It took just a few short hours on Apr. 1 for Concord High School senior Brittany Stinson to go viral. Not because she staged an epic prank—though more than a few skeptics assumed that her sudden notoriety was an April Fool’s Day fakeout—but for her very real, decidedly eccentric college applications essay that helped garner her admission to five Ivy League colleges and Stanford University.
The essay isn’t your typical exercise in academic humblebragging or lofty save-the-world aspiration: It’s a nostalgic, free-form musing on the joys of shopping at Costco with her mom. And while it shows a young essayist’s tendency to overwrite (the Achilles heel of some of us older wordsmiths as well), it also provides insight into a mind that takes creative risks and thinks with expansive originality.
Coming as it does in the thick of a heated debate over “holistic” evaluation standards at elite colleges—admissions practices that extend beyond comparing grades and scores to include assessments of character and the impact of background and cultural identity on a student’s academic journey—Stinson’s essay has generated a whirling array of reactions. After being posted on Business Insider last week, her essay was read over a million times and shared many thousands more on social media.
Many have found it charming and compelling, while others have attacked it as an example of the antics holistic admissions practices encourage among applicants hoping to stand out. The truth is, these two opinions aren’t mutually exclusive. Stinson’s SAT scores were in the high 90-something percentile (she wouldn’t say exactly her score) and she’s on track to graduate as her class’s valedictorian. Meanwhile, she participated in highly competitive STEM programs, loaded up on AP classes, was a competitive cross-country runner, and an active participant in her local community.
“I’d definitely fit in with the nerds, although the kids at our school would probably categorize us as the overachievers, instead,” Stinson says. “I’d like to study neuroscience in college. I volunteered in a research lab working on a genetics project at the University of Delaware. This was one of my favorite extracurriculars. I’m definitely pursuing research in college.”
All of these factors mark her as a strong candidate for an elite university. Of course, tens of thousands of other applicants had similarly outstanding academic and extracurricular profiles this year. Stinson’s essay, however, must have suggested to schools that she would bring with her a unique and interesting point of view.
Stinson acknowledges that her status as the daughter of a Brazilian immigrant mother who identifies as black, and a white US-born father, likely gave her admissions case a boost.
“I did declare my race and ethnicity on my applications. I think my background likely made my application stand out and impacted it positively,” she says, noting that she is also a proponent of affirmative action policies. As clearly evidenced by Stinson, striving for diversity isn’t just about redress for past and present inequities. “Many who criticize affirmative action think that nearly all minority admitted students are somehow less qualified, undeserving, or that ‘they took a spot’ from a more deserving non-minority student. I think that affirmative action makes a well-qualified minority student stand out, but it will never cause an unqualified student to be admitted. Non-minorities are still benefiting from a system built in their favor.”
At the same time, as clearly evidenced by Stinson, striving for diversity isn’t just about redress for past and present inequities. It’s also about bringing together a group of people with different ways of looking at the world—people who will spend four or more years side by side, learning from and being shaped by fresh and unique perspectives.
”College is a place where we learn just as much outside the classroom as we do inside,” says Stinson. “By being exposed to people of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and religions, we can learn from their experiences. Diversity enriches an education.”
While surprised that her essay has received so much attention, Stinson said she thinks it may have resonated because of the universality of its thesis.
“I’ve seen negative comments online from people who weren’t familiar with the literary devices I was trying to use. I’ve seen people say that it’s ‘ridiculous’ that my essay involved Costco, but I don’t think they’ve even scratched the surface,” she says. “They think that in order for an essay to have depth, it needs to involve tragedy, inspiration, or overcoming adversity. I don’t know if many applicants usually explore the mundane in their essays—that seems to have taken a lot of people by surprise. I thought that this essay was a genuine representation of myself: I’m a sarcastic, dorky weirdo with a passion for science and I tried to demonstrate that I’m the kind of person who finds meaning in seemingly ordinary things.” Only by understanding the person behind the scholarly achievements can universities build a student body.
Which might well be the perfect summary of the college experience: It’s a chapter in life during which young people go off to find meaning in seemingly ordinary things—most particularly, in other people.
For universities, this means recruiting student bodies that represent the best and brightest of a world of worlds: Diversity of heritage and faith, of nationality and culture, of class and familial background, and yes, of race and ethnicity.
Evaluating students by scores and grades alone can’t deliver on that promise. Only by understanding the person behind the scholarly achievements, and the context in which they were earned, can universities build a student body that reflects the kaleidoscopic array of ideas, traditions, and perspectives of our increasingly global society. Which means that those who attack holistic admissions fail to recognize that diversity isn’t an irrelevant factor in the making of an elite college education—it is, as Stinson points out, the very thing that makes these schools worth attending.
Here is Stinson’s essay, republished below with her permission:
Prompt 1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamon-sugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me. Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.
