When College Admissions Essays Go Viral

A guide to navigating the horrors of other people reading your college admissions essay.

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Today the Ivy League gossip blog IvyGate unveiled a public Google Drive folder in which members of Columbia University's Class of 2017 had saved the personal essay each had included with their Columbia application. The 69 essays ranged wildly in both quality and form. One featured an imaginary dialogue between the applicant and the librettist Oscar Hammerstein; another consisted of an elaborate fable that sought to explain the subprime mortgage crisis. Writing about "hipsterdom," one prefrosh wrote, "I ... have struggled immensely with the paradoxical use of this label." On Twitter, media types reacted with horror. The essays' authors seemed equally mortified; within an hour, half of the essays disappeared. Eventually, the entire folder was deleted.

As embarrassing as these people might feel, none of the essays were that bad, and they all worked. Judging from the ones I quickly read, most were very standard college application essays. There were a few pearls, too. One essay (which, like the others, disappeared) adeptly discussed queer activism in Lebanon. The more eyeroll-worthy ones, like the "hipsterdom" essay highlighted by IvyGate, seemed all the more honest for being so ridiculous and un-self-aware. Still, it wasn't like these personal reflections had been fished out of the bottom of a desk drawer. Admitted high school seniors had uploaded them to Google to be shared and compared among their future classmates. These essays were small but otherwise public performances suddenly thrust before a much larger audience.

The discovery comes five days after obscenity-ridden email written by a sorority sister at the University of Maryland castigating her sisters for being "weird" and "awkward" among certain fraternity brothers went viral and ended up published on Gawker. Laced though it was with unprintable images involving female genitalia, the email — like the Columbia essays — followed a clear logic, and actually made a few good points. It is kind of rude to cheer for the other team; it is rather mean to discuss a party in front of someone who isn't invited. And the "hipster" label is in fact inflected with contradictory meanings, as New School professor Mark Greif once pointed out. This tends to get lost among the embarrassment and horror that attend these kinds of incidents

"In truth, the humiliation should be shared among all of us who have ever written a Columbia admissions essay," The New Yorker's Betsy Morais, a Columbia alum, wrote this afternoon. That's exactly right, and extends beyond the college essay. Basically everything you wrote when you were 17 is going to be embarrassing, whether it was for an Ivy League university or junior year English. At the cusp of leaving high school for college, these kids are learning how quickly we abandon our former selves.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.