My twin girls, who with two of their artistic friends helped me digitally color WHTTWOT, will be graduating from college next year and are now applying to grad schools. I think they're doing it because they noticed their Mom and I still have some money left.
In any case, they're busy submitting applications, sending transcripts, wrangling recommendations, and writing essays. One very large, well-known public institution to which they're both applying (in different programs) requires them to write an essay in response to a prompt that really rubs me the wrong way everytime I read it:
Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.
I've got no beef with the first sentence. They want to know who you are beyond your transcript. Great. The rest seems utterly, fatuously, ridiculously irrelevant. What does any of that have to do with the quality of your intellect or your fitness to contribute to an academic field? Could Einstein or Salk have cleared that hurdle at age 21? Could the university's own faculty?
What if you instead spent your time fighting forest fires, rescuing stray animals, writing novels, caring for the elderly, discovering comets, starting a company, playing championship tennis, working on the family farm, serving three tours of duty in Iraq, flipping burgers to pay tuition, or sailing solo around the world? Or, heaven forbid, studying? Couldn't one be a good citizen, interesting person, and outstanding scholar ready to contribute to an academic field without "advancing equitable access . . . (to) groups that have been historically underrepresented?" Doesn't that seem overtly, inappropriately political in that it assumes such efforts are the best, highest uses for one's time, or that everyone worth admitting would find them worthwhile?
My wife tries to calm me down by pointing out that the school is trying to build an academic community, and has the right to seek qualities that it thinks best contribute. I get that for a private institution; if you apply to a Christian Bible college, you'd best be ready to praise the Lord. But this is a public university. Should it really be judging applicants based on their commitment to a very narrow vision of social justice?
If I were in my daughters' position, I'd be tempted--seriously
tempted--to answer the first sentence as earnestly as possible, and the rest with one of the following:
1. I've overcome no significant barriers because I was raised by parents who worked hard, saved their money, made sacrifices, and provided guidance so I wouldn't have to. I tried to be prepared for changing circumstances, and planned ahead to meet academic challenges and solve problems before they arose. It worked.
2. I have tried to "advance equitable access to higher education for women" by being one of them and working extremely hard for the last 16 years. (Since the large majority of U.S. university graduates are now women, my efforts have succeeded. You're welcome.) I did nothing to discourage any member of any underrepresented group from working just as hard.
3. I have in fact done much community service work, but I did it in the spirit of charity, with the belief that such aid is a private matter between me and those who receive it, without any expectation that I would materially benefit from it myself. To honor that spirit and out of respect for those on whose behalf I worked, I respectfully decline to respond.
4. I didn't have time because I was doing other things I thought were more important. If you want to ask me about them sometime, I'll be happy to tell you.
5. None of your damn business.
Do you think I'd get in?