Notorious for its oversized portions and dollar-fifty hot dog combo, Costco is the apex of consumerism. From the days spent being toted around in a shopping cart to when I was finally tall enough to reach lofty sample trays, Costco has endured a steady presence throughout my life. As a veteran Costco shopper, I navigate the aisles of foodstuffs, thrusting the majority of my weight upon a generously filled shopping cart whose enormity juxtaposes my small frame. Over time, I’ve developed a habit of observing fellow patrons tote their carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weight-loss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more wellmannered than its uncultured counterpart? Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity.
While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the “all beef” goodness that Costco boasted. I instead considered finitudes and infinitudes, unimagined uses for tubs of sour cream, the projectile motion of said tub when launched from an eighty foot shelf or maybe when pushed from a speedy cart by a scrawny seventeen year old. I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty-three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will? I experienced a harsh physics lesson while observing a shopper who had no evident familiarity of inertia’s workings. With a cart filled to overflowing, she made her way towards the sloped exit, continuing to push and push while steadily losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52-inch plasma screen TV and all. Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality. There was no questioning Old Hickory’s dedication; he was steadfast in his beliefs and pursuits—qualities I am compelled to admire, yet his morals were crooked. We both found the ham to be more likable–and tender.
I adopted my exploratory skills, fine-tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors. Just as I sampled buffalo-chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart–one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross-country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites. With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world. Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people, I am compelled to try any activity that interests me in the slightest.
My intense desire to know, to explore beyond the bounds of rational thought; this is what defines me. Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level. Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “whys” and dissect the “hows”. In essence, I subsist on discovery.
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Alexandra Robbins book, "The Overachievers, The Secret Lives of Driven Kids", both captures and epitomizes what is fundamentally wrong with the values of many parents of today's high school adolescents. This book is sure to escalate this year's frenzy in college admissions. Robbins follows three overachieving students over the course of one school year and the first third of another. While some of her statistics are incorrect, at least according to the latest NACAC numbers presented in its' State of College Admissions report in May 2006, as is her statement about Division III athletes receiving paid scholarships and visits to colleges, (which they don't receive either), the description of these students is frighteningly accurate in describing the lives of many of today's high achieving students.
Parents and educators have failed to recognize that we have robbed our children of the joy of learning and the fun that should accompany these years. High school is also supposed to be a journey of exploration for adolescents to learn about themselves, experience failure, learn from it and move on. If we as parents always step in to fix everything and make it right, our children are not equipped to handle failure in the future.
Today's adolescents also find themselves giving up the activities and interests they may genuinely develop on their own, in pursuit of the activities that look best on their Resume and the brass ring their parents are looking for to validate themselves as parents. (In this case, the brand name college.) Suffice it to say, many of us would have collapsed under the pressure in which our children find themselves today.
While most readers focus on the high achieving students, I have chosen to view this book from a different vantage point. The current trend of parents to demand more than a student can produce has left kids at all levels of achievement wondering when and how they can get off the treadmill. When the expectations of parents exceed what their child can realistically achieve it is easy to fall off the edge. The parents have set up a situation where the sense of failure is so extreme; the child may end up in a therapeutic setting.
I have a student currently in my practice, where the parent initially described her son as "a little ADD". After meeting with this student only twice and finding holes while reading through the school records, (he had attended four schools, "none were quite right"), I asked if any educational or neuropsychological testing had been done? "Well, yes, in 10th grade." This student was a rising senior at the time. A 37 page report arrived on my desk documenting significant learning disabilities, as well as ADHD. The student is in a small private school receiving one hour/week of tutoring from the LD tutor.
A tidal wave of information is flowing over this student everyday, and he is unequipped to handle it. He has been taught few strategies for learning and integrating information, unable to tap into the wonderful capabilities he has. Despite his high average FSIQ, he will in all likelihood fail in college, because the parent refuses to acknowledge any learning differences and insists on sending him to a "regular" college, rather than following the recommendations of four qualified professionals. This is a student who is ripe for a future therapeutic setting, after an overwhelming sense of failure causes him to tip over, unable to recover on his own. The road back is far longer and more difficult, than if the parent had acknowledged his real needs.
Ms. Robbins also talks about the ever-growing issue of what is now termed "helicopter parents", those parents who are involved in the minutiae of every minute of every day in the lives of their children; hovering over homework, and extracurricular activities. They don't just edit papers, but sometimes write them as well, and it doesn't stop in high school. I personally know parents who have kids attending the most elite colleges, who routinely fax or email papers to their parents to edit before submitting them.
Last year I attended a presentation at one of our country's most elite institutions where one of the presenters afterwards, told me their students are afraid to take risks in their course selections. Some audit a course before they take it, to determine if they can get an A, a trend Ms. Robbins notes in her book. The college admits it's a problem, but doesn't know what to do about it.
