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Thanks, but no thanks: Why you should skip the New York Times’ “Best College Essays”

The College Essay
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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Want to feel inadequate? Try reading someone else’s college essay. 

Every year, the New York Times publishes 5 college application essays that touch on money. (The money angle comes from the fact that it’s “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber who chooses the essays. He also wrote the book The Price You Pay for College.)

This feature is obviously popular, or the Times wouldn’t be in its 9th year of it. Whether it’s helpful to high school students looking for models of how to write a good college essay is another matter entirely.

Let’s think about what might go through Lieber’s mind as he thinks about choosing 5 college essays to publish in the NYT:

  • Pageviews — he wants online readers to click on the headline and stay on the page long enough to read the whole article, which contributes to its popularity score. 
  • Recommendations — he wants readers to email the article to each other and to talk about it on social media, which also helps contribute to the article’s popularity score. 

What qualities in an essay will help Lieber achieve these goals? 

  • Drama — essays with incredible, extreme stories.
  • Pathos — essays that pull on the heartstrings. 
  • Pizzazz — essays that have flair, or a showy writing style.

Let’s contrast that with what goes through the mind of admissions officers as they read a college essay — spoiler: these readers are looking for completely different things. Meet us below the Table of Contents, and we’ll show you what we mean. 

Unlike the NY Times, colleges aren’t looking for drama, pathos, or a showy writing style;Case study — the budding feminist as struggling waitress;The NY Times’ essays reinforce the “Trauma” college essay myth;The Times itself knows these essays aren’t helpful for college applicants.
Unlike the NY Times, colleges aren’t looking for drama, pathos, or a showy writing style;Case study — the budding feminist as struggling waitress;The NY Times’ essays reinforce the “Trauma” college essay myth;The Times itself knows these essays aren’t helpful for college applicants.

    Unlike the NY Times, colleges aren’t looking for drama, pathos, or a showy writing style

    Unlike Lieber, the college admission department doesn’t need essays that would rank highly in search engines or have a chance of going viral. 

    Admissions officers track different stats — they look at how students they admitted perform at the school, their graduation rates, and even how they do after graduation. When they read an application, they’re looking for evidence the student will be an asset on campus and successful in life — that this student will be successful in college and beyond

    So, do drama, pathos, and pizzazz matter for showing a student can be successful? Not at all.

    The best college essays often center on everyday experiences and are written in a straightforward style without anything by way of flowery language, metaphors, or pizzazz of any kind. 

    What the application officer is looking for is proof that this student can succeed — we’ve boiled it down to what we call the 5 traits:

    • Drive
    • Initiative
    • Contribution
    • Intellectual Curiosity 
    • Diversity of Experiences

    These attributes suggest a student will go on to do exciting things on campus. They make a huge difference in getting students admitted. 

    Case study — the budding feminist as struggling waitress

    The second essay Lieber chose for 2021 is a beautiful mediation on the juxtaposition of an academic appreciation for feminism with the day-to-day sexist indignities of being a teenage waitress. 

    The problem isn’t the writing quality (excellent) or the pacing (great) or the story (lots of drama), it’s that most of the essay focuses on things that are happening to the writer. Those things are interesting, and she is thinking about them in an interesting way. But the essay doesn’t show her doing much of anything.

    In terms of the 5 traits, this essay probably comes closest to showing Intellectual Curiosity. At the end, the writer says, “Constantly re-evaluating my definition of feminism, I am inspired to dive deeply into gender studies and philosophy to better pursue social justice.” (She also talks about having delivered a speech on feminism in 8th grade.)

    The problem for a college admissions reader is that you don’t see her delving into gender studies or philosophy — it’s all in the future. As a reader, you’re not seeing a student with an enormous thirst for learning and intellectual exploration. There’s the possibility that this student might go that way, but no tangible proof

    The essay also hints at Contribution. The student writes, “I want to use politics as a forum for activism. Like my female icons, I want to stop the burden of sexism from falling on young women.”

    Again, this essay would be so much more powerful (admissions-wise) if it spent time developing that idea. What has this student done that shows she’s likely to organize and take action against feminism? She makes a convincing case why she’s likely to go this route, but it’s still all theoretical - the proof is lacking. 

    By focusing more on her own actions and less on the restaurant environment, it’s likely she could have made a better case for her Intellectual Curiosity and/or Contribution. 

    The NY Times’ essays reinforce the “Trauma” college essay myth

    The waitress essay isn’t alone in focusing on high-drama traumatic incidents. Many of Lieber’s chosen essays do, for reasons we’ve covered (getting those readers!). 

    The problem with this pattern is that it ends up reinforcing the myth that writing your college essay about a traumatic event is good. 

    Generally speaking, writing about trauma for your college essay is bad

    Why?

    A traumatic experience, while inherently exciting and dramatic, doesn’t say much about the person it’s happening to. Rather, it says a lot about a circumstance that’s almost by definition outside of a person’s control.  

    In the waitress example, older male diners harass the writer and there’s not much she can do about it. In other words, the essay doesn’t really focus on the writer - it focuses on a particularly terrible work environment and a societal issue. 

    But you want your college essays to say a lot about you. Specifically, about your potential to succeed in college and beyond. Specifically, the 5 Traits

    As college essay coaches, we mostly discourage students from writing about these kinds of dramatic incidents. It’s hard to write about a traumatic experience and not get distracted by it, giving short shrift to your own actions. (It is possible, though -- so long as you stay focused not on the event, but on your reaction to it or how you rose above it.) 

    Remember, the aim is not to pull at your reader’s heartstrings. Leave that for the newspapers. Your aim is to get admitted.

    The Times itself knows these essays aren’t helpful for college applicants 

    Lieber admits that the essays he chooses don’t shed light on how to get into selective colleges. He says, “Our overarching point in publishing [these] essays isn’t to crack the code on writing one’s way into Yale or Michigan, as if that were even possible.”

    The problem is that of course, an essay that likely got someone into a selective school is going to end up serving as a model. (We are happy that, this year, the Times has stopped publishing where the essay-writers are going. Still, it’s not hard to guess that they are prestigious places, as they were in all previous iterations.)

    It’s worth noting that the essay by itself tells you very little about why a person got admitted — they could have astonishing grades and test scores, and have gotten admitted despite their essay. Or they could have legacy status or be a top athletic recruit. You just don’t know. 

    Lieber also says that the reason he publishes the essays is to: “celebrate how meaningful it can be to talk openly about money and write about it in a way that makes a reader stop and wonder about someone else’s life and, just maybe, offers a momentary bit of enlightenment and delight” (emphasis added). 

    But for students who’re looking at a blank page where their personal statement should be, it’s not a stretch to think that they might want to follow in the footsteps of someone who wrote something “meaningful” that “makes a reader stop and wonder about [their] life.”

    But again, your aim isn’t to “enlighten” or “delight” your reader, at least not in the abstract way that happens when you read an interesting news story — it’s to have them move you onto the Admit pile. 

    So, by all means, read these NYT college essays next year, when you’re looking for a glimpse into someone’s life and an interesting story. Just please, please, don’t read them as models for your personal statement right now. 

    More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods:

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