Volume 17, Number 6
Who Needs More Help with the College Application Essay?
Missing Persons, continued
At the beginning of their study of affirmative action and the practice of college admission, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok evoke Mark Twain's image of the mighty river featured in Life on the Mississippi as a metaphor for the process of education, a process that is meant to bring the flow of talent into the larger sea of opportunity, employment, and success. Bowen and Bok's river is a suitable metaphor for the college admissions process as well, a journey with its own set of shoals, surprises, and challenges. Among those challenges is that 8 1/2" x 11" blank space provided for the application essay or personal statement.
The application essay has been a part of college admissions since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II, evolving from direct queries like "Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates?" to more eccentric requests like "What is your favorite food?" (Princeton University) or "You have just published your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217" (University of Pennsylvania). Although not every college requires an application essay, narrative prose figures into the admissions process at many schools. The evaluation of the essay may contribute to how a college differentiates among its top applicants. Or it may determine whether a borderline candidate has the necessary basic skills. Colleges use essays for different purposes, but essays matter at large, small, public, private, selective, and nonselective schools.
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