I have often wondered if all of this would stop once the "millenials" (children of the baby boomers) entered the work force. Apparently not. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, an editorial appeared in my local newspaper, The Metrowest Daily News. It quoted an article by Tara Weiss titled "Are Parents Killing Their Kids Careers?" The article is featured on Forbes.com. It discusses how parents are now calling recruiters to schedule job interviews, accompany their 24 year old to the job interview, and if the job isn't landed, actually call to find out why their son or daughter didn't receive a job offer. The particular Human Resources VP, quoted in the article, Pam Engle, says she "has yet to hire a graduate whose parent accompanied them to an interview." This past Sunday, December 17, 2006, an article on the same theme appeared in The Boston Globe. Are these parents actually going to go to work with their son or daughter? What happens when these now "professionals" need to make decisions on the job?
If you currently have a student in high school, it is long past time to step back and let your son or daughter know their life is not defined by an SAT score, a GPA, and their extracurricular activities. For those of you who are reading this and still have young children; Give them free, unstructured time that David Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child" stated more than two decades ago, they need and should have, in place of the harried lives they lead. They have only one shot at a childhood. Make it one that accepts who they are and encourages their ultimate independence
About the Author:
Judy Zodda is an Educational Consultant specializing in working with high school students and their families to simplify their college search and maximize their educational opportunities.
January 04, 2007
The article reminds me a lot of Alfie Kohn's crusade against testing and grading , in an attempt to build a cooperative community of students who enjoy learning , for the sake of learning. I think that Kohn is very relevant to the RTC, TBS etc industry in that he highlights the value of the community in helping kids not only do kind acts but become kind and caring people in a community which is kind and caring.
From his article - http://alfiekohn.org see other articles on testing and grades Caring Kids, the role of schools . Here is a piece which speaks to me
Cooperation, by virtue of being an interaction in which two or more people work together for mutual benefit, is not itself an example of pro social behavior as the term is usually used. Neither does its successful use presuppose the existence of pro social motives in all children. Rather, by creating interdependence and a built-in incentive to help, cooperative learning promotes pro social behavior
Alfie Kohn talks about raising caring kids reviews 4 parenting strategies
- Encouraging commitment to values. To describe the limitations of the use of punishments and rewards is already to suggest a better way: the teacher's goal should not be simply to produce a given behavior - for example, to get a child to share a cookie or stop yelling - but to help that child see himself or herself as the kind of person who is responsible and caring. From this shift in self-concept will come lasting behaviors and values that are not contingent on the presence of someone to dispense threats or bribes. The child has made these behaviors and values his or her own.
- Encouraging the group's commitment to values. What the first two approaches have in common is that they provide nothing more than extrinsic motivation. What the first two share with the third is that they address only the individual child. I propose that helpfulness and responsibility ought not to be taught in a vacuum but in the context of a community of people who learn and play and make decisions together. More precisely, the idea is not just to internalize good values in a community but to internalize, among other things, the value of community.
- Perhaps the best way to crystallize what distinguishes each of these four approaches is to imagine the question that a child is encouraged to ask by each. An education based on punishment prompts the query, "What am I supposed to do, and what will happen to me if I don't do it?" An education based on rewards leads the child to ask, "What am I supposed to do, and what will I get for doing it?" When values have been internalized by the child, the question becomes "What kind of person do I want to be?" And, in the last instance, the child wonders: "How do we want our classroom (or school) to be?"
I have not read the book but the title From Compliance to Community For me implies that we don't need to focus on compliance and can achieve so much more if a kid is interested and sees value in ' How do we want our classroom (or school), family, youth club, community etc to be?"
Allan Katz - Israel
December 29, 2006
What a wonderful essay and important message to parents. I hope to share it with my neighbors whose son is headed for Harvard in August. I have been an avid reader of the Woodbury Report since I had to place my 22 year old daughter in a residential treatment facility in St. George, Utah her senior year in high school. It was difficult to accept that she had so many problems that would require a structured program and that she would be separated from her twin sister but it was the best thing that could have happened. I can look back now and see that it probably saved her life and played a key role with her actually graduating from high school. She was a quiet, shy straight A student until middle school. She wanted to rebel and be different and she lacked the confidence to choose friends with confidence.
Even though she attended a Presidential Blue Ribbon High School their program did not really meet the needs of the struggling middle school age teen at risk. We quickly realized we had to move her to a private school for teens at risk or she would fail miserably under the pressure and unrealistic academic expectations. She spent a year at a local special ed school before we sent her to a residential program. She is now finishing her second year at the University of Pittsburgh and is doing well. She also works one day a week in the Emergency Room of a large Psychiatric Hospital where she is using her talents to help others. She plans to attend graduate school for a higher level degree upon completion of her bachelors degree. Its been a long road to recovery and we are now 30 months drug free and totally focused on positive goals. I have listened to many school counselors, rehab counselors and teachers and private counselors. The most important thing I have learned is how to be her parent and partner of accountability�.one baby step at a time without giving up. She makes her own decisions and is willing to discuss other options with me and I am willing to see her fail and start over again. She has become my biggest teacher in life.