Where’s Moby?

Crabby wishes college application essays had more Melville in them…

No element of essay writing, college application-based or not, is more disturbing to Crabby than the crushingly literal interpretation of essay questions (known in current parlance as “prompts”). He would like to think that a question of any kind would inspire a young essay writer to flights of elegant fancy, but he would be doomed to eternal disappointment. No matter where one turns, it seems that the great literary devices–metaphor, simile, metonymy, synechdoche, irony, humor, and all the other tools of the great essayist–have been thoroughly eradicated from the high school curriculum.

There may be schools out there that teach the essays of Jonathan Swift, Poe, E.B. White, Twain, and others, but if so, the lessons are lost on young writers as they approach the college application. In fact, it seems to Crabby that the prospect of making even the tiniest mistake of tone or outlook can petrify the brightest student. One very sharp young man of his acquaintance approached with furrowed brow not long ago for help divining the meaning of the following, which, as Crabby’s readers will note, is not even an essay question: “Have you ever tossed around a(n) 1. hot potato___ 2. Frisbee___ 3. idea___?”

“What does it mean? he asked. “What do they want?” The question was optional and clearly marked as being “just for fun,” which panicked this student even more. Surely there was some malevolent reason for the question. Crabby was tempted to do his best Vincent Price imitation but resisted. “It’s just an attempt to lighten things up,” Crabby responded. But that made it worse. The young man could not believe that he was being asked a question that had no “meaning.” It took half an hour of persuasion to convince him that nothing bad would happen no matter what he did with that particular part of the application.

In this case, one might say there was almost too much interpretation, a case of over-thinking bad enough to cause a migraine (in Crabby, at least). And one couldn’t accuse this particular student of not having any imagination; it was clearly running wild, like a fox trying to figure out why that delicious-looking piece of squirrel was dangling so oddly above that rather tidy pile of leaves. But he had lost his sense of humor, his normally relaxed and casual persona in the shadow of this minor question. He could not allow himself to think it really was all in fun.

That level of interpretation, even paranoid interpretation, seems to fail students when they attempt to answer any of the questions on a college application. (Never mind that many of them seem never to have been taught how to write an essay at all–at least not an interesting one.) Crabby tries to instill in his charges a sense that they can have fun with essays, and that, in fact, they don’t have to be “essays” at all in the five-paragraphs-and-you’re-done mode. But it seldom takes, and when it does it’s almost always undone by parents whose own college application paranoia seems much closer to the surface than one might suppose.

Asked to take a stand on an issue of the day, students strain to see both sides of the coin; asked to describe a person who has inspired them, they inevitably choose grandpappy or gran, who inexplicably seem to have survived from the early twentieth century creating fishing rods out of twigs or baking pies in a wood burning stove. Telling the admission committee something about themselves usually means presenting themselves as bland perfectionists who can’t bear to see anyone being cruel to a lobster.

It rarely occurs to our young essayists that they might take issue with the question itself or create a satirical mini-biography of the friend who taught them the meaning of the word “hypocrite.” It’s all sweetness and light, with a lesson at the end. Even essayists who describe some of the most horrible home lives get done in, often, by the need to wrap things up in a neat bow. The rare student who could challenge the premise of a question or turn it upside down always got Crabby’s attention, as would one who could leave off the bow.

Crabby has read only a limited number of essays responding to some of the cruelly challenging applications questions asked by the University of Chicago, an institution known mostly for one of its faculty member’s having found despair in the early works of Steve Martin, but he can remember several responses from very bright students being reared in its shadow to the question, “How do you feel about Wednesdays?”:

“Huh?”                                                                                                                                           “Well, I’ve always liked Wednesdays because I don’t have as many classes then.”                                                                             “It’s a day in the middle of the week.”                                                                                       “It’s that much closer to the weekend.”

And remember, these were the smart kids!

A failure to look beyond the lumpish thing-ness of Wednesdays doomed them to soddenly crouching next to the corpse of an idea, rather than considering that “Wednesday” might be a stand-in for “being in the middle,” a vestige of Norse mythology, part of an arbitrary way to divide time, and so on. Any possibility of getting pleasure out of wrestling with this concept had long ago been doused by earnestly literal approaches to literature and life and a paucity of acquaintance with symbolism.

Many years ago, Crabby created an application essay question for his institution that he thought would practically compel an interesting answer. It was

Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people,” but Streisand sang, “People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world.” Discuss.

Partly this was in self-defense, having been bored to death by the earnest, gray and unimaginative prose he had read in years past. He longed for some humor or biting commentary. This question seemed to have everything: high/pop culture, clashing views of human nature, opportunities to put Streisand in a room with no exit or Sartre in a dress, but did any of that happen? Sadly, no.

What few students took the bait mostly wrote essays along the lines of “Sometimes Sartre is right and sometimes Streisand is.” In revenge, Crabby’s colleagues made him read every essay that took on this topic; Crabby himself managed to work through a (very nice) bottle of Scotch fairly quickly that particular year. One response did stand out, however; its opening sentence was “Hell is people who need people.” Now that, Crabby can get behind.

Of course, it hurt Crabby more than a little that his carefully crafted topic failed to inspire equally crafty responses, but when the University of Chicago gets equally boring responses to its questions, there must be more to it than that. (It’s worth noting here that the most diabolical aspect of the U of C’s essay questions is that they are formulated by their freshmen. This year’s most evil topic: “Don’t write about reverse psychology.”) One can assume, from the continued existence of its freshman class, that many applicants do, in fact, answer their questions well.

Crabby began by blaming high schools for not teaching writing very well, but one should also see the college application essay as a Hummer barreling down a dark country road toward a sweet innocent deer trapped in its headlights. Even the most facile essayist might be forgiven for writing about her ACL tear instead of Sartre. Still, one can hope that someday the Hummer will flip over and the deer will scamper away to feed on the green shoots of imagination and produce…Oh, never mind.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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