A Third More Opulent…

Crabby thinketh colleges shouldst reconsider their supplements…

College application season is once again in full swing and with that comes all the nonsense that goes along with it, especially in the realm of the college essay. More specifically, it’s the essay “supplement” (most often associated with the Common Application) that elicits most of the BS quotient in a student’s application, primarily because for most colleges the topic is some version of “Why do you love us?”

Now, there are plenty of reasons one might love a particular college or university: its starry eyes or dimples, its blemish-free skin or ebony tresses, for example, but the basics can usually be covered in a few sentences that the writer can only hope won’t sound too smarmy or too similar to the colleges’ own breathless self-promotion. Some colleges complain about just that, but Crabby’s not sure what you can expect if you’ve pounded an applicant with mailings and emails and tweets with your various catchphrases constantly part of the campaign. (And just to let you know, they all sound exactly the same, reeking of desperation, wallflower flop sweat, and institutional inferiority complexes. Also, has anyone ever noticed that colleges at the top of the pecking order don’t have slogans or mission statements, except in Latin?)

Crabby always suggests that students have a real reason for liking a college, even if it’s not their first choice, but for the most part, they end up sounding like Goneril and Regan, Lear’s oldest daughters in King Lear.

To gain a third of his kingdom, or what we can for our purposes call “admission” to their dream of power, they must answer Lear’s demand:

…Tell me, my daughters                                                                                                              (Since now we will divest us both of rule,                                                                           Interest of territory, cares of state),                                                                                        Which of you shall we say doth love us most,                                                                          That we our largest bounty may extend                                                                               Where nature doth with merit challenge. (I, i)

Goneril and Regan have clearly figured the old man out and know how to get their shares. Just tell him what he wants to hear and you’ll get what you want! And Lear is pathetically vulnerable to their blandishments. Goneril goes first:

Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;                                                           Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;                                                                                Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;                                                                                     No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;                                                                  As much as child e’er loved, or father found;                                                                                 A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.                                                              Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (I, 1)

You love us better than eyesight?? You’re in, kid! Like a credulous admission dean, Lear takes the bait and she gets a third of the kingdom. Goneril’s oily blandishments make him quiver with delight; she clearly loves him pretty damn much. This is going pretty well! He turns to Regan to see what she has to say. Will she gain admission, too? Well, she’s clearly been to an independent counselor better than Goneril’s:

I am made of that self mettle as my sister,                                                                               And prize me at her worth. In my true heart                                                                                 I find she names my very deed of love;                                                                                        Only she comes too short, that I profess                                                                               Myself an enemy to all other joys                                                                                          Which the most precious square of sense possesses,                                                              And find I am alone felicitate                                                                                                         In your dear Highness’ love. (I, i)

Regan sees Goneril’s bet and ups the ante, actually telling Lear she hates everything else except love for him; that’s all the brings her joy. She hates everything that’s not your college! That’s love!

So here are our students, asked by many Lears how much they love them. What are they supposed to answer? Crabby always reminds his charges they’d better have a decent answer at least, if they can’t pull a Goneril. It’s like when a boy- or girlfriend turns to you and asks, “Why do you love me?” You’d better have a good, quick answer, and it had better not be “Because you’re a girl/boy.” You’d better pledge some troth right there along the lines of “Because of your twinkly eyes, your sexy walk, and your sense of humor.” And that’s just for starters. Same for colleges.

No student in his right mind would answer what Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, takes her turn:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave                                                                                                My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty                                                                    According to my bond, no more nor less. (I, 1)

Well, she loves Lear as she should, and that’s the size of it. Incredulous that Cordelia can’t come up with something better to get her share of the kingdom, Lear gives her another chance, but she just makes things worse:

Good my lord,                                                                                                                                You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I                                                                               Return those duties back as are right fit,                                                                                  Obey you, love you, and most honor you.                                                                                   Why have my sisters husbands if they say                                                                                  They love you all? (I, i)

For Cordelia, love, honor, and obedience speak for themselves; they don’t need wretched excess. In contrast to her sisters, Cordelia presents herself to Lear simply and as she is, not as a conniving applicant who knows how to smother an old king in sweet-smelling merde. But Lear can’t see the depth of her sincerity, fooled by her sisters’ nonsense. Yet, as we learn later in the play, she’s the one who truly does love him. Her sisters were just in it to get the goodies.

It’s hard not to think about the  super-prepped college applicant who knows all the angles and can find the right buttons to push and the dedicated student from a more modest background who has a sincere love of education and desire to learn but has only that to express in an application. Remember, though, that Lear brought all this on himself by asking the question in the first place and expecting to get sincere responses when the stakes were so high.

Crabby thinks it’s actually fairly easy to spot the Regans and Gonerils in the piles of applications, but it’s harder to find the Cordelias. They don’t slobber about how they’ve wanted to go to Ketchup U. since they were 12 or how they’ve heard you can work with Nobel scientists as freshmen; they would simply like to offer their hearts and minds, their service and dedication, to a campus that will have them. They are refreshingly honest about their desires and motivations, and unable or unwilling to say what they don’t feel. They won’t repeat what you want them to hear, but unlike the Regans and Gonerils, they’ll offer talents, abilities, and dedication much more valuable than shiny but empty words. It takes more work to find that out, but it’s worth it in the end.

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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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