All About Me

April 01, 2002 3 min read
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Despite 9/11, college application essays focus on familiar themes.

Last October, along with high school seniors everywhere, 18-year-old Dustin Brody stared down a blank computer screen and mulled over a matter that could change the course of his life: his college essay topic.

Although the student at Newton South High School in Newton, Massachusetts, was applying to a dozen schools—including MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell—he planned to adapt one essay for all of his applications. And since he knew that admissions officers read thousands of personal statements each year, Brody wondered what would make his stand out.

Brody’s first thought was September 11. “My angle was going to be people’s hyperbolic predictions about how things wouldn’t be the same and how they were wrong,” he recalls. But since it had been done “ad infinitum” in newspaper editorials, he says, he decided against that idea. He also considered, then rejected, writing about “how religion started so many wars.” The reason? “I was worried about what the officers would think,” he admits. “I became sensitive to, Oh, there’s an audience reading it.”

In the end, Brody decided to gaze inward rather than comment on world events. His topic, “How has my tendency to learn independently affected my school experience?” used his late night and early morning walks as a metaphor for progressing through school.

As it turns out, Brody wasn’t the only student in the class of 2002 who turned his back on world affairs when crafting his college essay. Admissions officers across the country, who’ve been digesting personal statements for months in order to select students by April, say a minority of applicants have chosen to write about current events. And of these essays, ones about September 11 have been surprisingly scarce.

Vu Tran, director of admissions at UCLA, says that none of the 150 essays he’d read by early February discussed the terrorist attacks. His possible explanation is California students’ geographical distance from the targets in New York City and Arlington, Virginia. But things aren’t so different on the East Coast. Michael Goldberger, Tran’s counterpart at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, also says he’s read few September 11 essays. “We certainly have seen nothing like the number of carpe diem essays we saw when the movie Dead Poets Society came out,” he observes. David Borus, dean of admissions at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and his staff had read more than 1,500 essays midway through the process. He says that almost the only seniors writing about September 11 were those who’d experienced the attacks firsthand—for example, applicants from Stuyvesant, a high school close to the World Trade Center.

This doesn’t surprise admissions officers, who note that newsworthy topics often don’t make it into college essays. “Kids are worried that if they express an opinion, and if it’s a different opinion than the [one of the] person who reads it, they’re in trouble,” says Borus. The exception to this rule: Students will write about current events if they see a tie-in to their own lives, he notes. In 2000, for example, colleges were inundated by essays about the previous year’s shootings at Columbine High School. “Kids feeling insecure in school produced some for a while,” says Borus.

This year, seniors stuck to perennial themes. Many wrote about studying or traveling abroad. Others penned pieces about the deaths of people close to them or essays singing the praises of a favorite teacher, parent, or friend. Weak essays were familiar, too, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison Director of Admissions Robert Seltzer, who says he read his share of personal statements in which writers suggested they were Badger material because “my whole family goes here” or offered detailed explanations of why their grades were low. “It’s amazing to me how little the topics have changed,” adds Borus, who’s worked in admissions for 26 years.

In late February, Brody was waiting to hear whether he’d been accepted at his prospective colleges. While he hopes that those deciding his fate enjoyed his essay on his educational journey thus far, he confides that he’s not worried even if they didn’t. His real selling point, he says, is his 1520 combined SAT score.

—Katharine Dunn


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