Essays kill brain cells

Alex Fak

You would think people like to talk about themselves. Yet for many applicants to colleges or graduate schools, writing a personal essay is the most painful part of the process. Colleges know this, and they feel it is beneficial for the applicants to sit down and write one. In fact, in the long run it may be harmful, unless the question is phrased carefully. Some questions lead applicants to construct a restrictive theory of their own lives and generalize their identity.

In theory, the personal statement has been an enlightened addition to the application process. It keeps opening doors for students who are bright and eager to attend college but who, for one reason or another, had not done well in high school. Colleges spend notable resources, particularly in terms of their faculties’ time, to give these students the chance to sell themselves in personal statements. Of course, colleges benefit, too: essays may help distinguish a zealous grade-grubber from a truly thoughtful applicant and complement the sometimes misleading (and biased, some say) standardized exams. They may also do just what so many college applications say they want them to do: “help us learn more about you.” But more often than not, they won’t.

I’m x, you’re y

Colleges are quite right to think that the application form, transcripts and even letters of recommendation ultimately give them a shallow picture of candidates. So admission officers ask for something more personal in an essay. Instead of gaining a deeper understanding of the person, however, certain essay questions invite a cause-and-effect analysis that, like some overarching theory long since sent into history’s dustbin, traces the applicant’s totality as a person to one predominant factor. It sidelines a thousand little accidents, coincidences and intentions in favor of a few fat generalizations. For admission officers, it makes applicants, each a bundle of surprises and contradictions, easier to classify and judge.

Forced to present themselves in 500 to 1,000 words, many students pick one quality or experience and then generalize their whole identity in its terms. It seems essays that ask student to contemplate their cultural background, or to muse on some hardship they had faced, would be especially prone to broad, abstract, and often tenuous conclusions. For example, students often talk about their race as if it had been a major force in their lives. With all the other things going on, such a simplifying theory is suspect. Even when such students are right, however-for instance, if they grew up as the only Russian in an all-American neighborhood and feel that this has left them with some unique sense of themselves or others-writing a short, simple essay would lead them to hang on to this cultural curiosity as if it were important to their future lives. In fact, it will likely impede a broader understanding of who they are.

To its credit, WU, in its freshman application, does not explicitly solicit such responses. For the main essay, it asks about a creative work the student found significant, or an ethical dilemma he or she has faced. The only bad question comes in the section devoted to short answers. “Choose three adjectives to describe yourself,” it asks. Like a fairy-tale magical incantation, then: one, two, three and poof! you’ve got a person.

Back in high school, a class peer wrote a college application essay that focused on her great-grandfather’s death in the Holocaust. The starvation and cold that the old man had experienced 50 years ago, she wrote, made her angry at injustices accorded to Jews throughout time, and sensitive to her own “precarious” burden as a Jewish woman.

Sympathy is one thing. But it’s hard to see how this girl, born into soft disposable diapers, raised in luxury, with the prick of dentist’s needle of Novocain the most acute physical discomfort she’s ever had, could interpret the suffering she never experienced of people she never knew as a topic sentence to her own life and sense of herself.

But then, she did have to have a topic sentence of some sort. Heather Dubrow, an English professor at University of Wisconsin, noted something interest in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently. In some of her students’ papers, she wrote, the thesis tends to adumbrate the book. The students grasp the argument before they know the material well and then, later in the reading, simply ignore whatever does not fit the thesis. They pick “a single, narrowly defined point about the text,” often a stark, obvious or uncompromising one. The thesis ruins an insightful understanding of the text.

Some personal statements, in essence, ask students to pick a thesis to their lives, and then write a short essay on it. The danger is that the applicants might latch on to a superficial detail, then proceed to see the world largely in reference to this detail. This would make them more shallow people-the last thing colleges want.

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