If 80% of life is just showing up, then an even greater percentage is filling in forms. “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” is bad advice when trying to qualify for a loan. When the refinance people ask you why your income varied from 2018 to 2019, write something down. Almost any actual words will do. Words in English are probably best, but I’m no expert. Don’t be concerned if phrases including, “the moon was in Aquarius” and “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people…” appear in your answer. If you leave the question blank, your loan never gets to underwriting and you remain stuck in your lousy apartment. If you make something up, you at least have a chance to qualify for that glorious albatross of a mortgage.
The University of Wisconsin claims that the 25th to 75th percentile range of first-year students is 1280 to 1450 on the SAT. That means that a quarter of undergraduate Badgers scored below a 1280 and a quarter above 1450. Consider an applicant with a 3.9 un-weighted gpa, five advanced placement courses as a senior, and an SAT score of 1490. She will be admitted. Unless her essay begins, “when not biting the heads off of live chickens, I am committed to beating up old ladies and making fun of cognitively impaired third graders.” This applicant needs to write an essay. Almost any essay will do. With tens of thousands of applicants every year, do you think anyone is paying close attention to the essay of students who are well above the average on all measures? “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky should have worked in admissions.
Why do kids have such a tough time just banging out a response to “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” Maybe because they feel like they’re being judged. Because, of course, they are being judged—judged on whether or not they can come up with 500 words to fill in that ugly blank space on their application. We could talk another time about whether or not your average 17-year-old has something cogent to say about being captivated by an idea or concept other than refusing to pay the virtual sex worker in Grand Theft Auto. For now, let’s ignore the rise of the novel, the history of non-Western civilizations, evolutionary biology, the origin of the universe, 20th century British political scandals, Restoration Comedy, Neitzsche, the Reimann Hypothesis, and baking bread. The good news is that if a young person never has been captivated by a concept or idea of any kind, they can instead “share an essay on any topic…one [they] have already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of [their] own design.” Can’t say more fair than that. Again, “don’t get it right, just get it written.”
Yet as the deadline looms, many students are right there with Charlie Brown responding to the 500-word, “What did you do over your summer vacation?” essay. He writes: “What I did over my summer vacation…” Then he looks up from the paper and opines, “493 words to go.”
Which is not to say that there aren’t essays that do matter. Highly competitive colleges ask outrageously difficult, mind numbing questions that require extraordinary insight and sophisticated technique. I call these the “how much do you love me?” essays. Because you have to L-O-V-E an institution to reply to the following. (Feel free to skim if you’re not likely to attend Amherst College any time soon.)
‘Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… Translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation—that is untranslated.”
Woo! Tough question. Why not just ask applicants to remove their own appendix? Or compose a violin concerto?
The good news is that the overwhelming majority of awesome colleges don’t require you to pen 500 words on what you learned from your unsuccessful bid for the state assembly. Sure, we all agree with Dorothy Parker who said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” This just in: you’re not Dorothy Parker. Just write something. Because perfect is not only the enemy of good. Perfect is also the enemy of D-O-N-E. And the sooner your application essays are finished, the sooner you can get back to being captivated by a topic, idea, or concept that you find so engaging that you lose all track of time. Or playing Grand Theft Auto as the case may be. In which case a highly selective college may not be your best choice.