Does Life Begin with a Topic Sentence?
The leaves are crinkly, the air is crisp, pumpkins await carving. It’s that time of year again. Time to start writing your college essay.
Time to mar an auspicious beginning with a vacuous exercise in self-conscious drivel.
Time to show off the writing skills your teachers were not able to impart in twelve years of public schooling.
Time to write about life experiences you haven’t had.
Time to tell how the place in which you grew up influenced who you are (Stanford, Tufts, Colby), describe a personal experience that has deeply affected you (Oberlin), or talk about something that has special meaning to you (Tulane). Time to struggle to say something meaningful (in no more than 200 words) about a topic of exquisite banality.
Princeton suggests you write about something you wish you understood better. What some of us want to understand better, frankly, is how a $50,000-a-year university can pose such unapologetically vapid questions to its applicants.
One would like to think that there’s more going on here than meets the cornea; that in reality, the college essay is a deceptively clever test to find the rare applicant who has taught herself how to craft meaningful, perhaps even sonorous, prose on her own (despite 12 years of public education). Maybe the college-essay process is a subtle kind of filter to hold aside the sediment of the public school system and let through the few exceptional souls who’ve somehow managed to slip the surly bonds of the topic sentence, who need no supporting statements to get through life, who refuse to restate a premise in order to trivialize an important idea by wrapping it in a trite conclusion.
One would like to think that an institution devoted to freeing the mind would value free verse.
Certainly (one would think), a promising applicant would be one who has shrugged off the 50-, 200-, or 500-word limit, pointing out that life has no word limits; that words themselves are the limit.
One would like to imagine that any university worthy of the breathtakingly grandiose sums universities tend to think themselves worthy of would value above all others the college essayist who rejects outright the very notion of judging a person, even in part, by a “college essay.”
One would like to think these things might be true. But I suspect one would be wrong.
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