I’ve been meaning to write about the hubbub around the high school student who got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools last April. It was an amazing and well-deserved accomplishment for Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old from Long Island, New York.
Because of his feat, the media and some college experts have held up his college application essay as one of the main reasons he was accepted. And it has been championed now as an example of a great essay.
I do not agree with this at all. I thought his essay was mediocre at best. (Read Kwasi’s essay and see for yourself.)
I believe Kwasi’s acceptances had more to do with his perfect GPA, 2,250 SAT scores, the 11 AP classes he took, his impressive musical and other talents. And it’s also true that his essay certainly did not keep him out of any of these schools (since he got in them all!), and might have helped him get in.
But I think it’s wrong to assume that this essay had a big part in his acceptance. It’s just not that good. At least in my opinion. It reminded me of the type of writing many adults and English teachers believe would make a good essay.
My main concern is that students will look to this essay as an example of a great essay, and try to emulate it.
Again, I’m not out to dis Kwasi or in any way imply that he is undeserving of his acceptances into these stellar schools. Who wouldn’t want this amazing guy?
But I’m all about writing standout college application essays, and trying to make sure that they help students get into their top-choice schools. I believe students should try to write essays that are engaging to read—especially from the start—and that carry their unique voice and reveal something that sets them apart from their peers. (This is especially true for students trying for their “reach” schools.)
I will spare you a blow-by-blow analysis of Kwasi’s essay. It certainly wasn’t terrible, and overall was earnest and heartfelt, and had some nice lines.
However, I think his topic was way too broad—“love of music”—and Kwasi tried to cover too much ground about himself, everything from his love of music in all things, how it linked to his leadership skills and even his career goal in medicine. I believe it could have had more impact and been more engaging to read if he had focused his topic. Instead of writing about all things music, he could have picked one specific part of his love of music and expanded upon that.
The worst thing about this essay, to me, was that it was on the dull side. It made all sort of general points that I didn’t find that interesting. He did bolster some of his points with specific examples, and that helped. But overall, it was written with a lot of passive voice and broad, flowery statements.
While I think it’s important to express what you think, feel and believe in these essays, I also think they need a sharp focus and lots of examples to back up general points. Otherwise, they end up on the bland side.
With Kwasi, I would have wanted to get a sense of his personality through the essay, and to hear his authentic voice. There was nothing in this essay that made him stand out from the other zillion students who love music, at least in my mind.
Enough picking on Kwasi. Again, a huge congratulations to him and his future at Yale this fall! But if you are working on your essay, I wouldn’t use this one for inspiration or as a guide on writing your own. Be bold. Pick topics that haven’t been written about a lot. Focus them to make a specific point about yourself.
You may not be as brilliant as Kwasi, but I think you have a good chance of writing a better college application essay!
Read some Sample Essays I believe are better.
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This 17-year-old's application essay got him into all eight Ivy League schools — despite a declining acceptance rate in seven out of eight Ivies and an era of increased selectivity in elite educational institutions.
What exactly did Long Island high school student Kwasi Enin, who has straight As and a 2,250 SAT score, write? The New York Postobtained a copy (readable below), and as New York Mag observes, "It is very much a college essay — flowery language, Big Ideas, lessons learned — but it also worked."
Kwasi Enin's college essay
"Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity," Enin wrote. "I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music."
"My haven for solace in and away from home is in the world of composers, harmonies and possibilities. My musical haven has shaped my character and without it, my life would not be half as wonderful as it is today."
Image Credit: William Floyd School District
It's a well developed, by-the-numbers essay, and it's easy to tell why it was such a hit with the Ivies' admissions department. It perfectly played to the expectations and demands of self-proclaimed elite schools (without going overboard like this dude), and it's way better than what most high school seniors could produce, so kudos to a well deserved hit by Enin. (As for the haters, of which Thought Catalog anecdotally found a few, well ... tough beans.)
But for all the praise Enin is getting for acing the essay, NY Mag has a point when it asks: "Why do we make kids do this to themselves?" It's pretty hard to demand even bright young scholars to humble-brag about their accomplishments to pedigree-obsessed institutions without in some way denigrating the educational value of a degree. This is a real problem acknowledged by many in the college industry. Writes eHow's Dave Roos:
"The increasing selectivity of the Ivy League admissions process only exacerbates the problem, creating hordes of Ivy-obsessed students who place unhealthy pressure on themselves to be accepted.
The danger of the brand-name, "bumper-sticker" mentality is that an Ivy League education is being sold as a product rather than a valuable experience. And students, in a desperate attempt to obtain that product at any cost, sometimes turn the application process into a marketing campaign, or worse, a business."
For every amazing success like Enin, there's a minimum of 84.85% of applications that get rejected from an Ivy — for Harvard, it's 93.28%. Even the extremely well vetted don't always make the cut. Take Sam Werner of Norwalk, Conn., who was rejected from both Stanford and Princeton in 2008 despite perfect SAT scores, membership on two sports teams and ranking third in his class. A 2012 Princeton-conducted study of 10,6500 students and parents found that 71% of respondents gauged their stress levels during the process as "high" or "very high," which is up 15% from 2003.
And this stress isn't necessarily correlated to a school's quality of education. The 2013 edition of the study found that 51% of the respondents' main priority in college selection was a "potentially better job and higher income," and just 24% saw education as the primary benefit. The most stressful part of the process was "completing applications for admission and financial aid," said 34%, and both parents and students are increasingly worried about how college will impact a student's "career interests."
"College admission is how a lot of people are defining success these days," said Dr. Denise Pope, who founded the Challenge Success group (admittedly, at Stanford) in 2008. "We want to challenge people to achieve the healthier form of success, which is about character, well-being, physical and mental health and true engagement with learning."
Of course, finding a good job and a stable future is an indisputably important factor to consider in an admissions process. But the primary advantage of an Ivy degree is exactly what students and parents report they're looking for: connections, connections, connections. Sociologist Lauren Rivera says that "elite professional service employers" (think Wall Street, law firms, and consultancies) rely more on academic pedigree than pretty much anything else when hiring, including how Ivy students spent their time at those institutions. (A notable exception is extracurriculars that "resonate with white, upper-middle-class culture," like lacrosse and crew, because these send signals to elite employers that the prospective employee will fit right in.)
The result in the hiring process for elite jobs — which, again, parents and students self-report as extremely important when selecting colleges — is this, Rivera writes:
"Successful candidates therefore needed to possess enough cultural breadth to establish similarities with any professional with whom they were paired, but also enough depth in white, upper-middle-class cultural signals to relate to and excite their overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class, Ivy League-educated interviewers."
Mastering this is ... "not only a prerequisite for admission to America's most elite colleges, but also for entry to its highest paying entry-level jobs."
So when talking about the Ivies, remember that it acts in many ways as a filter and regulator for entry to a very specific kind of social class. And an awful lot of students are stressing themselves out for an unlikely entry to this world, when they might be better served looking for colleges that are a good fit for them and what they actually want in a career and life after college.
In the end, even those that make it through the process might found out an elite job won't make them particularly happy in the first place.
None of this is to denigrate or take away from Enin's astounding achievements, which probably make us all a little jealous. But as he enters this elite world, he should think very frankly about what he'll use the incredible access he's rightfully gained to achieve — both for him and others.