This past week, the Education section of The Atlantic published a piece critiquing the philosophical nature of essay prompts in school-specific college application supplements. In addition to commenting on questions from Tufts University and the University of Chicago, the author cited Brown’s question from last year, which quoted a French novelist and asked applicants “What don’t you know?” The author argued that these prompts teach students that in order to gain acceptance to a selective university, they must “pretend to be something (they) are not.”
We challenge this cynical approach to the application process. Much about the trek to higher education feels mechanical and inhuman — the quest for ever-higher GPAs, more AP classes, and more prominent positions in clubs. But these essays, with their offbeat prompts, demonstrate the potential benefits of applying to college, as students are able to apply what they’ve learned to analyzing themselves and the world around them. This kind of work may signify a departure from what students have done in high school, but it is a great way to jump-start the kind of deeper thinking that will serve them in college.
The article suggests that though college admission officers routinely urge students to write “authentic” pieces, students feel pressure to create tragic, sympathy-inducing narratives in order to be accepted. But this implication rings false: Admissions officers do not necessarily seek life-altering stories. Rather, they seek insight, whether it comes from how you process your relationship with your family, your understanding of your friends or images in the media. In an age when so much of the college admission process can be coached and inauthentic, a student’s actual voice will be recognized and appreciated.
We also want to push back against the idea that these types of essays depict college acceptance as the crown jewel earned after years of the high school rat race. In fact, they do the exact opposite: These essays offer a student’s introduction to academia free from formula. From a high school perspective, acceptance to an elite university is often seen as the endpoint in a student’s narrative, the happy end to years of toil. Once students arrive at college, we all realize we have only scratched the surface. Open-ended essay questions introduce the concept that intellectual doubt is not only expected but also beneficial — an idea that students should expand upon throughout their university years.
In the heat of the process, applying to college can seem like a burden or an exercise in futility, but we urge applicants to move beyond this conception. In actuality, the process offers a taste of the intellectual opportunities just over the horizon. As high school students polish their college applications, we urge them to take a step back and try to enjoy at least the essay part of the process.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.