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From JFK to Kwasi Enin: The College Admissions Application Essay Grows Up

Jun 19, 2014 | Updated Aug 19, 2014

In a recent conversation with a parent who was thinking ahead to when her eighth grader applies to college, she said that she had read the application essay by the Long Island boy who got into eight Ivy League schools, and she thought "the essay was terribly written." She wanted to know what I, who read college application essays year in and year out, thought of it.

These essays have come a long way since 1935, when John F. Kennedy's succinct, handwritten and utterly unoriginal paragraph was enough to get him into his father's alma mater, answering the question: "Why do you wish to go to Harvard?" It's doubtful that today even a student with as much pull as young JFK had back then -- Dad was Chairman of the SEC -- could get into the big H with these dreary five sentences, not to mention his mediocre grades.

"The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a "Harvard man" is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain."

Students applying to selective schools in 2014 face a barrage of essays that would challenge the literary chops of Mark Twain. The Common Application essay -- most famous, most feared -- has become a genre of its own, with a contest that started this May, and a $5000 prize, inviting students to enter the essays they submitted for admission earlier in the year. And scores of schools require additional essays of every imaginable variety, asking students to design a course (Colorado College), comment on a quotation (Princeton), write a letter to a prospective roommate (Stanford), and to say what makes them happy (Tufts).

Welcome to the boutiqueification of higher education. In other countries, college applicants may have to take entrance exams that last up to three days, and judgments are based only the results of those tests. Here we judge kids on their grades, tests scores, extra curricular activities, and through a raft of essays that probe their feelings, their writing skills and, to some extent, their intellects. The exotic essay questions enchant, amuse (a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down), distinguish schools and students from one another, and perhaps keep some students from making frivolous applications to colleges that they have no interest in attending, now that the Common Application has made applying easier than live streaming a season of Breaking Bad.

I make the last claim advisedly, about frivolous applications, because there is also a powerful trend to encourage students to apply to all sorts of schools to which they have no chance of admission in order to boost the number of applicants, thereby lowering a school's admit rate, thereby raising its ranking on the sacred US News and World Report list. Perhaps an equation charting the logic and math of this could find its way to an upcoming SAT question.

But it's the essay of the year -- maybe of the decade -- we are here to examine. Move over JFK. Make room for Draft #4 of Kwasi Enin's Common Application essay, called "A Life in Music," which the New York Post got hold of and published in April 2014, soon after the son of immigrants from Ghana was admitted to the eight Ivy League schools to which he applied.

The news items were celebratory, but the reader comments exposed another side to the story. Debate raged about the justice of Enin's success, his race, affirmative action, the quality of his essay, and the state of American education. There were comments from students who had also applied to many Ivies and "only" got admitted to one or two or three. One young man from the Bronx, who applied to the same eight schools as Enin and "only" got into Yale and Cornell, was enraged by what he thought was the poor quality of the essay and by Enin's eight-school sweep in contrast to his own paltry numbers. In an anonymous reader comment, he said, "I am upset that I will share a school with an applicant as weak as Kwasi."

Quite apart from this young man's animus, he seems strangely misinformed, about both what it takes to get into Yale -- the demanding application questions and essays -- and how admissions decisions are made in the country's most elite schools. A common theme in the comments were that another applicant had higher SATs and GPAs than Enin but had been rejected from these schools.

While debate raged, none of the articles I read explained the bigger admissions picture at the most selective schools. Yes, at some state schools, decisions are based largely on raw numbers, but not at what is now known at HYP or even Stanford, which admitted only five percent of its 42,000 applicants this year.

The bigger picture gets left out, I think, partly because it's so complex and partly because the process is so secretive and unquantifiable. What goes on in those wood-paneled admissions offices isn't for public consumption, but the broad outlines are well known, and all of it is explained vividly in Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 New Yorker article, "Getting In: The social logic of Ivy League admissions," inspired by a then just-published book, The Chosen by sociologist Jerome Karabel.

In answer to those who harp on "my kid's SATs and class rank were higher than Kwasi Enin's, and how can this be fair?" here are some truths universally known about the process:

* The college admissions process is not transparent -- and it's not going to become transparent.

* At the most selective schools, there are thousands more qualified applicants -- in some cases, tens of thousands -- than there are places for them. According to the New York Times, "Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in." According to the Stanford Alumni magazine, Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw estimates that 80 percent of its applicants could handle the university's workload.

