Shakespeare’s King Lear requires each of his daughters to profess her love for him. Their share of his kingdom, he tells them, depends on how well they choose their words. Cordelia, whom he loves the most, refuses to flatter her father. Lear offers a warning: “Mend your speech a little / Lest you may mar your fortunes.” But she doesn’t, and her decision leads to the loss of her portion of the kingdom, her relationship with her father, and more.
I could not help thinking of Lear’s misguided request for flattery as I watched my son, a high school senior, confront one supplementary essay question after the next when he applied to college. “Supplements” are questions that individual colleges and universities require candidates to answer in addition to completing the Common App. Whereas the Common App asks students to reveal what they know about themselves, the supplements ask them to reveal what they know about the schools. In unyielding succession, each school probes: “What makes us the right match for you?” If the Common App, in permitting candidates to submit one application to multiple schools, seeks to ease the process for applicants, supplementary essay questions seem to have been created to undo that ease.
“Why us?” each supplement asks. “What is our school to you?” Show us how well you know us. Repeat what we say about ourselves but do it with fresh language. Be natural and authentic but also efficient — you have 200 words. We promise to give your application seven minutes. Go.
Given the slim odds of acceptance at many of the schools on a typical candidate’s list, what choice does an applicant have other than to apply broadly and to tell each school that their school matters the most, that theirs is the perfect match?
I don’t dispute the importance of learning about the college or university where you are applying. Understanding how big a school is, how easy or hard it might be to connect with faculty members or advisers, how complex the social scene is — all matter and can ease the transition from high school to college and help students find their footing.
That said, what can a high school student really understand about a college or university’s offerings? How can they know how they will make use of said offerings if they have yet to decide on a particular course of study?
It is easy to second-guess nearly any proposed answer to the “Why us?” question. “I loved the vibe when I walked through the student center,” my son wrote. So the school calls to you because of where you would eat lunch?
“I could see myself playing ultimate Frisbee on those beautiful quads!” It’s not summer camp, my friend.
“I have dreamed about your school since I started watching March Madness at age 5.” Great, but this is not ESPN.
The schools ask applicants for authenticity, but how authentic are those glossy brochures and slick websites? In the COVID era, colleges and universities began to offer virtual tours, showing their campuses in the best possible light and season. Accompanying my son on them, I wondered if all New England schools are indeed perpetually bathed in afternoon light and adorned with peak fall foliage.
The truth is that no matter how well an applicant might claim to know a school, students rarely have any idea what they will find when they arrive on campus. I speak from experience: I have been a faculty member at one university for more than 20 years. For most of that time, I have assumed that the main reason students come to this or any university is to take classes in a variety of fields, grapple with new ideas, and be challenged by readings, discussions, problem sets, and writing assignments. I am aware of how many arrive armed with a plan to pursue pre-med and how quickly the first Chem 101 exam encourages them to rethink their life goals. I am also aware of the increasingly entrenched belief held by students and parents alike that college should prepare students for a career — most often, it seems, in business, communications, or computing.
What I now realize is how little of a new college student’s life revolves around their classes. Students grapple with homesickness and incompatible roommates. They battle a sense of dislocation and wonder when and how they will make the lifelong friends everyone said they would. When it comes to coursework, they focus on getting the grades that will help them get the internship that will help them get the job that will help them pay off their student loans. Alternatively, they seek the transcript that will help them transfer.
I have been deflated time and again when a standout first-semester student arrives in my office at midterm asking for a letter of recommendation. I have understood, too late, that what I had read as excitement and a drive to learn was actually determination to leave as quickly as possible in order to start life at the school that didn’t accept them last spring. I think of how it must feel to arrive fresh on a college campus and to begin engineering your exit strategy, or to realize, all those confident supplementary essays notwithstanding, that you have made a big mistake.
When rhetoric courts flattery, as Socrates observes in Plato’s “Gorgias,” language “cheats us by shapes and colors, by smoothing and draping.” Rather than asking candidates, as Lear asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” ask students to consider what they might not yet know about pursuing a college education. Ask them what their questions are. Encourage them to use writing not to make hollow claims but to gain self-knowledge.
Davida Pines teaches rhetoric at Boston University.