One of the greatest mistakes, I have been told, is to do things simply because “that’s the way that they’ve always been done.” This is not to suggest that traditions and practices may not have endured for a reason, but I have been trained to continually question the assumptions and expectations that surround my object of inquiry. In so many ways, I have been continually told to fight against determinism, to reexamine evidence, and to think about what historiographical methods can reveal.
So when it comes to the college admission essay—something that I had been familiar with for a number of years—and a story from The Chronicle that reported on the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admission, I began to sit down and thing: why do we do what we do? I know the party line: that the essay is used to assess writing composition skills. This is not untrue, but as someone who has recently had to read undergraduate papers for the first time, I began to wonder if there was in fact any correlation between an ability to produce a (relatively short) essay as a one-off and the kind of structure/discipline necessary for the actual papers that students would be writing in college. Sure, we have composition courses to help students along but skills are often still lacking.
So all of this begs the question: “What exactly do we hope to get out of the college admission essay?”
As mentioned in the article, another common response is “authenticity.” We are looking for a glimpse of a spark, we are looking for something/someone fresh—we want a student who is unabashedly true to who he or she is. But we also want a student who fits into our often unstated range for who an acceptable student should be.
I’ve spent some of my free time last year thinking deeply about the implications for this (particularly as I began to work more with fan communities) and reflected back to all the times that I saw kids who were incredibly passionate about things like Harry Potter or dressage or Rubik’s cubes. It was no small secret that these sorts of activities were generally regarded with skepticism at best (and possible derision at worse, particularly if someone decided that an interview was the opportune time to demonstrate something). Authenticity, then, is only valued insofar as it speaks to values that I support.
So, if I were really being honest, what I’m really looking for is a student to tell me a really good story about himself or herself and I want that tale to hit markers of what I deem to be truth or authenticity. (And the insistence on a narrative is in itself a bias, right? There are “good” stories and “bad” stories, stories that have better formats than others, and this driving need to turn everything into a narrative although there are other forms of structure.) I think, as admission officers, we develop this internalized sense of what represents truth (i.e., we purport to be able to tell when students are being disingenuous or are overly polished) and perhaps blind ourselves to the way in which we can get played if a student manages to present as someone who ascribes to our ideal image of what a “real” candidate looks like. And to be fair, I don’t think that our filters our off—we all know those students who try too hard or who use sleight of hand to try to trick us—but I also don’t know that we are actively considering how we may be duped by false positives.
There has to be, I think, some real discussion about what we strive for as admission officers and whether our metrics continue to be up to the challenge. We must recognize that these tests and evaluations are born out of culture that is different from our own (not just in the structure of educational institutions but also fundamentally who our students are and how they function). Are we applying methods developed in the 20th century (and earlier!) to 21st century students? We shouldn’t throw out everything we’ve learned but, like with test scores, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we think we’re getting out of all of this.