In the spring of 2017, less than six months into the heightened political and racial tensions of the Trump administration, a high school senior from Princeton, New Jersey, received national media attention for subverting the form of one of our most underappreciated literary genres: the college application essay. In response to the clichéd but nevertheless revealing prompt, “What matters to you and why?” 17-year-old Ziad Ahmed filled a blank page with a single social justice hashtag, typing it out a total of 100 times: #BlackLivesMatter.
Ultimately, Ahmed earned a coveted acceptance to Stanford, where less than 5 percent of the university’s nearly 45,000 applicants are admitted annually. The essay was only one component of Ahmed’s multipart application, complementing his AP courses, SAT scores, letters of recommendation, and GPA. But the coverage from mainstream outlets intriguingly focused on what amounted to a feat of creative ingenuity and foresight: a young writer’s savvy reading of the presumed tastes of his target audience, in this case the older, liberal, and highly educated admissions readers of an ultra-elite university.
Inspiring envy, admiration, analysis, and criticism—at levels that even most professional writers will never achieve in their lifetime—Ahmed’s essay shows how “the application essay” occupies a nexus of fascination not just in the obsessive, hypercompetitive world of admissions but also in our application-saturated culture at large. In the end, it almost seems insignificant that Ziad Ahmed chose to go to Yale.
Beyond the college admissions essay (CAE)’s function as a point of entry, what makes it matter so much to prospective undergrads and their parents?1 The unfortunate truth may be that they are reacting to a proliferation of the generic elements of the CAE across all strata of the postindustrial knowledge economy. In fact, composing an undergraduate CAE has become an initiation ritual into what we might call “the cycle of perpetual application”: each successive stage of an individual’s personal, professional, and/or artistic advancement depends on the fraught composition (and unlikely approval) of some sort of narrativized, self-reflective application essay.
“Perpetual application” has filtered into contemporary literature, too. Indeed, the CAE seems noteworthy because the overwhelming majority of published writers have received an undergraduate degree. The most successful writers of CAEs, as research by composition scholar Karen Surman Paley has shown, “are able to compromise with a kind of rhetorical counterparadox that precludes surrender of power and that balances the forces that call for self-exposure and those that ‘devour’ the results.” Much the same can be said for today’s writers of literary fiction. Contemporary autofictional novels are sometimes indistinguishable from a personal essay; and one’s identity as a “writer” increasingly depends on the financial, creative, and reputational support of teaching in a university setting. Given these trends, it may be constructive to examine recent books—specifically, Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel Admission—in which CAEs and the application process are explicitly rendered elements of the concept, prose, and plot. Together, Land’s and Korelitz’s books promise readers they will reveal both the subjectivities of successful applicants and the obscure objectivities of admissions officers, offering a tantalizing peek behind the curtain to readers seeking to better their chances (and their children’s chances) of garnering that longed-for acceptance.
Is the CAE a useful tool for understanding ongoing transformations in literature, academia, and publishing? How have memoirs and novels integrated the form, language, posturing, and thought processes it has imposed? Perhaps most importantly, do these impositions engender writing and scholarship that—even at their most transgressive or radical—perpetuate careerism, expand institutional power, and hasten the marginalization of the humanities? By interrogating how different genres perceive literature’s place within the university, we might expose the entrenched bureaucratic systems determining two of the most vital questions for both college admissions counselors and contemporary literary scholars: Who gets in, and why?
Required Writing, Required Reading
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
—Common Application Essay Prompt, 2023
A fierce ambition to join the culture of college is a main driver of Stephanie Land’s Maid (2019). The bestselling memoir chronicles Land’s years as a young single mother cleaning houses and struggling to navigate America’s underfunded, convoluted support system for domestic abuse survivors. And it illustrates what the university represents to the aspiring student-writer, diverted from the traditional tracks to college:
It was during that first summer in my late twenties with Jamie that the University of Montana in Missoula began wooing me with postcards for their creative writing program. I imagined myself inside the photos, walking through the pastoral landscapes of Montana, somewhere beneath the quotes from Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” scrawled above in scripted fonts: “… but with Montana it is love,” he’d written simply. They were words that brought me to the “Big Sky Country” of Montana, in my search for a home in the next phase of my life.
This passage captures well how the propagandistic brochure materials circulated by colleges and universities can color the perspectives of potential applicants, a conditioning process that equates the idealized quads and stately libraries of the campus with the symbology of canonical fiction. The sales pitch is accessible yet cultured, and written in elegantly “scripted fonts.” Allegedly, the road to becoming a celebrated, socially engaged writer in the mold of Steinbeck runs through the liberal arts syllabi, English seminars, and writing workshops of the university.
