College Presidents write an Admissions Essay

The 6 May 2009 Wall Street Journal ‘turned the table’ on a group of college presidents from some of the most elite colleges in the country, including the University of Pennsylvania, Pomona College, Wesleyan College, and the University of Chicago.  The article entitled “Holding College Chiefs to their Words,” (6 May 2009, Wall Street Journal, p. D1 and D6, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124155688466088871.html)  featured each president tackling a challenging essay question from his or her school’s supplement to the Common Application (all the schools use the Common Application). Additionally, the presidents were given the following restrictions: no assistance or re-writes from third parties, a 500-word limit (most couldn’t stay within this limit), and a due date of three weeks.

Future college applicants please note: even the people who guide our most esteemed universities (all with terminal degrees in some area of academia, meaning each has produced and defended a thesis, and published extensively within their chosen field) were given three weeks to write one essay. If you, like many college applicants, tend to procrastinate on the college essay, sometimes not putting pen to paper, or fingers to keypad, till well into the eleventh hour, note how long this set of presidents was given to produce one reasonable essay.  These seasoned, published authors had three weeks, and most labored long and hard to come up with an acceptable essay. Writing a good college essay is not easy for anyone. Especially if one wants to write an essay, “…that stands out from the pack, yet doesn’t sound overly self-promotional or phony.” (Ibid. D1)

One of the presidents, Michael Roth of Wesleyan College, a highly selective college in Connecticut, exemplified how consuming the college essay writing process is. While he was vacationing with his family in Disney World, standing in line for a ride with one of his daughters, his mind dutifully contemplated his assigned essay from Wesleyan’s supplement, “…describe a person who’s had a significant influence on you…”  Mr. Roth decided to approach this prompt with a highly personal essay about his brother, who died before he was born. In essence, Mr.
Roth was brought into this world as his brother’s surrogate. Mr. Roth wrestled with the tone, style, and, of course, the topic. Like most college essay writers who take on a serious subject, he had second thoughts about his topic. Producing a deeply moving and personal essay in a way that engages a reader is an extremely delicate skill.  (By the way, if you want to actually read the essays from these nine presidents, including Mr. Roth’s, just go to www.WSJ.com/Careers.)

Another essay produced by the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, was in response to a prompt that had a number of applicants scratching their heads: “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”  In her essay, Ms. Gurmann who taught history and political science at Princeton prior to assuming her post at University of Pennsylvania, outlined “three enduring contributions [she had made] to moral and political philosophy.”  Her essay, however, reaches beyond the description of abstract educational concepts and theories, to actually show concrete examples of how her theories, applied, actually led to better, sounder, public policy.

At the end of the exercise, the presidents had some sage advice for future college admissions essay writers: don’t try to come up with the perfect essay topic—there aren’t any; write about something that is personally meaningful—which, by its very nature—is something that engages you (remember, if you’re engaged, there’s a good chance the reader will join you); and, don’t try to force a subject to be dramatic when it isn’t—let your essay reflect the true nature of things. Trust these college chiefs. They just took three weeks to re-learn how their applicants feel. Compassionate people in high places are always a good thing.