College Essay Questions and What Teens Know

When I was applying to colleges, one school’s essay about a specific choice I’d made that had significantly impacted my life or the life of someone else. My response boiled down to: “I’m 17. What choices have I made of any real significance? I can’t even choose what to write about for a college admissions essay–this is the only essay option given. I still hope my biggest choices and changes are yet to come.” So I was pretty interested in this article at the Atlantic, which questions if college application essays expect too much from students:

“There are innumerable sites that offer advice for college applicants, and almost all of them involve admissions experts pleading with students to “be genuine.” But I don’t blame a 17-year-old girl for thinking her authentic answer to “What makes you happy?” won’t get her into college. My honest response—which probably would have involved Ben and Jerry’s and a new episode of Gossip Girl—certainly would not have gotten me into school. It’s not reasonable to tell a 17-year-old kid to “Be yourself!” while asking him to evaluate the meaning of knowledge in the 21st century or to discuss philosophical theories.”

As a college applicant, I felt largely the same. It was hard to be genuine when you knew there was also a right answer–one that doesn’t necessarily involve ice cream and television.

But reading this now, as a YA writer, I want to give teens more credit than that. Maybe it’s not fair to expect them to have the answers of the universe, but they’re not solely made happy by ice cream and Gossip Girl. They know the joy of riding in the car with friends with the windows rolled down; the pain of not really being friends with anyone in your senior class; the very real anxieties and doubts about the future. Teens are smart and thoughtful and do have real, emotional experiences. Why shouldn’t we expect them to think deep thoughts?

I think there’s a middle ground–questions that don’t necessitate major life experiences but still allow teens to think beyond the everyday. Questions that let them be creative and thoughtful about their own lives, even if that means being really mundane. Questions that don’t have a “right” answer.

Do you think college admissions essays are unfair or valid for the average teen?

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