The personal statement is a fixture of the college admissions process. In a distinctively American ritual, prospective undergraduates at selective colleges and universities spends weeks or even months crafting roughly 250-500 word responses to broadly worded questions about their character, circumstances, and aspirations. The following prompt from the 2014/15 Common Application is typical: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
In theory, personal statements allow admissions officers to get to know applicants as individuals rather than the sum of grades and test scores. In practice, these brief texts are the basis of subjective and sometimes highly political judgments about the groups of students that an institution hopes to enroll. This is particularly true when applicants write about experiences that mark them as members of desirable demographic categories. Once skewed toward the prep school set, these favored groups now include the poor, who are grossly underrepresented in the upper tier of American higher education.
The tendency to use personal statements as a proxy for economic status is on display in a recent New York Times article by “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber. The piece presents four “stand-out essays about money” that helped applicants win admission to Yale, Harvard, Penn, and Butler. Not coincidentally, all but one described serious financial difficulties ranging from homelessness to a parent’s long-term unemployment. The exception was by a comfortably middle-class student who worked at part-time at McDonalds–where he got to know people who did experience serious financial difficulties.
All of the essays, which can be read here, were perfectly good within the confines of a rather vapid genre. And their authors appear to be bright students who will do well in college. Nevertheless, weight that admissions officers apparently gave to personal statements is both corrupting and potentially unfounded. Rather than increasing the emphasis on the traditional short reflections about broad personal themes, colleges should replace them with less sentimental criteria for academic ability.
The first problem is that admissions officers’ enthusiasm for the essays had as much to do with what they said about the applicants’ finances than their actual content. The Yale official quoted in the piece acknowledges the pressure on elite universities to admit more poor students. Admissions officers at places like Yale don’t usually look at students’ financial filings until after the decision to accept or reject has been made. So they use personal statements to provide information that will help them to meet social and institutional imperatives without peeking at applicant families’ tax returns.
Although well intentioned, this duplicity only encourages doubts about the fairness of the admissions process. As with race, admissions offices seem to be intent on concealing unpopular quotas under the veil of “holistic” evaluation. At least for private universities, this strategy is perfectly legal. But it is profoundly dishonest and contributes to the collapse of public trust in higher education.
A second problem with reliance on personal statements about “overcoming adversity”, in the usual phrase, is that it encourages dishonesty among prospective students. The open secret that elite colleges favor applicants who suffer from financial or other hardships gives an incentive to their more fortunate competitors to embellish or even invent sob stories. Admissions officers are aware of the problem and on the lookout for fabricated disadvantage. Again, however, the practice itself is corrupt.
A final problem with the personal statement, which is not limited to essays about money, is that the form is so easily gamed. Even without the help of paid tutors, savvy applicants revise and polish their statements so many times that the final versions are not very accurate reflections of their writing skills–or even their own ideas.
Admissions officials insist that the personal statement is just one of many factor in theirs decisions. But this odd exercise shouldn’t play any role at all. The Yale official quoted in the Times notes that most that applicants to elite colleges have similar academic and testing records. If that’s true, they might as well make admissions decisions by a lottery among objectively qualified students–guaranteeing a student body representative of the admissions pool, at least over a period of years.
If they really need to supplement high school credentials with a writing component, colleges might consider prompts that encourage classic features of the essay such as humor and ingenuity, rather than tear-jerking reminiscences. The University of Chicago is famous for offbeat prompts that encourage applicants to think rather than to recollect or emote.
Another alternative would ask applicants to write substantial essays about real topics. Bard College recently offered a whole alternative application based on 2,500 word papers in the areas of Social Science; History, and Philosophy; Arts and Literature; and Science and Mathematics. In addition to giving evidence of real academic promise, this program gives a chance to highly literate students who struggle with standardized tests.
A third and more modest possibility would be to replace statements painstakingly crafted in response to prompts given months in advance with an exercise in timed writing. Online tools make possible to give applicants, say, 2 hours to respond to a prompt revealed only when they log on to the admissions system Although not foolproof, imposing a time limit would make it more difficult for applicants to call on outside help. The results would also come closer their real voices before they’ve been revised into oblivion.
None of these alternatives to the traditional personal statement would eliminate subjectivity from the admissions process. But they would remove some of the politics–and much of the dishonesty. Most importantly, they would relieve applicants of the burden of being chosen for who they are rather than what they can do. In doing so, they could make an arbitrary and tortuous process just a little more tolerable.