I sit at my favorite sushi bar and see an intriguing Facebook post from Nikhil Goyal, the seventeen-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.
Goyal links to a scathing Wall Street Journal op-ed by high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss, “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me.” Weiss makes me laugh and shriek, outlining everything wrong with the college admissions process—and there is no shortage of material.
Then there was summer camp. I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don’t have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you’re able to talk about what other people have to deal with.
I’m interested in Weiss’s witty indictment of the college essay, especially because I recently spoke about this very issue with Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course In Getting His Kid Into College.
I’m eager to hear Ferguson’s take on Weiss’s piece, but I’m not surprised that he read it “cheering,” or that he felt she had “put her finger on it so perfectly.” It’s amazing how similar these two are—ideologically and in their clever, sharp writing style. I imagine that if Weiss and Ferguson ever teamed-up, even Harvard would shake.
In Crazy U, Ferguson also derides the college essay. During our chat last week, I ask him to explain:
“The thing that really got me in the process of applying was the application essays, which I found to be either absurd, impertinent, intrusive, or simply beside the point,” Ferguson says. “They were asking things of 17-year-olds that most 17-year-olds, even college-bound 17-year-olds, just don’t have, like epiphanies, great turning points in their life, moments of self-revelation and so on and so on. The kids end up making them up.”
I like to consider myself hip and tech-savvy. But before reading Crazy U, I was completely unaware of the pervasiveness of online companies that, for a fee, produce customized essays. I stumble upon BuyEssay.org, among the most unethical, vile pieces of Website trash I’ve ever visited. A glance at the homepage boils my blood, and I have nothing but spite for this company, and others like it, that use fear and intimidation to induce wholly unethical behavior.
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The more I think about BusyEssay.com, the more I think the colleges are also to blame for such sites even existing. Clearly, students and parents deserve a big slice of shame, but it’s higher learning that demands insight, reflection and writing ability that the vast majority of successful adults, however defined, would struggle with putting into words.
Ferguson tells me about his visit to Katherine Cohen, who owns a “Platinum Package” private college admissions company in New York. Cohen charges upward of $40,000, depending on the service:
I think I say in the book that I talked to Katherine Cohen, who you mentioned earlier, and said my son was having a terrible time with these essays. She said, “You’ve just got to tell him that he has to dig deep. Dig deep and tell his innermost thoughts.” I said, “He’s a 17-year-old boy. He doesn’t have any innermost thoughts, and if he did, neither you nor I would want to know what they are.
The college essay process disadvantages a certain type of kid, Ferguson says, “who doesn’t feel comfortable talking about himself, who isn’t particularly self-reflective, or is shy.”
I also think of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
“This college dean grasped very well that the model employee of the midcentury—even one whose job rarely involved dealing with the public, like a research scientist in a corporate lab—was not a deep thinker but a hearty extrovert with a salesman’s personality,” Cain writes.
Well into the 21st century, it seems not much has changed—at least with respect to what college admissions officers expect from essays.
I speak with Bruce Musgrave, my editor, about how enough money can buy a top-rate college essay—and how this feeds into the notion that higher education in general is becoming increasingly elitist. He directs me to journalist Fareed Zakaria’s April 15 column in Time magazine, “The Thin-Envelope Crisis,” which reinforces my stance:
“The Country’s best colleges and universities do admit lower-income students,” Zakaria writes. “But the competition has become so intense and the percentage admitted so small that the whole process seems arbitrary.”