My sons make me hopeful about the future. My sons impress me with what they know and can do. My sons often surprise me. But most often my sons amuse me. Today, I share one of the amusements and surprises. My sons (Enid-Michele, my internet daughter wasn’t part of this so that’s why I’m not mentioning her.) have apparently been paying attention to pop culture and to to my work. These boys, in 7th and 9th grades when this started, have been workshopping lines they claim are going into their college essays. They shared with me the beginnings of their joint effort: 

Growing up in the poorest borough of NYC, raised by a mother fighting addiction, and a father who couldn’t get a job.

Anyone who’s spent time looking at admissions essays for high school, college, or graduate schools has probably seen some variation of the essay opening above. The accuracy and deception of these sentences are amusing and disturbing. The amusing part is that they’ve been paying closer attention to my work that I’d thought. It’s also amusing that they took the time work out the turns of phrases that so perfectly framed our lives to suit what is often an expected narrative for people who look like us and live where we do. In part they drew inspiration from Zoey in an episode of Blackish and that says quite a bit about how pervasive this narrative is that it reached sitcom parody status.

It’s also interesting and sad that despite the satire offered by Zoey and my kids, it’s a very real thing that low-income, first-gen, and under-represented students are seemingly encouraged to engage in trauma porn (this, this, and this, too) in order to access selective educational institutions. 

This also highlights the way in which essays can be so easily manipulated by those who understand what types of stories likely resonate depending on the profile of the applicant. It highlights how pervasive stereotypes are. And after my initial amusement faded, I thought about how at some point the call for greater access for under-represented (poor, black, hispanic, first-generation) became a search for and rewarding of the best hard knock story. Consultants figured it out and encouraged students to play up their challenges, sad stories, and trauma. The College Board even tried to quantify it with both the Strivers and Landscape programs. 

Anyway, being the annoying dad that I am, I made both of my boys write (in part assigned by me to combat learning loss …) in full the essay they were joking about. Here is the full essay written by my youngest:

Growing up in the poorest part of New York, raised by a mother fighting addiction and a father who couldn’t hold a job for longer than 90 minutes was tough. Every night, my brother and I were rocked to sleep by the sound of police sirens and gunshots and woke up freezing cold. Times got so tough I even had to help my father administer drugs on the streets before I even turned thirteen. But I would not let my dark situation diminish my bright light. By the age of ten, I began working on Broadway to finance my family’s needs and to hone my passion and talent.

When my father’s ailments became so severe he could no longer provide for the family what he needed to, he required three expensive surgeries that rendered him bed-ridden and were so unsuccessful, he considered giving up on treatment all together and living as a hollow shell of his former self.

My past trauma had caused me to be scared to sleep alone and through my tween years I slept in my mom’s bed, watching her feed her addiction until the wee hours of the night. She would spend hours and hours a day, commuting to a job where she was the only Black woman, fighting to be recognized.

My family problems aside, I was a precocious and eager-to-learn child. From an early age I was recognized for my talents by many a celebrity and everything was finally on track. And then…I snapped. My grades had been slipping and I cracked under the pressure of my stressful life. I secluded from the world for half a year, not even going to school anymore. All of my stacked responsibilities tumbled like a house of cards in the wind. Everything I had worked for years at, I lost for almost two years.

Having grown up in a situation like mine, I have no doubt that you understand what getting into your prestigious and distinguished university would mean. It would not only help me prove to myself that my hard work was not in vain, but it could also prove to the world that no matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard enough and never give up . . .

. . . you can change people’s misguided assumptions about you and control your destiny.

. . . you can exploit whatever little guilt white people have about slavery and use it to get into a fancy-ass college that will give you a degree.

. . . you can join the elite society of upper class New Englanders who’s favorite sport is crew.

. . . you can beat the odds and be in control of your destiny.

. . . you could be barely tolerated by those who historically slaughtered and oppressed your people.

The best part of his essay is how he strove to make it entirely truthful while making it entirely false (just like Zoey did).The biggest problem with the essay is that it’s not only perfectly true, it’s also perfectly false. Almost every moment of trial and tribulation is propaganda and spin based on the truth, rather than actual truth. I can only hope that essay readers are savvy enough to recognize the spin and sort it from those essays that truly represent student’s challenges.

It seems that with all the questions around admissions standards that are objective or not, more attention might want to be paid to the essay. Because while so much in the application process can be manipulated, it’s most often those with information, wealth, and resources who manipulate the system but it’s those without who are accused of cheating and subjected to verification, extra forms, and suspicion.

Stay tuned, (maybe) I’ll post an essay from another of my children.


A few key background facts:

  • His mom is “hooked” on a block puzzle game on her phone. 
  • I had two minor eye surgeries and took prescription eyedrops, which the boys help me with. 
  • I watch a lot of cop shows after bedtime. 
  • I’m often paid to give talks of 90 minutes or less. 

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