Quilts, Cows, Money and Meaning: College Essays That Stood Out

Posted May 11, 2018 4:12 p.m. EDT
Updated May 11, 2018 4:15 p.m. EDT

In all my years of studying up on taxes, I’d never read — or knew I wanted to read — an essay about how filling out Form 1040 can teach profound lessons about the enduring power of the human spirit.

But then I came across a piece of writing by Caroline Beit, one of the nearly 300 high school seniors around the world who answered our open call this year with college application essays that touched on money, work and social class.

Her tale of life in the trenches as a volunteer tax-preparer hits all the pleasure points of this particular form. You learn something about her character and how she spends her time that you could not find in a college application any other way. It is uniquely hers, and not just because there aren’t many teenagers writing essays about doing other people’s taxes.

Beit, who lives in Bronxville, New York, reckons with money and feelings and their intersection in a manner that makes you see the world in a new way. “I need much more than just technical knowledge,” she writes. “It is also essential to connect on a human level. I make it a point to put each person at ease by actively listening to his or her story.”

The stories she tells in her essay include one about the young woman who cares for her grandmother, for whom the earned-income tax credit is 20 percent of her income. A mother whom Beit helped took the money that she would have spent on tax preparation at H&R Block and bought new track shoes for her son instead.

“One of the people who read the application commented that they’d never been so moved by the idea of doing taxes in their entire life,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, where Beit will start college in the fall of 2019 after a gap year.

But why shouldn’t money be moving and have meaning? It is a powerful force, but a confusing one precisely because we don’t talk about it as much as we should. If you’re lucky enough to have more money than average, it may be especially challenging to reckon with that fact.

Jeffrey Yu, also accepted by Yale, wrote an essay about his stay-at-home father. “My family is a matriarchy in a patriarchal community,” writes Yu, who lives in Endicott, New York, and whose mother is a physician. He describes the furtive glances and surprise he encounters when he explains that his dad “does” nothing. But he means everything to his son.

In an essay set partly in Kenya, Eric Muthondu writes movingly about the daily life of his extended family there and the struggles of his immediate family in Texas. “I ponder whether my parents — dregs floating across a diasporic sea before my time — would have imagined their sacrifices for us would come with sharp pains in their backs and newfound worries,” he writes.

To his relatives in Kenya, however, he’s the young man with the braces. They want to know how many shillings it cost to fix his teeth that way and they mock him for his lack of soccer prowess. Muthondu will attend Harvard in the fall.

At Colgate, as with most of the colleges that see large piles of application essays each year, admissions staff don’t take off points for character flaws or stories about the mistakes their writers have made. In fact, they often seek people who can truly come into their own if they just get into the right school.

“With my father incarcerated, the women in my family went to work,” writes Kataryna Piña, who will attend Colgate in the fall. “At the age of 11, I started working for the very first time as a cleaning lady with my grandparents. Even though I wanted to help my family, I was ashamed to be a cleaning lady. I argued with my mother against living a life like that, a life in which I gave up my childhood for my family’s stability.”

Her family calls her ungrateful, and eventually her grandmother inspires her to get past her resentment. Much of the essay explores those feelings of shame and Piña’s feelings about those feelings. “It’s really mature, that level of metacognition,” said Jamiere Abney, senior assistant dean of admission at Colgate.

Abney was also taken with the thread that ran through Piña’s essay: a quilt that her grandmother began, patch by patch, and that Piña plans to complete now that her grandmother has grown ill. At the end, Piña’s grandmother tells her to go make her own quilt now. “The metaphor works very well when we think about how students will move through campus,” he said. “The things they might clean up or smooth out or add, all moving towards an end goal. But you don’t get there without that first piece.”

The single best sentence of the 2018 batch of essays was written by Alison Hess, an Illinois native who attends boarding school in Wisconsin. It is the last line of her essay about cows, farming, feminism and her father, and I won’t give it away here.

But it’s clear that every sentence charmed her readers at the University of Chicago, where she will begin college this fall. “There is no pretense or calculation in this essay,” said James G. Nondorf, dean of college admissions and financial aid. “There is loyalty and respect and deference but challenging ideas, too. That’s hard to do for a 17-year-old.”

Nondorf said that the university gets plenty of essays each year about work, but they’re often about a company that a student has started or a patent won or sold to Microsoft. Rural applicants are somewhat rare; farmers rarer still.

“Quite honestly, the transcript and testing here were not perfect,” he added. “But this is a great example of how kids can represent themselves in so many ways. It doesn’t require money or going to Andover — just being who they are.”