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Volume 17, Number 6
November/December 2001

Missing Persons

Who Needs More Help with the College Application Essay?


At the beginning of their study of affirmative action and the practice of college admission, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok evoke Mark Twain's image of the mighty river featured in Life on the Mississippi as a metaphor for the process of education, a process that is meant to bring the flow of talent into the larger sea of opportunity, employment, and success. Bowen and Bok's river is a suitable metaphor for the college admissions process as well, a journey with its own set of shoals, surprises, and challenges. Among those challenges is that 8 1/2" x 11" blank space provided for the application essay or personal statement.

The application essay has been a part of college admissions since the explosion of college enrollment after World War II, evolving from direct queries like "Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates?" to more eccentric requests like "What is your favorite food?" (Princeton University) or "You have just published your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217" (University of Pennsylvania). Although not every college requires an application essay, narrative prose figures into the admissions process at many schools. The evaluation of the essay may contribute to how a college differentiates among its top applicants. Or it may determine whether a borderline candidate has the necessary basic skills. Colleges use essays for different purposes, but essays matter at large, small, public, private, selective, and nonselective schools.

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Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    S. Bell-Rose. “What It Takes: A Look at Black Achievers.” College Board Review 187 (Winter 1998-9), 8-19.

    W.G. Bowen and D. Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    H. Breland, B. Bridgeman, and M. Fowles. Writing Assessment in Admission to Higher Education: Review and Framework. New York: CEEB, 1999.

    College Board. "Reaching the Top." Report of the College Board’s Task Force on Minority High Achievement. New York: CEEB, 1999.

    P.M. McDonough. Choosing Colleges: How Social Class and Schools Structure Opportunity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

    S. McGinty. “A Shoal Along the Way: The College Application Essay and Issues of Access.”  Unpublished report for the Multicultural Institute for Advanced Thinking and Practice in Admission of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, August 2001.

    S. McGinty. “Why Are Students Stumped by the Application Essay?” Chronicle of Higher Education (January 5, 1994): A64.

    M.T. Nettles. “Assessing Progress in Minority Access and Achievement in American Higher Education.” ECS Working Papers: State Policy and Assessment in Higher Education. Denver: ECS Distribution Center, 1991.

    M.T. Nettles, et al. “The Role of Affirmative Action in Expanding Student Access at Selective Colleges and Universities.” In Hopwood, Bakke, and Beyond: Diversity on Our Nation’s Campuses, ed. Darren L. Bakst. Washington, DC: AACRAO, 1998.

    M.J. Smith. “Playing the College Choice Game on an Unlevel Field.” Journal of College Admission 171 (Spring 2001): 16-22.

    L. Sparks. College Admissions: A Selected Annotated Bibliography. Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1993.