Quick quiz: Which of the following is not an essay topic on the latest version of the common application to gain admission to U.S. colleges? 1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? 4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment or event -- formal or informal -- that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family. 6. Discuss a particularly significant Facebook status update. What prompted it? Where were you when you posted it? How did you feel when only four of your friends “liked” it? The common application, which is now accepted by more than 500 colleges, is the best example of how the admissions process has become an exercise in encouraging 17-year-olds’ narcissism. Also new this year, rising high-school seniors will be allotted 650 words in which to indulge themselves. Was that because the 500 they have been given previously just didn’t do these topics justice?
The college essay as absurdist self-reflection isn’t new. When I applied to Middlebury College some two decades ago, I was asked to answer the question: “What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?” Alas, this was no passing fad. “Many people involved in the admissions enterprise believe -- or want to believe -- that personal essays are essential,” Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in a blog post after interviewing a number of admissions officers. “As long as students are free to write...
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