Sunday, October 5, 2008

So why do I want to go to the school I indicated as my #1 choice?

The college application process is riddled with minor idiocies. Everything's a crapshoot at the higher levels - one college admission officer noted that if her university had rejected their entire incoming freshman class and taken the next batch instead, they'd have just as good a student body. Testing like that done on the SAT is notoriously bad at measuring much of anything. Heck, I took the Chemistry SAT II yesterday (I should have done it in May or June right after I finished AP Chemistry, but whatever), and the problems were perhaps marginally harder than the ones on the test I took to get out of General Science freshman year. 'Course, there were more of them, but that just means less time to check your answers. Do colleges really want to value people based on whether or not they slipped a 0 (or a hydroxide group) the first time round? Then there's the college info sessions, which were probably good before the inevitable "How can I get into Harvard?/How can I get my kid into Harvard?" crowd turned them into homogeneous, bland mixtures of random facts and balancing acts (don't want to drive any kids away with definite statements!).

By far the worst offenders, however, are the college essay questions. Your mileage may vary, of course; Chicago U's essays are notoriously quirky, for example. But I'm talking about the generic questions, and especially about one particular type of question: "Why do you want to go to School X? What makes School X a good place for you? Why are you applying to school X?" Here are some potential honest answers to this question:
"To get an education." (how many students have typed this on the page, stared at it, sighed, and deleted it so they could start over? H/t Dr. McNinja.)

"Look, I'm applying just in case I don't get into School Y over there." I'm always amused by how schools take it for granted that if a student applies, they MUST want to go there.

"School X is near where I live."

"Look, Mr. Stanford/MIT/Caltech/Harvard/Princeton/Yale/[your school here] admissions officer, it's obvious why I want to attend School X. Your school has an incredible program in the area of my interest. It has lots of challenging classes in other areas, too. Your school has great professors, vast resources, myriad ways to have fun, great research opportunities, a "study wherever the hell you want" program, good food, a beautiful campus, and a student body worthy of it all. Asking why I want to go to School X is like asking why a Christian wants to go to Heaven, and you know it."

I'm not kidding with that last sentence, either. For many students, school is the religion of choice, or at least a counterpoint to their actual religion. More on that another time, perhaps.

Of course, students can't write essays like that and get accepted to college. So they something just a bit less obvious, and then write about it using all the Rules of Essay-Writing:
- It needs to have a Catchy Opening and Grab your Reader's Attention!
- It needs to Tell a Story! Make the point, don't state it!
- It needs to be Concise and Punchy!
- However, be sure to Elaborate!


I've been reading a book containing 50 essays by students that got into Harvard. The book applauds these essays as the most descriptive, informative, well-written essays of any they received. Yet none of them, I'm sure, were answering the question "Why do you want to attend Harvard?" That question is not going to elicit deep insight or beautiful writing on the part of the student. Any direct answer violates the central principle of college essays: "Show, don't tell." Sure, it's easy to ask a simple question like "Why us?", but it doesn't tell the school much about the student. Huge trouble for us with little benefit for anyone; why even bother?