In narrowing them down from among the best dozen or so that we received, Mr. Johnson said he put himself back in the mind-set of the gatekeeper role he once held at Brown, when there were so many essays to read that he felt guilty being in a house of worship without a pile of paper in front of him.
What he looked for then is the same thing he encourages his students to strive for now. “Some kind of spark,” he said. It needs to be something that isn’t in their transcript or test scores and give admissions officers something to talk about when they’re in the meeting room deciding on that candidate.
For more students than you might think, writing about money is how they seek to stand out. Of the 4,809 complete personal statements in the database at AdmitSee, a service that allows people to make money by renting access to their own essays and applications, 5 percent are about overcoming financial obstacles. A further 20 percent used words like “tuition,” “loan” and “income” in essays about career aspirations, diversity and family background.
The single best piece of pure writing we received this year came from Sarah Benson of Lorton, Va., the author of the essay set in New Mexico. “When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living,” she wrote. “I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months.”
When she was small, her father showed her Native American pottery shards in the arroyo near their former home. When they return years later, he tells her that they have all washed away. “Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm,” she wrote. “I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.”
Her father, whom I interviewed on Facebook Live this past week, was surprised that his daughter had thought so hard about his feelings about his career and livelihood. But perhaps he should not have been, given the depth that his daughter, who will attend Virginia Tech in the fall, displayed in the essay.
“Every time I read it, I pulled something different from it,” Mr. Johnson said. “It is a very unconventional story about economic struggle.”
When Shawn L. Abbott, assistant vice president and dean of admissions in the office of undergraduate admissions at New York University, read the essay that Isabella DeSimone submitted to the university about frugality, he said he worried that it might be too conventional. “She took a topic that is by all traditional accounting measures pretty banal or pedestrian and really brought her life circumstances to life, talking about something that a lot of us can relate to,” Mr. Abbott said. Ms. DeSimone will go to N.Y.U. in the fall.
“Why buy 99-cent storage containers when the products we buy already provide them for free?” Ms DeSimone wrote. “These lessons came in Spanish with the speed of a bull in a bullring.” In her family, it was like a game. “The act of conserving money, the audacity to solve problems no one has thought of before, is what set my family apart,” she wrote.
Nowhere in the essay does Ms. DeSimone say where her family falls on the social class spectrum, and after hearing Mr. Johnson’s take on her essay, I chose not to ask. “She is frugal not necessarily because she’s poor but because that’s part of her value system,” he said. “That was such a unique take on this type of essay. This is part of a tradition that she holds dear.”
Mr. Johnson’s favorite essay came from Joseph Liggio, who lives in Suffern, N.Y. When Mr. Liggio starts school at Manhattan College in the fall, he will be the first person in his family to attend college. Mr. Johnson said he always roots for those applicants and counsels many like them in his current job, though Mr. Liggio, who is white, stood out to him in part because he seemed different from many of the first-generation, inner-city, students of color he usually encounters.
Mr. Liggio’s essay is also notable for his courage in admitting his confusion about what sort of goals he ought to set. He feels pressure to achieve things that no one in his family ever has, but to what end? “The thing is, I don’t know where I want to go from here,” he wrote. His grandparents worked where they worked because they had to make money wherever they found opportunity. Had anyone asked them what they actually wanted to do, they would have found the question baffling. “They couldn’t answer because they had no other options,” he wrote. “I can’t answer because I have too many.”
According to William Bisset, vice president for enrollment management at Manhattan College, admissions officials can be skeptical of essays that seem too polished or overwritten. “A lot of these essays sound like a Ph.D. student wrote them,” he said. “Joe’s was very genuine. It was well written, but you can tell that a kid wrote it.”
He also had a message for other applicants who are afraid to show weakness or write about their own confusion: Other than the incoming engineers at Manhattan, the most popular expression of academic interest among incoming students is “undecided.”
Erica Meister took several risks in her essay. Every year, we receive at least one essay that picks apart an affluent suburb, but we’ve never seen one quite as blunt as her take on Northville, Mich., which was recently named the snobbiest place in the state.
“I prefer to describe Northville as reckless,” she wrote. “The more enterprising students of Northville High School specialize in the selling of three goods: marijuana, Adderall and test answers, all goods many of my peers don’t think twice about using.” If trouble ensues, she added, “our fathers can cover us with cash and connections.”
Her essay could have easily read as snobby itself in its anti-snobbery, but she does not spare herself. She blithely inquires after a classmate’s Advanced Placement testing plans without realizing that some people in her school come from families that can’t pay even the reduced fees to take the tests.
“I found myself victim to the disease that infiltrates Northville, the same carelessness I despise,” Ms. Meister wrote in the essay, which she submitted to the University of California, Berkeley.
Like many former admissions officers, Mr. Johnson has strong memories of seeing piles of essays about what he described as “designer service projects,” where teenagers do volunteer work outside the United States, at their parents’ expense, and then return home and appreciate their privilege all the more. “She stayed close to home and came to a similar realization about herself and the world that she comes from,” he said. “I thought it was striking that she would talk about that.”
Her bold approach to the college application process generally seems to have worked out pretty well. Ms. Meister will attend Stanford in the fall. “I aspire,” she concluded in her essay for Berkeley, “to prepare myself by being more thoughtful, informed and, most of all, careful.”Continue reading the main story