At Pitzer College, a student used the example of the Ponzi schemer Bernard L. Madoff to take a philosophical look at how much money people truly need to be happy.
As the economy has suffered in recent years and college costs have risen, high school seniors have grappled with the fallout in their own families and channeled their feelings into an increasing number of memorable college application essays about sacrifice, social policy and affluence or its opposite.
“Students never used to write about this stuff,” said Angel Pérez, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Pitzer, which is in Claremont, Calif. “I think there is this new consciousness. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Given the Your Money team’s long-standing endorsement of raising the financial consciousness of the younger set, we wanted to see these writings for ourselves. So we’re asking high school seniors who are applying for college this year to send us application essays that have anything at all to do with money, working, class, the economy and affluence (or lack thereof).
We’ll read them all and publish the best on our Bucks personal finance blog.
There is more on our editorial criteria and the logistics down below, but if you’re trying to figure out what counts as a money essay, think broadly, as many applicants have in recent years. “An essay ought to try to fill in the gaps, to tell us things that we don’t know about you,” said Erica Sanders, managing director of the office of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan.
Your guidance counselor and teachers who are writing letters of support for your application may not know about or think to write about your family’s financial status, good or bad. “Maybe a parent had to move out of town for work, and the student writes about taking on more responsibility, that it allowed them to take on more leadership and to contribute to their family in a way that they didn’t even know was possible,” she added, echoing essays she’s read in recent years.
Even if your family has not struggled or become fabulously wealthy, an essay about your part-time job certainly qualifies. “Many of our engineering students will talk about building something and the costs of putting it together,” Ms. Sanders said.
Aside from the Madoff essay, Mr. Perez has read other Pitzer applicant essays and had other conversations with applicants about money and the economy in recent years that have stuck with him.
“One student last year was very affected by the whole conversation about the 1 percent,” he said. “He sent us his proposal for the tax code. The committee thought that this is someone who is clearly thinking about this in a critical way, is informed about what is going on the world and has done some dissecting of the information, and that’s the kind of student we’re looking for.”
The college essay is always a bit of a high-wire act. Harry Bauld, the author of “On Writing the College Application Essay,” which I credit with helping me get into college, paints a visceral, frightening picture of haggard admissions officers reading dozens of essays each day. Then, he asks readers to imagine that their application is 38th in the pile. How are you going to excite that person?
Writing about money can offer a bit of voyeuristic thrill in this regard, but it also poses its own particular challenges. “Most of my students are absolutely brilliant,” said Mr. Bauld, a high school English teacher at Horace Mann School in New York City and a former admissions officer at Columbia and Brown. “But they cannot see their own relationship to economic culture. It’s not comprehensible.”
The more affluent ones, if they do understand it, struggle further when trying to put it into words. “When it becomes visible, it comes accompanied with a U-Haul full of guilt that they’re towing behind them,” he said. “Then, it forces them into various clichés.”