The Influence of Money on College Essay Topics

There was a great piece in yesterday’s The New York Times focusing on a study that analyzed college essays.

They say that money doesn’t buy happiness. Well, it apparently also doesn’t buy wise decision-making when it comes to choosing a topic for the Personal Statement in college admissions. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Arvin Ashok entitled “The Persistent Grip of Social Class on College Admissions” focuses on a study that found college essay content is strongly related to household income. As an example, in the above chart from The New York Times compiled by the authors of the study, it seems that of the Personal Statements analyzed, students from more affluent backgrounds tend to write about travel, failure, and sports more so than do students from less affluent backgrounds. The study also finds that students from less affluent backgrounds are more likely to write about abuse, domestic instability, and immigration.

Loyal readers of our college admissions blog know that there are about six topics never to choose for a Personal Statement in elite college admissions. But if you’re a newbie to our blog, we’ll recap: sports, music, community service, grandparents, travel, and illnesses. So why oh why might you ask would affluent applicants choose to write about, say, travel? Why would they choose to flaunt their privilege in elite college admissions? Why would they choose to write about a trip to Costa Rica when the cost of that trip might well be a quarter of the annual salary of the very person evaluating the student’s case for admission? That admissions officer would likely love to hop on a jet to Costa Rica and take in some sun — jealousy is not exactly a motivating factor to offer a student admission. So, to answer the question, it’s because affluent students make the same sorts of poor choices in their college admissions essays as do students who do not come from low-income backgrounds. In fact, we’d argue affluent students so often make even more egregious errors in their college essays than do less affluent applicants. They flaunt privilege. It renders them unlikable.

One finding we most enjoyed from the study focused on the usage of commas. As Ashok writes in the piece in The New York Times, “The paper used software to classify essays written by nearly 60,000 applicants to the University of California system in 2016. The essays were quantified partly through syntax choices. The number of commas, total punctuation and longer words were correlated with higher household income, for example, although that doesn’t necessarily equate to better writing.” Yes, a plethora of commas does not necessarily equate to better writing. Who’d have ever guessed it?

 
 

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