Sandy, you have said that if Stanford ever published the entire set of its “What Matters Most Essays” for any one year, Derrick Bolton would not be able to appear in public without having rotten tomatoes thrown at him. You still believe that?
Ha, ha. No. I’m going to walk that back a bit. I think if Stanford published the whole set–and by the way, they should think about publishing ten or so because it would liberate their applicants in ways that I mention above–people would realize that there are just a lot of highly unusual and wonderful people in the class, although not all of those people are good essay writers. Bolton speaks in two channels: on the one hand, he has, in interviews and on the Stanford webpage, outlined some very exacting standards about what that essay should contain–structured reflections, moral growth, yadda, yadda.
On the other hand, when pressed, he often says that Stanford accepts kids ‘despite’ the essays. I think if Stanford ever published the whole set of those essays from one class, that ‘accepted despite the essays’ category would be really clear, and larger than you think. And many of those people would just be really, really impressive, as are the two applicants below. The great “essay” below from the McKinsey person is world-class BS in terms of execution and takeaways. But what are you going to do? Her parents are not in jail nor are they fleeing genocide in Africa. If God gives you rich grapes, well, you make Champagne.
So Sandy, let’s go through each of the three shorter essays.
THE BASICS: Word count,:688; African-American male, Class of 2011, investment banker/brokerage, father was in jail, inspiring stepfather, what matters most is leaving a positive and lasting legacy on his family and community. His lead sentence makes you snap to attention: “My father never finished college, has been incarcerated and has done little to improve his family or his community.”
ANALYSIS: A basic, but moving essay covering the outline of his bio, does a nice job in capturing the big themes of his life: fear of becoming his father, admiration for his stepdad, a generic desire to be successful, raise a family, give back to the community.
MONEY QUOTE: “I vividly remember trips to and from the city to play basketball when my stepfather created what could be considered a designed lecture series. Each trip would be another topic, one weekend teen pregnancy, the next the importance of academics, all while driving through various neighborhoods pointing out young women with strollers and young men being idle on the street corners.”
The rest of the essay is not that specific, powerful, or reflective but it does not have to be. This guy has a deeply embedded and powerful story to tell, and it comes across in an innocent and thankful way. A better writer could have milked this raw material for more specifics and more personalized reflections, but this writer just says, in some completely honest and credible way, “These journeys were instrumental in building my character and created a clear goal and lifestyle for which to reach.”
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS ESSAY? Probably not. It won’t help tell a less powerful story, and technically, this is a case where the facts speak for themselves. The kind of “structured reflection” that Bolton talks about is not really present throughout. A good deal of this essay spills out in some honest and heartfelt way based on the powerful armature of its facts. The one quote above is interesting in how much it is superior to almost anything else in the essay, viz, “Thus far in my life I have given back to the community through multiple mentoring programs and coaching youth athletics. As a business leader and community activist I will use the brand of my organization to spur wide spread positive change through various media outlets.”
That works for this writer and his story but it probably will not work for you. If you don’t have a dad in jail, and an inspiring stepdad, you may need to talk in more detail about those mentoring programs and who you mentored, and how you were effective and what the obstacles and takeaways were, and how those experiences also led to your own growth and goals.