The innkeepers and the guests. The owners and the housekeepers. The urban and the rural. The studious and the watchers of cat videos. And finally (and memorably), Mac versus Dell.
This year’s crop of college application essays about money, work and social class come from teenage writers who toe the line, tap dance on either side and often stay suspended, for just a moment, in the space above and between.
Each year, we put out a nationwide call for these bits of transcribed financial choreography, and we do so with a couple of goals in mind. It’s healthy to talk about money — with friends, family and even strangers acting as gatekeepers to your future. The more of it that goes on, the better we’ll all be about reckoning with the complex emotions that having more or having less can inspire. At their best, these miniature life stories help us bring perspective to our own. (Read four standout essays here »)
Idalia Felipe, who lives in Los Angeles, invited readers into her daily homework routine, and we’ve posted her essay in The New York Times’s new Snapchat Discover.
Ms. Felipe, who plans to attend California State University, Fullerton, and wrote her essay for other colleges she applied to, described her crowded circus of a home. There is the “warm touch of a small palm” as a much younger sibling asks to play superheroes. Others challenge her to watch a funny video all the way through without laughing, while she tries to study phototransduction.
Her mother sings loudly, off key. “Somewhat sheepishly, she stops and asks me if doing my work in a quieter place would be better for me,” Ms. Felipe wrote. “I insist that it wouldn’t, that without all the noise from my siblings I would surely fall asleep.”
Most essays don’t sound like hers, and that, according to the college admissions directors who read many hundreds of them each year, ought to be the precise point of the exercise. Most essay prompts are open-ended enough that you can write about whatever you want, so a winning one speaks in a unique voice and tells a story that does not — cannot — appear in a high school transcript or a teacher’s recommendation letter.
How often does money, work and social class come up? Not often enough to feel overly familiar. “I don’t see a lot of them, that’s for sure,” said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
But this season, he saw an essay from Tillena Trebon of Flagstaff, Ariz. At her father’s house, Ms. Trebon hauls water. In her mother’s neighborhood, kids wage war with water guns.
“I live on the edge of an urban and rural existence,” she wrote. “On one side of me, nature is a hobby. On the other, it is a way of life.”
I detected a slight side-eyed glance at the Patagonia-wearing set here, and she added a subtle hint that her father drove a truck because he needed to. But she also seems to know the weekenders well and count herself among them, even.
“I belong at the place where opposites merge in a lumpy heap of beautiful contradictions,” she wrote.
Mr. Rawlins, who is also a musician, described her essay as a tone poem not unlike works by Romantic composers trying to evoke a particular mood. Indeed, I read it aloud over breakfast to my family, and even the toddler fell silent.
The Standout Essays
At Columbia University, the admissions staff also hopes for essays that beg to be read aloud, even though everyone around the table has the text. This time around, an essay by Zöe Sottile, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., made the cut.
She wrote about her laptop — the Dell that she got free from the school as a full-ride scholarship student, and the Mac she didn’t realize she wanted until she discovered that most of the full-paying students had one.
That Dell was a tell, giving her away as an outsider. But she hadn’t arrived at Andover with nothing, as her parents had gone to college and provided plenty of cultural capital. So when she finally did get a Mac during her senior year, it didn’t quite sit right, either.
“My hyperawareness of how my Dell hid my privilege and how my Mac hid my financial need pushed me to be aware of what complicated stories were hiding behind my classmates’ seemingly simple facades,” she wrote.
That almost aching self-awareness spoke to Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions at Columbia. “It really showed a window into the way I would think she would approach challenges and questions academically — with great consideration, depth and fairness,” she said.
Admissions officers aim to fill beds, but they’re also trying to craft a well-rounded class filled with individuals who will meet the faculty’s high standards. So a good essay will prove that the writer belongs around the seminar table, mixing it up on social class or whatever the big issue of the day is.
“There are people who might be 40 years old and wouldn’t be able to articulate this view,” Ms. Marinaccio said of the Mac vs. Dell essay. “It only underscores the tremendous promise of who she could become.”
Another student, Jonathan Ababiy, rose above the crowd in describing how far he has come already. The son of Moldovan refugees, he eloquently describes the intellectual artifacts in the professors’ house that his mother cleans. He tagged along to help quite often over the years, and the newspapers, magazines, books and photos in the house were a “celebrity-endorsed path to prosperity” that opened a window to new worlds.
“Work could be done with one’s hands and with one’s mind,” wrote Mr. Ababiy, who lives in Blaine, Minn., and plans to attend the University of Minnesota. “It impressed on me a sort of social capital that I knew could be used in America.”
At the Peppertrees Bed & Breakfast in Tucson, Caitlin McCormick has watched her own parents work hard, sometimes for an unappreciative audience of poor tippers, scammers and late-arriving guests who once made young Caitlin late for her own birthday party.
“For most of my life I believed my parents were intense masochists for devoting their existences to the least thankful business I know,” she wrote.
But as she turned her growing awareness of the imbalance of power in the service industry toward an appreciation of public service, she came to understand the nobility of all work, even when there is no one to say thank you.
“Slowly, my mother’s gingham apron began to look more like metal armor,” she wrote.
I stopped to consider that passage, as did Jennifer Fondiller, dean of enrollment management at Barnard College, where Ms. McCormick plans to matriculate.
“I wanted to have a conversation with her about it,” Ms. Fondiller said. “And I love leaving an essay like that, where you want to say, ‘Let’s keep talking.’”