In theory, the American college-admissions essay is a way for underprivileged students to distinguish themselves in a process that —with its emphasis on standardized test scores and extracurricular activities—otherwise tends to favor the privileged. In practice, though, the admissions essay may be just another way privilege reinforces itself. According to new paper from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, “essays have a stronger correlation to reported household income than SAT scores.” It may not be entirely surprising, when you think about it: How exactly would basing admissions on the ability to write (or, alas, pay someone to write) a polished essay not end up further advantaging students with involved, well-off parents?

Yet the idea that the admissions essay helps level the playing field has a certain understandable appeal, even—or even especially—to privileged students themselves. Writing about his experiences teaching at the University of Chicago, Blake Smith has argued that elite students, who by and large lead comfortable pre-college lives, tend now to arrive at college trained in presenting themselves as having overcome hardship. Where the idea had once been to demonstrate “affability,” it is now about reciting a “woke” personal narrative of having conquered systemic obstacles. The college preparatory system, Smith writes, has “the apparent aim of making a class of leaders who are disconnected from any real solidarity to others but unable to think for themselves, combining the worst qualities of individualism and conformism.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Is the new performative approach to college-admissions essays you’ve documented at Tablet ironically even more committed to the idea of meritocracy than older approaches, given the emerging demand that applicants emphasize disadvantages and ultimately present themselves as self-made?

Blake Smith: From the performance of biography that people like my students have and perform, it is really difficult to question meritocracy. It’s funny, because when they’re thinking about the broadest social issues, they’re very aware of inequality. And they think that it’s bad. They think that generally speaking, many people are in unfair positions. Most of [my students] are left liberal. But when you get them thinking about specific instances of competition, then it is real and works. Because otherwise, how could they explain their own life trajectories?

Part of what I wanted to think through in this essay is, it should seem to be the case that if we’re really interested in egalitarianism or social justice, or whatever particular expression of that, that intuition that things are deeply unfair in our society, that should be an obstacle to positing oneself as a meritorious subject who deserves whatever they get on the basis of their own talent and hard work. But they have found all of these strategies for reconciling the two in a really powerful way. These strategies weren’t invented by each of them individually. These are prepared for them through the essay writing industry, and in elite cultural discourse.

[Admissions essays] are written by at least three or four people. Often, there’s someone whose job at the [high] school is to work on the essays, there is an English teacher who is assigning personal essays as part of their class, and there might be an outside coach. And then parents are also looking at these.

Bovy: You wrote that the new goal in admissions essays is for “others [to] forget [the applicant] is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.” First, I want to ask about the forgetting part. Do you think writing these essays, and constructing these narratives, prevents students from having realistic assessments of how many advantages they did grow up with—and generally of where they fit in society?

Smith: I don’t want to overstate the degree to which these essays are accurate self-representations of students. And I don’t think they’re even accurate representations of how students think about themselves. They’ve usually been written by at least three or four people. Often, there’s someone whose job at the [high] school is to work on the essays, there is an English teacher who is assigning personal essays as part of their class, and there might be an outside coach. Parents are also looking at these. It’s a product of a committee, or a collective negotiation. These practices of confession don’t necessarily express how you’re really thinking about the world, but I think they do end up shaping it.

For subscribers

Join to read on and have full access to The Signal, including all articles, art, and our entire archive.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in