In College Essays About Money, Echoes of Parents’ Attitudes

A young woman from an affluent suburb offers a jarring inventory of items for sale at her high school, including Adderall, marijuana and test answers, even as some peers can’t afford the fees for the Advanced Placement tests. Another observes her frugal, immigrant family and how that trait has slowly permeated her own values.

A high school senior with only one grandparent who even went to high school comes to terms with the pressure he feels to be the one who breaks the degree-free cycle. And another traces the fine details of her father’s — and her family’s — struggle to forge a middle-class life, through her memories of his art and the artifacts they find buried in an arroyo in New Mexico.

Each year, I put out an open call for college applicants to send in essays about money, work, social class and related issues that they’ve submitted to undergraduate admissions offices. This year, we received 231 of them and enlisted Ralph Johnson, senior director for college success for the Democracy Prep public schools network and a former admissions officer at Brown University, to help pick the four that we are publishing. We pay the four writers as we would freelancers.

In narrowing them down from among the best dozen or so that we received, Mr. Johnson said he put himself back in the mind-set of the gatekeeper role he once held at Brown, when there were so many essays to read that he felt guilty being in a house of worship without a pile of paper in front of him.

What he looked for then is the same thing he encourages his students to strive for now. “Some kind of spark,” he said. It needs to be something that isn’t in their transcript or test scores and give admissions officers something to talk about when they’re in the meeting room deciding on that candidate.
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For more students than you might think, writing about money is how they seek to stand out. Of the 4,809 complete personal statements in the database at AdmitSee, a service that allows people to make money by renting access to their own essays and applications, 5 percent are about overcoming financial obstacles. A further 20 percent used words like “tuition,” “loan” and “income” in essays about career aspirations, diversity and family background.

The single best piece of pure writing we received this year came from Sarah Benson of Lorton, Va., the author of the essay set in New Mexico. “When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living,” she wrote. “I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months.”

When she was small, her father showed her Native American pottery shards in the arroyo near their former home. When they return years later, he tells her that they have all washed away. “Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm,” she wrote. “I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.”

Her father, whom I interviewed on Facebook Live this past week, was surprised that his daughter had thought so hard about his feelings about his career and livelihood. But perhaps he should not have been, given the depth that his daughter, who will attend Virginia Tech in the fall, displayed in the essay.