The rational nature of the college admissions essay assignment is deceptive. On the surface, the assignment asks college applicants to answer one of several reasonable essay questions. However, admissions officers are not interested in the assigned question’s answer. Instead, they are interested in the answer to a different, unassigned question. The actual essay question is how will you, the applicant, benefit our university?
The way colleges view their applicants was revealed to me by an admissions insider named “Thomas.” Thomas had worked in the admissions department at a competitive northeastern university and would soon begin his next role as an assistant director of admissions at another university. We were discussing the college admission essay when he mentioned a strange term. “A Mr. Potato Head?” I asked. Thomas’s answer revealed an unspoken truth in the college admissions world.
Most of the year, admissions officers market their university to prospective applicants, boasting of how well their university serves its applicants. However, once the application deadlines arrive, the same officers discuss how each applicant might serve the university. In other words, behind closed doors, they view each applicant as a potential asset.
An entrepreneurial applicant may one day become wealthy and donate some of his or her riches back to the university. A curious and analytical applicant may one day conduct prize-winning research that elevates the university’s prestige. A vivacious applicant will infuse the campus with vitality and esprit, enriching the experience of the entire student body.
To identify those most likely to contribute to the university’s success, admissions officers like Thomas analyze over a thousand admissions essays each cycle. This is a tall task, especially considering the varying quality of the essays. After reading each essay, the officer rates it on several scales and then writes a few notes. These notes contain some of the informal labels that sometimes play an outsized role in the selection process.
Thomas shared some examples of these labels. “Natural leader” described the captain of a winning debate team. “Campus life contributor” described a managing member of the yearbook staff who also marched with the band at football games. “Niche-focused” and “thinker” described an applicant with a deep interest in the Roman Empire.
Conversely, unfavorable labels can undermine applicants. (The more pejorative labels are exchanged informally.) “Negative Nancys” wrote essays dripping with pessimism. “Jocks” flaunted their athletic accomplishments. And finally, there are the “Mr. Potato Heads.”
“Mr. Potato Heads” are applicants who describe all the ways they will grow and thrive once in a nurturing college environment. In other words, these applicants focus on their unrealized potential. The metaphor is meant to be amusing. The actual Mr. Potato Head is a toy with a featureless head whose personality emerges only as facial features are affixed. The Mr. Potato Head applicant is a seemingly featureless applicant whose value will emerge in a nourishing environment—at least one would hope. When pitted against well-defined applicants who convey their unique value, Mr. Potato Heads are usually rejected.
I find this unsettling. On the one hand, colleges and universities boast of how effectively they serve their applicants. Their big sell is their capacity to help students realize their potential. On the other hand, these very same institutions tend to reject the applicants who describe their potential—the Mr. Potato Head applicants. In other words, many applicants are rejected because they allow the university’s marketing pitch to inform how they market themselves.
To make sense of this troubling contradiction, one must understand that colleges are intensely competitive with one another. They compare themselves across various metrics, and the most critical metrics tend to reflect the student body rather than the institution. Colleges, therefore, select the applicants they feel will improve the college’s stature. This explains why successful essays communicate the discernible impact the applicant will have on a university’s success. In other words, successful essays answer the question, how will you, the applicant, benefit our university?