A 12th-grader wrote a college admissions essay about wanting to pursue a career in oceanography. Let’s call her Isabella. A few months ago, we edited it in my classroom during lunch. The writing was good, but plenty of 17-year-olds fantasize about swimming with whales. Her essay was distinctive for another reason: Her career goals were not the highlight of the essay. They were just a means of framing her statement of purpose, something surprisingly few personal statements actually get around to making.
The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers–other minority students from low-income communities. She’d been encouraged to think of college foremost as a path to socioeconomic mobility. Since elementary school, teachers had rhapsodized about the opportunities that four years of higher education could unlock. Administrators had rattled off statistics about the gulf in earnings between college graduates and those with only high-school diplomas. She’d been told to think about her family, their hopes for her, what they hadn’t had and what she could have if she remained diligent. She’d been promised that good grades and a ticket to a good college would lead to a good job, one that would guarantee her financial independence and enable her to give back to those hard-working people who had placed their faith in her.
Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic. My guess is that only students like her ever have to hear it.