Your Life in 500 Words or Less

By Ferguson, Andrew | Newsweek, November 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Your Life in 500 Words or Less


Ferguson, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Ferguson

High-school seniors hate them. Colleges ignore them. So why have those pithy personal essays become the bane of every university-hopeful?

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 sen-iors 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. …

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