In Maid, Land’s initial abandonment of college ambitions goes hand in hand with foregoing her literary ambitions. As a committed reader of fiction, she intuitively understands the networking and accreditation pipeline connecting universities and the publishing world. Her acknowledgment of this pipeline gets literalized to an unsubtle degree in an early chapter, when Land decides to keep her baby, continue her relationship with the child’s father, and remain in her hometown in Washington State. “I was a mother now,” Land writes. “I would honor that responsibility for the rest of my life. I got up, and on my way out, I ripped up my college application and went to work.”
Since adapted into a popular Netflix series, Maid commendably exhibits the normalized indifference, imposed scarcity, and verbal and physical abuse that lower-income Americans must endure to gain temporary, highly contingent access to basic necessities like food stamps and shelter. However, the memoir and its adaptation consistently position the prospect of Land attending the University of Montana as the short-term escape from, and the long-term antidote to, the hardships and stigma of poverty. (As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her foreword to the paperback edition, “It’s hardly a spoiler to say that this book has a happy ending.”)
To Land’s credit, this optimism is a consequence of the strictures of the memoir genre. But while these constraints lend Maid its immediacy, pathos, and political thrust, they also pressure the writing to corroborate a narrative that colleges still provide upward social mobility and intellectual enrichment. From this angle, the book becomes a kind of expanded CAE, a carefully camouflaged brochure, or a bit of both.
Either way, the memoir acts as a chronicle of Land’s entry into the cycle of perpetual application. In applying, all her past trials are reconstituted as worthwhile, because they afforded her access to the societal markers that can purge someone of the telltale signs of poverty (a degree, daytime TV appearances, a published book).
At the time of Maid’s publication, total student loan debt exceeded $1.6 trillion in the United States, a figure that casts the memoir’s aspirational view of college and creative writing in a curious light. We can see how Maid’s deployment of the CAE’s form and content—a self-reflective narrative of linear progress, “polished” and “considered” prose, a willingness to recount personal trauma to court the sympathies of the reader—presents the university in a manner that obscures the momentous costs of higher education. (One of the book’s most clever sections recognizes how the byzantine paperwork of applying for food stamps, subsidized housing, and quality daycare functions as training for Land’s college application, suggesting these processes exist on a single continuum.)
Maid movingly dramatizes the struggles of domestic laborers, service industry employees, and social workers. Yet it makes the same implicit concession as every CAE: Whatever the costs may be, going to college is worth it.
How to Share Your Story
“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
—Common Application Essay Prompt, 2023
The CAE, the culture of college, and the cycle of perpetual application are integral formal and thematic components of Admission (2009), Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel about a veteran admissions reader at Princeton. Koretlitz inverts the student-centric campus novel by focusing on the (relatively) more mature interior life and higher-stakes romantic entanglements of an adult protagonist, Portia Nathan, a woman whose personal and professional home is the campus and the college town, permanently.
Though Korelitz did work as an admissions reader at Princeton, the affordances of literary fiction allow her to stage critiques of the university that feel slightly less possible in Maid. We meet Portia just before she begins traveling to host a series of informational presentations for high school students around New England. The nuanced challenge of her job is “winnowing the stupendously remarkable from the vast field of the normally remarkable.” The novel depicts the conundrum in which prestige gatekeepers like Portia find themselves: they achieve the momentary fulfillment of admitting the occasional student outside the traditional structures of wealth, power, and status, yet such an admission only comes to serve as a stepping stone for that same student to assimilate into and reify those exclusionary, essentially unchanged structures.
In many ways, Admission qualifies as what literary scholars like Janet Wilson, in a 2017 article on the writing of Mohsin Hamid, refers to as a “how-to novel,” an aesthetic work that doubles as a “guide in orientating the reader to the broadening horizons of global technology.” Admission explores this how-to dynamic at the start of each chapter, with selections from different fictional CAEs: reflections from the descendants of Holocaust survivors, domestic abuse victims saved by a private school scholarship, and a student of color who feels out of place at Andover. It is implied that these passages—which depart in prose style and compositional ability from the close third-person exposition of the novel proper—are selections from the stack of applications that Portia is always lugging from place to place. This inexhaustible pile provides opportunities for Korelitz to elaborate instructively on the features that distinguish (or disqualify) a CAE. As much as it demonstrates how to write a competent novel, Admission offers a step-by-step lesson in a no less important skill for writers: learning how to read like an admissions reader.