* HYP and, these days, S, could easily fill a class with students whose GPAs and standardized test scores are perfect, but that's not what they're after.

Think of admissions officers in these schools creating a large dinner party that will go on for four years, and then, as alumni, for a lifetime. Each guest is chosen to bring an assortment of worthwhile qualities to the table beyond top grades and scores, which are necessary but not sufficient. They need to spot the kids who will run the school newspaper, play second fiddle -- and double bass -- in the orchestra, keep the tennis team competitive, sign up for the Modern English Novel, act in theatre productions, and, once they graduate, become generous, involved alumni. They need ethnic, racial, geographic, musical, intellectual, and athletic diversity. A self-motivated, hyper-creative student who got a 680 on her math SAT might be more desirable than one with perfect scores who spent every summer taking science courses for extra credit. But again, this is only one detail in a much larger portrait of an individual student and of what a school decides it needs to make up a class.

* Take note, angry young man from the Bronx: Many groups of applicants are given special consideration in admissions: recruited athletes, legacies, children of the rich and powerful, children of donors (I've heard three versions of what it costs to buy a kid's way into Harvard: $1 million; $10 million; it's not for sale), children of recent immigrants, first generation college students, international students who do not need financial aid, and students who are members of underrepresented minority groups.

Which brings us back to the matter of college application essays. Not one article I've seen on Kwasi Enin has mentioned that nearly all of the eight Ivies Mr. Enin applied to require extra essays and short answers to a huge variety of questions. The Common App essay is important, but it's only one piece of the writing puzzle that admissions officers study. Some schools, including Yale, encourage applicants to submit artwork, audio recordings, film, and creative writing.

Those who harp on Kwasi Enin's 2250 SAT (because it's not 2400), his eleventh place class ranking (because it's not number one), and what they believe are the imperfections of his essay have no idea what else he conveyed in these complicated applications. I suspect it was pretty impressive.

As for the much-scrutinized essay, it contains two words that are, to me, the key to Enin's success. They are words I rarely hear from anyone anymore, neither from the students I work with nor their parents nor the oft-quoted admissions officers, the words "intellectual curiosity."

Ring a bell? It's different from "academic achievement," and I don't think it's a quality you can fake. Based on Enin's essay, he has it in abundance. Here, for instance:

"Music has become the spark of my intellectual curiosity. I directly developed my capacity to think creatively around problems due to the infinite possibilities in music. There are millions of combinations of key signatures, chords, melodies, and rhythms in the world of music that wait to become attached to a sheet of staff lines and spaces. As I began to explore a minute fraction of these combinations from the third grade onwards, my mind began to formulate roundabout methods to solve any mathematical problem, address any literature prompt, and discover any exit in an undesirable situation. In middle school, my mind also started to become adept in the language of music. Playing the works of different composes, such as "Kol Nidrei" by Max Bruch and "Coriolan Overture" by Ludwig Van Beethoven, expands my diverse musical vocabulary, my breadth of techniques and my ability to practice in order to succeed in solo performances. ... Whenever I perform, whether as a bassist in a Men's Doo Wop Group or as a violinist in a Chamber Ensemble, I become immersed in the conversations between performers and the audience."

Last year, one of the essay prompts at the University of Chicago was "Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it." In looking over these passages from Enin's essay and thinking about how to explain their power, I feel a bit like someone trying to explain a joke without ruining it.

The complex ideas Enin expresses seem to me engaging, scintillating, and genuine, as well as intellectually and culturally sophisticated. He takes a hobby -- music - and explains eloquently how it has become a vehicle for engaging in a wide variety of music -- from Jewish liturgical music to Do Wop -- and for exploring other subjects and life challenges. And he does all of this joyfully -- and you can't fake that either. This is something quite different from getting perfect grades and perfect SAT scores.

Intellectual curiosity -- a phrase Kwasi Enin uses, and a concept he understands -- is in short supply in these days of dogged super kids, packaged applicants, and cutthroat competition. Beyond all the glitter and hype of HYP and S, these are still -- for at least a while longer -- places where intellectual curiosity is a cherished value, though it sounds kind of quaint. When it's in evidence, when it's bubbling up from the pages of an application essay, the gatekeepers in those wood-paneled offices notice. Believe me -- and believe Kwasi Enin -- they notice.

Elizabeth Benedict, who runs Don't Sweat the Essay, is the author of five novels, editor of the NY Times bestselling anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, and a longtime professor of writing.