I had a realization the other day, after helping a child of a friend with her college application essay: I hate the genre.
And it has become a genre. High school English classes spend months working on it; summer programs have sessions specializing in it; consultants are paid big bucks to “polish” it.
It might be called a personal essay, but when a 17-year-old has spent months getting ideas and editing help from relatives, friends, and teachers, it hardly qualifies as personal anymore.
The problem is less a matter of who writes the essay than the nature of what students are asked to write. For what are these essays but exercises in artful bragging? We are teaching our children how to boast, and rewarding them for boasting well:
“I have compassion for the weak and oppressed, as you see by my work with Sudanese refugees.”
“I am a unique and interesting person, as you can see from my having scaled a mountain in Peru.”
“I have contributed greatly to humanity, as you can see by my work on the human genome project.”
I don’t think bragging well ought to be a prerequisite for admission to college. Why should 17-year-olds brag? What should they have to brag about? And if they do have something to brag about, wouldn’t it be better for them to keep quiet and see where their accomplishments lead? To make kids work on their bragging essays over a protracted period of time seems perverse. It inculcates a sense of self that is prematurely knowing and morally suspect.
A writing sample may be worthwhile, but it should not take the form of a personal essay. Let kids write about a book or a movie, a building, a painting, or an idea. Let’s stop asking them to look inward, puffing themselves up, when they should be looking outward, feeling humbled by the world around them.
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