THE BLOG
10/30/2013 08:46 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2013

Contrived Essay Prompts Constrain College Applicants

One of the threadbare slogans that almost every college repeats is that applicants should "be themselves." While some applicants would do better not to heed this advice, it's certainly true that colleges genuinely want applicants to present the very best of themselves.

In particular, their application essays should be dripping with personality, unique anecdotes, and distinctive thought. As I always told my students, a good essay should read such that it could have been written by no one besides the author. This is not the time for clichés, generic musings, or heart-warming tales that every other human (especially adults) have either experienced or heard about a million other times.

How, though, can a student "be himself" if he must conform to five new, unalterable essay prompts? (I covered the topics in two previous posts: here and here.)

Previously, the Common Application offered students a choice among six essay prompts, the last of which was "write on a topic of your choice." This year, that final choice has been eliminated, and five new, untested prompts have replaced the others. Of all the substantive changes made to the Common App, the elimination of the open-ended essay option may rank as the worst (I'm not even going to get into the technological Titanic that is the CA4, as it is called).

In the classroom, essay prompts make perfect sense. Teachers and students have been in the same room together and borne witness to the same discussions. Teachers know what they want their students to have absorbed, and they use prompts to discover whether students have succeeded.

But when students are beholden to anonymous prompts, devised by technocrats, an otherwise genuine personal reflection can turn into just another writing exercise. Though they may inspire interesting thought experiments, the Common App's five prompts cannot accommodate the full range of genius and idiosyncrasies that today's students, from plugger to genius, can exhibit.

Previously, if a student had a great response to one of the five, then life was grand. Sometimes, though, students started out conforming to one of the specific prompts, but, as their essays evolved, they might have found them veering away from the original question. No sweat. The free-response option served as a release valve.

That release valve has now been replaced by anxiety: that of "answering the question" rather than just writing. Now writers must constantly ask themselves, "Am I responding to the prompt? Am I responding to it in the right place? Am I responding to it enough? Am I doing what they want me to do???" I can't imagine a worse way to write.

Consider the following two scenarios, both of which assume that the students are solid writers with a decent array of possible essay topics in their respective personal histories.

  • Student One values earnestness above all other virtues. If left purely to her own devices, she might write an extraordinary essay about the solar cell that she patented and is developing for commercial production with General Electric. Not finding a suitable prompt to fit this topic. She instead writes about learning to bake her grandmother's pies because it would be a nice fit for Prompt No. 5, which asks for some twaddle about the transition from childhood to adulthood.
  • Student Two is so assertive that honey badgers flee from his presence. He's going to write about the degradation of his urban neighborhood, and his protests against City Hall, come hell or high water. He writes a stunning essay, ignoring the prompts entirely, and in his final draft tacks on a falsely modest conclusion about how his protest was a failure, just to nominally conform with Prompt 2.

Both get rejected.

Why? The admissions committee can't believe that Student One would write such an insipid essay despite extraordinary academic accomplishments. Student Two was doing great until that weird conclusion; even modesty ought to have its limits.

These are exaggerations, but not necessarily egregious ones.

I expect that Student One is more representative of the applicant pool, especially those competing for highly selective schools. Good students are generally an obedient bunch. They wouldn't be legitimate candidates if they couldn't pay attention and follow directions (not that colleges don't respect a little rebellion).

If you need evidence of how out of touch the Common App is not only with students but also with its 500 member schools, consider the success of applicants who wrote on their own topics. In my own experience, not a single one of my students -- dozens of kids each year, some of whom wrote breathtaking essays -- ever chose one of the prescribed prompts (why limit yourself?). And yet, my students consistently, and deservedly, got into Princeton, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Duke, the UC, and any other top school you'd care to name. If opting for freedom is so bad, then why were these schools, some at with admission rates below 10 percent, so welcoming?

(In particular, the new prompts offer scant opportunity for students to discuss their intellectual lives. There is nothing referring to academic work or even to "ideas." This, for an application to college.)

Finally, there's now a clash with most public universities and with every private university that doesn't fall within the Common App's orbit. Most of these non-Common App schools rely on open-ended prompts. Therefore, students will either have to write brand-new essay anyway (thus contradicting the Common App's sanctimonious desire to save students from writing too many essays), or these universities will receive a curious number of essays based on failures, contentment, and transitions from childhood to adulthood.

Did admissions officers ever really care which prompt students responded to? At the OACAC conference a few months ago, Tufts admissions officer Daniel Greyson said -- in no uncertain terms -- that he didn't so much as look at the prompts that students chose. He cared only about the responses because, well, good writing is good writing, and smart is smart.

This year, Greyson, and thousands of his counterparts across the country, are going to be wondering: Who is this student really? And is baking that pie, however delicious it sounds, really the most compelling thing she's done in her life?

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