The College Essay: Why Those 500 Words Drive Us Crazy

Illustration by Newsweek

Meg is a lawyer-mom in suburban Washington, D.C., where lawyer-moms are thick on the ground. She's asked us not to use her last name to prevent mortification to her son Doug. He is quite mortified enough already.

Doug is one of several hundred thousand high-school seniors who had a painful fall. The deadline for applying to his favorite college was Nov. 1, and by early October he had yet to fill out the application. More to the point, he had yet to settle on a subject for the personal essay accompanying the application. According to college folklore, a well-turned essay has the power to seduce an admissions committee.

"He wanted to do one thing at a time," Meg says, explaining her son's delay. "But really, my son is a huge procrastinator. The essay is the hardest thing to do, so he's put it off the longest."

Friends and other veterans of the process have warned Meg that the back and forth between editing parent and writing student can be gruesomely traumatic. "But I tell them, you can't scare me," she says. "I'm already there. I mean, I was an English major, I'm a lawyer, I write for a living! And I'm panicking already."

The panic is arriving early this year. Back in the good old days—say, two years ago, when the last of my children suffered the ordeal—a high-school student applying to college could procrastinate all the way to New Year's of senior year, assuming he or she could withstand the parental pestering. But things change fast in the nail-biting world of college admissions. The recent trend toward early decision and early action among selective colleges and universities has pushed the traditional deadline of January up to Nov. 1 or early December for many students.

If the time for heel-dragging has been shortened, the true source of the anxiety and panic remains what it has always been. And it's not the application itself. A college application is a relatively straightforward questionnaire asking for the basics: name, address, family history, employment history. It would all be innocent enough—20 minutes of busy work—except it comes attached to an incendiary device: the personal essay.

"There are good reasons it causes such anxiety," says Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, N.Y. "It's not just the actual writing. By now everything else is already set. Your course load is set, your grades are set, your test scores are set. All that's done. But the essay is something you can still control, and it's open-ended. So the temptation is to write and rewrite and rewrite." Or stall and stall and stall.

The application essay, along with its mythical importance, is a recent invention. In the 1930s, when only one in 10 Americans had a degree from a four-year college, an admissions committee was content to ask for a sample of applicants' school papers to assess their writing ability. By the 1950s, most schools required a brief personal statement of why the student had chosen to apply to one school over another.

Today nearly 70 percent of graduating seniors go off to college, including two-year and four-year institutions. Even apart from the increased competition, the kids enter a process that has been utterly transformed from the one baby boomers knew. Nearly all application materials are submitted online, and the Common Application provides a one-size-fits form accepted by more than 400 schools, including the nation's most selective.

Those schools usually require essays of their own, but the longest essay, 500 words maximum, is generally attached to the Common App. Students choose one of six questions. Applicants are asked to describe an ethical dilemma they've faced and its impact on them, or discuss a public issue of special concern to them, or tell of a fictional character or creative work that has profoundly influenced them. Another question invites them to write about the importance (to them, again) of diversity—a word that has assumed incantatory power in American higher education. The most popular option: write on a topic of your choice.

"Boys in particular look at the other questions and say, 'Oh, that's too much work,'?" says John Boshoven, a counselor in the Ann Arbor, Mich., public schools. "They think if they do a topic of their choice, 'I'll just go get that history paper I did last year on the Roman Empire and turn it into a first-person application essay!' And they end up producing something utterly ridiculous."

Talking to admissions professionals like Boshoven, you realize that the list of "don'ts" in essay writing is much longer than the "dos."

"No book reports, no history papers, no character studies," says Sohmer.

"It drives you crazy, how easily kids slip into clichés," says Boshoven. "They don't realize how typical their experiences are. 'I scored the winning goal in soccer against our arch-rival.' 'My grandfather served in World War II, and I hope to be just like him someday.' That may mean a lot to that particular kid. But in the world of the application essay, it's nothing. You'll lose the reader in the first paragraph."

Other no-nos: family trips to Europe or Asia, especially by children from ritzy ZIP codes. Ditto the year Ashley spent as an au pair in France, and the leadership seminar Grayson attended in Washington, D.C., paid for (natch) by Mom and Pop. And tales of community service, according to the pros, are fast becoming overripe. Hemmed in by so many taboos, is it any wonder that kids and their parents are so anxious?

"The greatest strength you bring to this essay," says the College Board's how-to book, "is 17 years or so of familiarity with the topic: YOU. The form and style are very familiar, and best of all, you are the world-class expert on the subject of YOU … It has been the subject of your close scrutiny every morning since you were tall enough to see into the bathroom mirror." The key word in the Common App prompts is "you."

College admission contains the grandest American themes—status anxiety, parental piety, intellectual standards—and so it was only a matter of time before it became infected by the country's culture of obsessive self-esteem, sometimes called narcissism. It is revealing that essay questions are called prompts, a word suggesting that all a healthy, red-blooded American high-schooler needs is a little nudge to start yapping about himself without pause till he hits the 500th word. Even essay questions ostensibly about something outside the self (describe a fictional character or solve a problem of geopolitics) invari-ably return to the favorite topic: what is its impact on YOU?

A system that places its highest value on the comfort with which a young person can expose—or pretend to expose—his inner self will be to the great advantage of such people. What this says either way about a student's ability to perform academically is anybody's guess.

Amid all the Sturm und Drang, one important fact is seldom mentioned to applicants or their parents.

"For all the angst the essay causes," says Bill McClintick of Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, "it's a very small piece of the puzzle. I was in college admissions for 10 years. I saw kids and parents beat themselves up over this. And at the vast majority of places, it is simply not a big variable in the [college's] decision-making process."

Many admissions officers say they spend less than a couple of minutes on each application, including the essay. According to a recent survey of admissions officers, only one in four private colleges say the essay is of "considerable importance" in judging an application. Among public colleges and universities, the number drops to roughly one in 10. By contrast, 86 percent place "considerable importance" on an applicant's grades, 70 percent on "strength of curriculum."

Still, at the most selective schools, where thousands of candidates may submit identically stratospheric grades and test scores, a marginal item like the essay may serve as a tiebreaker between two equally qualified candidates. The thought is certainly enough to keep the pot boiling under parents like Meg, the lawyer-mom, as she tries to help her son choose an essay topic.

For a moment the other day, she thought she might have hit on a good one. "His father's from France," she says. "I said maybe you could write about that, as something that makes you different. You know: half French, half American. I said, 'You could write about your identity issues.' He said, 'I don't have any identity issues!'

"And he's right. He's a well-adjusted, normal kid. But that doesn't make for a good essay, does it?"

Ferguson is the author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.