It turns out the stiff-collared Puritans of Salem may have understood the current college essay process better than any of us could have imagined. I made this discovery earlier this fall when I taught a college essay workshop for nervous seniors one period and taught an American Studies class the next. That’s when it hit me: the college essay process is eerily similar to the Puritan conversion experience.
In order to enter the “community of the saved” Puritans believed in the power of the "Conversion Experience", a story told before a community of elders who are already saved. To join the saved community, young supplicants were asked to tell a story about an epiphany – a time when they were made aware of their prior ignorance or depravity and how they had subsequently come to see the light. Sound familiar?
Most college essays follow the same pattern. “I never really noticed homeless people until I spent a day at a soup kitchen with my scout troop.” Or: “I never defined myself as an athlete until I lost my starting spot on varsity. Now I know see that sportsmanship matters more than playing time.”
I don’t mean to sound cynical about my students’ essays, but they do follow a predictable pattern. It’s a story type Kurt Vonnegut called “Man in Hole.” And, according to Vonnegut, it goes like this: “Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again” and winds up better than they were before. This is not an accident, Vonnegut says, since “this is encouraging to readers.” This formula leads hopeful students to scramble for worthy conversion experiences of their own – deep enough holes they’ve climbed out of.
Elizabeth, the girl who couldn’t find a suitably heroic topic ended up writing about a surprise win in a summer camp kick ball game – not a momentous topic, but the upset win satisfies the trajectory of triumph. Marnie, on the other hand, struggled with authenticity. She rejected an early draft in which she “became stronger” as a result of her mother’s death, but she also shied away from admitting she was still a wreck. Her essay now ends with Marnie’s hope that she can “find the strength [her] mother showed.”