to any country. I do not instantly think of staying here to help ‘my home,’ because I do not consider the United States my home. The Earth is ‘my home.’ ”
To Monica Inzer, Hamilton’s dean of admission and financial aid, bold declarations like this one are a strong sign of authenticity if nothing else. “Lots of essays have been doctored or written by other people,” she said. “You know that a parent didn’t write this. I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
Mr. Bauld knows how he knows. “There’s always an attempt in some of these college admissions factories to smooth out a student’s edges,” he said. “But what I loved about this piece is that there is no attempt to smooth out anything.”
As for Ms. Kumar, the 18-year-old Princeton applicant, her essay wasn’t so much smooth as it was slick, gliding effortlessly from her breakfast table to the manicured campus of Princeton to the “occidental bubble” of her school classroom. There’s a detour onto the city bus and then a quick trip to before coming back to the “towering turrets” of again.
Nevertheless, Princeton rejected her, and when I approached the university to find out if it had anything to do with her essay, it cited its policy of not commenting on any applicants or admissions decisions. I told its spokesman, Martin Mbugua, that other schools had commented on their own applicants once the students gave them permission, but he was unmoved.
Ms. Kumar suggested that her grades might not have been quite high enough, but Mr. Bauld contended that Princeton should have been swayed by her words.
“One of the things that makes this essay is her tone,” he said. “It could have been, ‘Princeton should be poorer,’ but she opens it as an inquiry. What she does is that she listens very carefully to what you have assigned her to do, and as a response to that, she says, ‘Well, let me ask you this!’ ”
Next week, Ms. Kumar will take the stage as Marty in the Science production of and she’ll collect her diploma on June 21. In the fall, she’ll attend , for which she wrote no essays about the university’s level of affluence.
To Mr. Bauld, that’s Princeton’s loss. “She is that person who is always going to give an interesting answer, even to the most boring question,” he said. “That’s my confidence in reading it, and I’d want that person in my class as a teacher.”Continue reading the main story
Recently in the New York Times, Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz described a study of motivation at West Point. It turns out that intrinsic motivation (doing things for your own reasons) is much more powerful than instrumental motivation (doing things for external rewards).
Here’s the college admissions takeaway for parents as well as students: approaching college admissions as a reward system—you are applying to college “get into…” name the place—is much less likely to succeed than taking on the college process (and of course college) to achieve something bigger: to “learn” or “grow” or “make a difference in the world.”This study supports the core commitment of Story2: working with students to find stories that reveal their character and to shape them into honest and genuine college admission essays.
Wherever you go to college, whatever courses you take, and whomever you meet, what drives you as a human being? What gets you out of bed in the morning thinking, “I am making a difference today. It’s my purpose in life to do this work today.”
Purpose is not the same as passion. Being “passionate” is, in comparison with having purpose, very small stuff. “Passionate” happens inside you. Purpose takes passion and turns it into something permanent and meaningful for others. Are you “passionate” because “colleges are looking for students who are passionate?” Or are you engaged in life to make a difference?
You may not have thought about this. When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I hadn’t thought about it either. And, frankly, I wish to this day that I could have hung out with my friends and not been forced to find my purpose. But my adolescent complacency died the first week of February 1975 when my father asked his doctors to “turn off the chemo and make me stable.” He spent one long week at home.
When I came home from school and went into the living room to prop up his pillows and give him his medicines, he was waiting. He wanted to talk. “Here’s the thing I’ve learned from cancer,” he began, taking my breath away. “You need to live every day as if it’s your last and also your first. Live every day with purpose, Carol.” And then he drifted off to sleep.
Your purpose does not need to be some big, world-changing issue (but if you’re looking for that type of purpose, I strongly recommend High Noon, a brilliant book by the former head of the World Bank in Europe). Your purpose can be as simple as “I pick up trash when I see it on the ground” or “I don’t drink at parties so I can make sure others get home safely” or “I am honest with my friends.” To win the college game, you need to find your purpose for applying to college. “Why do you want to go to college?” Not a specific college, but college? What will you gain? What will you give? What will college allow you to do?
You may, like many students, feel like you could do so many different things—isn’t the point of college to explore them? Yes: college changes everything, and it may alter your purpose. But every student brings something to the table, whether or not they’ve located it within themselves. So, take on the college process to discover and share your unique purpose and it honestly won’t matter where you go to college, because your purpose is much bigger than which college you attend. And when your purpose is palpable—when what you do matches what you say you believe—you are the kind of person colleges want: the kind of person our ailing planet needs for healing and building our shared future.
Your purpose comes through in your application essays, and that’s why they matter so much. But you can’t just say “my purpose is to pick up trash in my neighborhood.” You don’t have to write a fancy essay, but you do need to show your purpose in action—maybe how it evolved over time, or one day when your purpose shifted or was tested, or a time when you failed to keep your commitments to yourself and other people. All of those stories make great college application essays. Your purpose is why your essays matter—because it’s why you matter, every single day.