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Monday, March 4, 2013
The College Admission Essay - An Exercise in Narcissism
In this blog and beyond, a great deal of web space is crowded with speculation about the real significance of the college admission essay. Students want to understand what colleges want. Colleges want to understand who students are. Parents want to know if their kid is doing it right. Counselors are trying to balance all of these interests.
There's a general feeling that the essay is just the icing. Grades and test scores are the main course. Snacks like extracurriculars count, but not if dinner was a disaster. The essay offers students a way to close the deal. To leave the admissions committee with a good taste in their mouths, a warm feeling in their bellies.
The problem is this. Can a 17-year-old's autobiography feel like dessert? Most essay prompts are designed to elicit self-reflection. In a perfect world, this introspection would be tempered by life experience, critical thinking, and a reverence for perspective. But what often happens is that students feel pressure to make themselves sound good on paper. An autobiography quickly takes on a sycophantic quality.
In the social media generation, self is already at the center. Students are used to tweeting pictures of their breakfast. Validation comes in the form of "likes" on a Facebook page. Students are adept at packaging themselves into a single Instagram frame.
So can these same students craft an essay about the self that isn't tainted by the narcissism of the look-at-me generation? It may be a slippery slope, but navigating it is a surefire way for students to prove to their readers that they can in fact, break the mold.
I'm reminded of the twitter term #humblebrag. Selling oneself while purporting to be humble about it. Perhaps essay prompts are inviting this. Perhaps universities should consider tweaking the questions. I say it's the responsibility of the students to show that they are more than their Twitter handle.
Humblebragging and autobiography aren't the same thing. The social landscape may be evolving, but good writing is timeless. Even if we'll never truly know how much it matters in admissions decisions.
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