Before you judge, walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins. Best case, you gain some perspective, understand where they’re coming from, what they’re feeling, why they think and act the way they do. Worst case, you’re 5280 feet away and you have a nice pair of moccasins.
So consider the 20-something-year-old minions reading undergraduate admissions essays. Honest, hard-working, decent young folks—bored screaming out of their minds as they consider yet another 500 words of opaque prose from a well-intentioned but thoroughly clueless applicant. I feel for everyone involved, don’t you? My heart goes out to overworked readers and stressed out writers as well.
Consider a few sentences in each of the following essays. Which ones engage your attention, make you want to keep reading? Which ones make you desperately wish you had taken your mother’s advice and gone to law school or joined the Foreign Legion when you had the chance?
Stanford University offers students from across our great nation opportunities to meet, discuss, and argue with internationally renowned individuals in their respective fields. This aspect of the university, its unity among professors and students, makes Standford University appealing to me. To begin, I pride myself on sheer determination. In my academic career this one quality has enabled me to open doors to my future.
Brutal snooze-fest, no? You know who else prides themselves on sheer determination? Joseph Stalin for one. Whatever else you can say about the man responsible for the slaughter of half a continent, Joe was determined. And “this aspect of the university, its unity among professors.” What does that even mean? Are only the tenured faculty glued together? Is there disunity at other schools? Ouch.
Here’s another. Again, pretend you are a recent graduate, that you are committed to your undergraduate institution, that you want to admit good kids, that you want to distinguish between—in George McGovern’s apt phrase—chicken salad and chicken shit.
Duke University has always been one of my aspirations. Yet, as I began to discover what Duke truly encompassed, I felt drawn further to the university. As an individual extremely dedicated to serving my community and many others, Duke’s service-learning aspect truly piqued my interest.
After 38 years of reading these misguided missives myself, I don’t blame the young authors. It’s hard to find your voice, speak your truth, and distinguish yourself among your peers. But this Duke applicant is as swarmy as they are unlikely. The author serves how many communities? Now consider some essays that try not to do so much and end up accomplishing much more–less bragging, more honest expression.
I lost count of how many animals I brought home throughout my childhood. There were at least a dozen orphaned kittens, a woodpecker chick with a broken foot, and lots of lost dogs.
Or how about…
Suddenly, my world flipped. My safe haven became a personal hell. The entrance to our home could have been replaced with a revolving door due to the swarms of family and friends who wanted to meet the new addition.
Or another lovely insight…
Though he is much better at controlling his symptoms than he used to be, he is still liable to say socially inappropriate things at any time. Though Liam was having a great time at the park, he also made a few involuntary remarks that infuriated another parent at the playground. Before I knew it, she had turned and began to yell at me.
I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued. I want to know what happens next and I want to know more about the author. This is the student I’d like to have in my first-year composition class. I like to read personal essays that are, well, personal.
I woke up, sleeping on the ground, in the mountains of Central Utah, being rained on, with only a tarp strung between two trees hanging over me. Everything looked grey and miserable, just like how I felt.
If I sound condescending about young writers trying to find their voice, I don’t mean to. Nor am I lacking in sympathy for the admissions counselors trying to avoid a fifth cup of strong coffee as they plod through ponderous prose. If anything, I’m griping about a zeitgeist that encourages children to brag about their every accomplishment. As if no one else ever went on a mission trip to chat with economically disadvantaged folks who could benefit from running water.
There’s a corollary to kids explaining why they got suspended from school. When 16-year-olds do something ill-advised—vaping in the bathroom, skipping class, bullying, talking back, stealing–the relevant question is “are you sorry because you know you did something wrong or are you just sorry because you got caught?” Admissions readers are on the look out for “are you helping out in your community because you know it’s the right thing to do or are you mindlessly putting in service hours because you want to be admitted to a highly selective college?”
Admissions readers are looking for the applicant who is the real deal, who is committed to making a difference for the right reason, who can articulate their motivations for attending college. Those are the kids we want in our first-year composition courses. Those are the kids whose essays we want to read. Those are the kids with whom we are willing to share a pair of moccasins.