The Pizza Essay, Yale, And Bad News For College Admissions Officers Everywhere
I try not to predict doom and disaster on a regular basis; those predictions are not outside the realm of possibility, but, what the hey, we can’t do much about most of them, and I’m exhausted just having gone through the raft of “sky is falling” stories in today’s news feeds. Additionally, I’m no economist and no political savant, so my opinions are no more informed than anyone else’s and really not very interesting.
I do know a lot about colleges and college admissions, however, having counseled thousands of students and having worked in several college admissions offices. My guidebook, America’s Best Kept College Secrets has not found the market I had hoped it might, but it represent forty years of visiting and evaluating colleges and forty years of working with college admissions professionals. I’ll deal with the book’s purpose after I have dealt with the buzz surrounding the admission of a young woman, Carolina Williams of Brentwood, Tennessee, to Yale University, ostensibly on the strength of her application essay, a paean to Papa John’s Pizza , her favorite sort of pizza, which she claims to order every day.
Williams was admitted to Yale although she intends to attend Auburn University. Among the several documents she submitted in the course of her application, were a series of short essays, one of which, having to do with something she loved to do, prompted Williams to write about ordering pizza, suggesting that pizza, “…smells like celebration…tastes like comfort…looks like self-sufficiency.” A note accompanying her letter offering admission made reference to another essay, one in which she had written about her determination to read a hundred books in a year, and admitted that her pizza rhapsody had made him laugh, and then order pizza.
Basking in the approval of her application, Williams shot a tweet off to Papa John’s and received a congratulatory response:
Carolina Williams @justcarolina22
I just want @PapaJohns to know that I wrote a college essay about how much I love to order their pizza and it got me into Yale
@justcarolina22 CONGRATS, CAROLINA!! We’re so honored that you wrote about us in your essay! Send us a DM, please @AskPapaJohns
The corporate offices of Papa John’s quickly jumped at the chance to attach themselves to Carolina’s success, not only offering her congratulations but an internship at the end of her freshman year, a gift card promising pizza for a year, a pizza party for her dorm, and some nifty(?) Papa John’s swag, all of which is an appropriate response from the world of pizza.
I have to assume that Carolina Williams is a very accomplished student, not merely an academic powerhouse racking up high grades in AP courses and scoring near the top of the charts on standardized testing, but notably successful in other enterprises. Yale admitted just about seven percent of applicants this season, 2,272 applicants from a highly qualified applicant pool of 32,900 students. These 2,272 are remarkable students, as are many of the 30,000 who did not receive an offer of admission. Carolina Williams must have presented a compelling application, but as an English teacher and admissions professional, I’m guessing her short essay in celebration of pizza was not among the top thousand essays and had virtually nothing to do with her offer of admission.
Buzz, however, is buzz, and the word around the lockers is that colleges reward quirky essays about ordinary experiences. Having encouraged overwrought, anxiety-laden college applicant for decades, I know that even the most astute lose perspective and abandon ordinary good judgment as deadlines approach. Essays spin wildly out of control, a new strategy replaces the last as topics are dissected, then chucked, then brought back, then chucked … and so on. There is more than enough paralysis when it come to the application process without having to contend with the suspicion that there are one, two or maybe three, topics that colleges want to hear about.
Service, for example, or overcoming obstacles, or the admiration of people who have overcome obstacles in providing service, or whatever the next “pizza” essay inspires.
The entire process of applying to college is tricky from the start. No matter how much research a student has done, no matter how carefully crafted the application, no matter how substantial the student’s attainments. Decisions are in the hands of strangers who evaluate applications based on the particular needs of their institution. The applicant has to apply with the confidence that he or she is completely capable of performing at the highest level in the company of other students attending the college while having to consider the reality that at places such as Yale, 93% of applicants will not be offered admission.
That’s daunting and made more daunting by the crazy subterranean rumors that still float from senior class to senior class. “Penn likes essays about Ben Franklin.” “UVA likes essays about Thomas Jefferson.” “Essays should be funny.” “Essays should be poignant.” “Every essay should include every honor or prize you have ever won.” To this sad collection, we will likely add, “The pizza essay got that kid into Yale.”
As is true when contending with life’s most perplexing challenges, the best advice has always been remarkably simple: “Be authentic, tell the story only you can tell and tell it in language that allows the reader to hear your own voice.”
Stanford University is unthinkably competitive with regard to admission to its undergraduate programs, offering admission to 2050 applicants from the pool of 44,073 excellent students who completed applications this year. The 4.65% admitted are undoubtedly superior students, but I’d be surprised if more than a hundred wrote essays so surprising in content or exquisite in composition that the committee stood as one and lost themselves in applause. Most applicants probably kept it simple.
Here’s what Stanford advises applicants at the start of the process:
“We want to hear your individual voice in your writing. Write essays that reflect who you are and write in a natural style. Begin work on these essays early, and feel free to ask your parents, teachers and friends to provide constructive feedback. Ask if the essay’s tone sounds like your voice.”
America’s Best Kept Secrets, now in its third edition, was written to a purpose other than strategic assault on the most competitive colleges. There are tons of books that purport to offer an advantage in seeking admission. My book describes colleges in every region of the country that actually accept students. The book is subtitled, “An Affectionate Guide to Outstanding Colleges and Universities”; the website offers information on, “colleges for real people”. These are colleges that are highly regarded, provide exceptional opportunities in numbers of areas, and accept at least 50% of those who apply. Some of large public universities, some small colleges.
I have visited each campus and have found each has much to offer; Parents and friends of high school seniors are familiar with a small number of colleges; this book was written to broaden the search, to add some spice to the mix. I’m fond of the colleges in the book and hope others will consider exploring new territory as they begin the college search.
In the end, the process seems to work out reasonably well. Colleges make decisions about students and then the tables turn and students make decisions about colleges. I’m sure the strong business program at Auburn (one of the colleges profiled in the book) and some scholarship assistance had much to do with Carolina’s decision to turn down Yale, but she did admit that Auburn’s campus offers both Papa John’s and Chik-fil-A on campus.
Congrats, Carolina. and bon appetit!