Gen Y Narcissistic (Part II)

I was intrigued by the comments to my recent post ‘Study: Gen Y Narcissistic.'

Commenter AAO asked whether I "honestly blame the admissions community for 'admissions essays that have become standard in the application process,'" a reference to the "Look At Me!" essays I wrote about in the post.

AAO continues:

"It would seem to me the admissions community (when applicants actually bother to talk with us) makes it very clear that we are interested in critical and creative thinking. Those "standard" essays don't get applicants very far, except to make it easier to reach a decision to deny an applicant who would not otherwise stand out at all.

My sense is that the trend you are discussing may be more accurate for undergraduate admissions than graduate admissions. I find it somewhat curious that you lump the two together in your criticism of the 'admissions community'. I don't at all feel a part of the world of undergraduate admissions, and suspect that most graduate school admissions officers are a bit less influenced by parental-funded summer programs that 'save the world'."

Contrary to AAO's experiences, I've seen over and over again how law school and business school applicants, like college applicants, get rewarded for selling themselves -- who they are and what they've done; what they're best at; where they've lived and what they've seen; what challenges and disadvantages they've faced and conquered; what marathons they've run and what mountain peaks they've summited; not to mention the inner-city school children they've inspired and the business problems they've tackled in their two or three decades of life. In short, "Look at Me!" That is not a phenomenon restricted to college applicants, and to say that admissions officers for two of the most popular graduate programs penalize a "Look at Me!" approach would be disingenuous.

The essay questions themselves give the game away. Most questions imply that abnormal or unique characteristics or experiences are preferred; others openly say so. Few, if any, ask applicants to "analyze" or "discuss" a subject (other than themselves), and the majority are focused on what kinds of life experiences the applicant will offer the incoming class ("bring to the table," in popular parlance) if admitted to school X.  The universal (but unspoken) prompt for all of the schools is really "What do you offer?" That may be the best thing to ask when choosing an incoming class, and of course it's the schools' prerogative to set whatever gatekeeping criteria they want, but their approach should not be confused with a search for "critical and creative thinking."

Some examples from law school applications:

Enclose a statement of about two pages describing important or unusual aspects of yourself not otherwise apparent in your application. (Stanford)

Such a statement may provide the Admissions Committee with information regarding such matters as: personal, family, or educational background; experiences and talents of special interest; reasons for applying to law school as they may relate to personal goals and professional expectations; or any other factors that you think should inform the Committee's evaluation of your candidacy for admission. (Columbia)

In reviewing the personal statement, the Committee looks for information that gives insight into the non-academic contribution you would make to the class. (Chicago)

The subject matter of the essay is up to you, but keep in mind that the reader will be seeking a sense of you as a person and as a potential student and graduate of Boalt Hall. Boalt Hall seeks to enroll a class with varied backgrounds and interests. If you wish, you may separately discuss how your interests, background, life experiences and perspectives would contribute to the diversity of the entering class. If applicable, you may also describe any disadvantages that may have adversely affected your past performance or that you have successfully overcome, including linguistic barriers or a personal or family history of cultural, educational or socioeconomic disadvantage. (Boalt Hall/Berkeley)

Our student body is one of Michigan Law School 's richest resources. Each entering class is composed of accomplished people who bring a spectrum of experiences and perspectives to our community. Your personal statement provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which you can contribute your talents and experiences. (Michigan)

The statement is your opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions decision maker and should include (1) what you think have been your significant personal experiences beyond what may be reflected in your academic transcripts and on your resume, and (2) your personal and career ambitions. (Duke)

Notice some of the words the applications use in the instructions for the personal statements: unique, ambition, diversity, and -- above all -- personal. These are not the sorts of prompts that are going to produce 2-page discussions of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or the Second Intifada or puzzles involving prime numbers or tensions between the First Amendment and hate-speech laws, or any kind of critical analysis of a subject other than oneself.

And that's no surprise -- it's much harder to evaluate thousands of pieces of critical thinking than it is to read thousands of warm and fuzzy essays about people's upbringing, activities, disadvantages, or multicultural experiences. How much easier it is on admissions officers to let a GMAT/LSAT/GRE score and inflated GPA stand in for critical thinking skills.

In fact, the only law school essay questions I can think of that expressly ask for examples of critical thinking are Yale's famous 250-word essay, which invites a discussion of a "personal anecdote, an academic subject, or current events" (meaning that the essay doesn't have to be about the applicant in any way other than to show how her mind works), and Chicago's essay questions for "hold" applicants, who are asked to write about a particular legal problem (an example from this year: "Should parents be held liable if their children willfully cause damage to the property of others?") Yale and Chicago are commonly thought of as the two most cerebral of the top law schools, so perhaps that's no accident.

The "optional essays" are even worse, and they arguably contribute even more to the "Look At Me!" phenomenon. As commenter Kevin points out in the original blog posting: "Since not everyone has the up front diversity characteristics schools may be looking for (or in some cases holding admissions quotas for), there is pressure for many applicants to find or even invent personal aspects that make them "diverse" and thus special." Here are some examples of diversity essay questions. You be the judge:

Describe how your background or experiences will contribute to or enhance the diversity of the Penn Law community (e.g. based on your culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ideology, age, socioeconomic status, academic background, employment experience, etc.). (Penn)

Describe an experience you've had that speaks to the problems and possibilities of diversity in an educational or work setting. (Michigan)

Because we believe that diversity enriches the educational experience of all our students, Duke Law School seeks to admit students from a variety of academic, cultural, social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. If you choose to submit this essay, tell us more about your particular life experiences with an emphasis on how the perspectives that you have acquired would contribute to the intellectual and social life of the Law School. (Duke)

So even when the applications ask for contributions to the "intellectual" life at a school, they're asking in the context of a diversity essay, which lends itself to a list of characteristics and personal experiences, not a demonstration of intellectual insight or achievement. 

Business school application essays are similarly focused on personal achievements and successes. To their credit, they also ask about weaknesses, ethical challenges, and teamwork, and even more to their credit they ask much more succinctly than law schools, but the focus is still very much on "me, me, me." Some sample essay questions:

What is most important to you and why? (Stanford)

What are your three most substantial accomplishments, and why do you view them as such? (Harvard)

Each of our applicants is unique. Describe how your background, values, academics, activities and/or leadership skills will enhance the experience of other Kellogg students. (Kellogg)

Describe an impact you've had on an individual, group or organization. How has this experience been valuable to you or others? (Wharton)

Those kinds of questions are the norm, not the exception.

Business school offers more of the same in the classroom. For example, for a course on Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, students are asked to conduct a "Reflected Best-Self Feedback Exercise" (for real!) expressly designed to focus on and reveal each student's strengths. Not a bad exercise for future managers and CEOs to go through, but more of the same conditioning that causes people to think constantly in terms of me, myself, and I, and why I'm so special.

And so I continue to defend Generation Y, because they are simply responding to powerful incentives created by even more powerful gatekeepers.

I'll also add that I'm absolutely complicit in this phenomenon. As an admissions officer, I stuck with the same kinds of application essay questions (boy, would I do things differently today), and in my current role I encourage applicants to write those kinds of essays because they work. It's what admissions officers want, and it's what they reward.