When it comes to writing the college essay, the most common question students and parents ask is: What does the college admissions office want to hear? The answer, always delivered in an encouraging tone, is: There is no right or wrong answer. Colleges want to know whatever it is you’d like to tell them. Just be you.
That response is accurate, but it seems that students today eschew the I-learned-about-myself-by-hiking-through-the-Himalayas essay, once so prominent among high school seniors.
We live in more serious times now, an era that beckons people—even teenagers—to take a stand. No longer is it acceptable to be a relativist, arguing that humans lack innate morality and therefore anything goes. Indeed, universities ask students to make bold statements about their ideologies and cerebral passions.
Stanford University asks applicants to share what drives them in the “intellectual vitality” question on its supplement to the Common Application. Apply Texas, a common application of sorts for colleges in the Lonestar State, requires all students to respond to two essay prompts (with an optional third essay), one of which reads:
Choose an issue of importance to you—the issue could be personal, school related, local, political, or international in scope—and write an essay in which you explain the significance of that issue to yourself, your family, your community, or your generation.
The wording is almost identical to the second of six prompts from which students choose one on the Common Application.
“In His Last Days, Qaddafi Wearied of Fugitive’s Life”
-The New York Times
“U.S. Troops to Exit Iraq by Year-End”
-The Wall Street Journal
“The Euro Crisis: Time for Super Mario”
“How Occupy Wall Street Is a Rational Response to a System That’s Failed”
-The New Republic
All of these headlines pertain to the news of today (literally these are headlines taken from today’s news), issues that this generation has created and the next generation must resolve. The current economic, political, and social climates are rife with essay fodder.
Years ago I rarely saw students select this essay option; today, it’s commonplace. The cynical view is that students recognized that this was a less common theme and pursued this topic as a way to distinguish themselves in the competitive marketplace. I take a less myopic approach and believe that students in 2011 are more aware of the world around them, more thoughtful about how to solve the major crises of today, and more willing to stand on their own and say, “This is who I am—take it or leave it!”
If my assumption is true, then I am confident that those we entrust to carry the flag in tomorrow’s world will fare far better than we have.