Distilled in Portia’s critiques of these fake CAEs is the old Hemingway adage—evoked in writing classes of every level—to “write what you know.” Anyone reading Admission for a firmer grasp of the holistic application process might come away from it understanding, in a not-unproductive way, that they shouldn’t over-rely on content or language too remote from their experience. Instead, the novel prompts readers to question ideas of the “acceptable” applicant and the “good” writer, showing how they relate to another key concept from scholar Karen Surman Paley: compliance.
By interrogating how different genres perceive literature’s place within the university, we might expose the entrenched bureaucratic systems determining two of the most vital questions for both college admissions counselors and contemporary literary scholars: Who gets in, and why?
What makes an applicant attractive to Portia the character and Paley the researcher isn’t merely that they’re the best pianist or the sharpest mathematician. Instead, the ideal applicant is the person who expresses promise, intelligence, and a willingness to comply: first to the imposed conventions of the CAE, then to the rigid norms and fraught compromises of the neoliberal university. Here, the CAE reveals its true purpose not when its generic hallmarks are artfully realized or transcended, but when its facades of meritocracy and objectivity fall away—and the hard truths of subjectivity, inequality, and nepotism are acknowledged.
For aspiring college students as well as aspiring writers, the cycle of perpetual application churns on because it conditions applicants to yearn for and prize the chance to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn, or for writers to be exploited to create. As Koreltiz writes, “The system, as far as [Portia] was concerned, was not about the applicant at all. It was about the institution.”
“What’s Your Idea of a Perfect Sunday?”
Why has the CAE become a “real and overwhelming feature of every college-bound senior’s life”? asked Sarah Myers McGinty, in a 1995 issue of The English Journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English. The answer, according to McGinty, is that “the true challenge of the application essay is the demand it makes on young writers to think objectively about subjective experience.”
To advance another theory: The CAE is endlessly interpretable and fluid; it fluctuates between the inconsequential periphery and the true center of the application processes of competitive colleges as well as prestige positions. And this lack of a fixed form is the point, because it prevents applicants from thinking objectively about something direly important: the minuscule number of opportunities available to the creative class in the 21st century.
For aspiring and established writers of every genre, part of their identity now includes choosing to ignore the astounding unlikelihood of acceptance to a literary magazine, fellowship, artist’s residency, or teaching job with percentage acceptance rates many magnitudes lower than institutions like Princeton and Stanford. Novels like Admission, with an appeal grounded in the demystification of admissions processes, demand our consideration because they highlight how applications and CAEs have become a “real and overwhelming” permanent feature of life for writers, readers, and nonreaders alike.
For a prospective college student, filling out an application once inspired fear of the new and unfamiliar. Now a greater fear may reside in a rote absence of novelty: a resignation to the fact that the quality of an application can matter more than the abilities or quality of the applicant who wrote it. Entire educations and careers are spent chasing an acceptance that will in all likelihood never come.
Two years before he elected to attend Yale instead of Stanford, Ziad Ahmed was the youngest guest in attendance at the 2015 Iftar Dinner at the White House. During his speech introducing Ahmed, President Obama relied heavily on the jargon of the CAE. “As a Bangladeshi-American growing up in New Jersey,” Obama said, “[Ahmed] saw early on that there was not enough understanding in the world. So two years ago, he founded Redefy, a website to push back against harmful stereotypes by encouraging teens like him … to share their stories. (Applause.)”
On the Redefy website today, the About page hinges on similar language and a faith in education-based solutions: “At the heart of our mission is the belief that all hate stems from ignorance and that, through conversation and education, acceptance will prevail.”
Would higher rates of educational attainment eliminate hatred, bias, and inequality, or are they an unacknowledged fuel of those social ills? If we applied the resources and energies devoted to the cycle of perpetual application to remedying the shortcomings of our institutions, could we move toward an educational system and cultural marketplace with less competition and exploitation, and more creative freedom and collaboration?
On a long enough timeline, progress may be possible, but don’t get your hopes up. Your application to change the status quo would be rejected before it was even read.
- The debate and scrutiny inspired by Ahmed’s college application essay (CAE) were by-products of long-standing socioeconomic transformations within and without the American university system, many originating as far back as World War II, when census figures show that less than 6 percent of the domestic population held a four-year degree. By 2020, that figure would stand at more than 36 percent, a sixfold increase whose acceleration is partly traceable to a pair of inflection points during the 1980s. ↩