What Semiliterate Conan the Barbarian Can Teach Us About The Application Essay

The Proudly Lowbrow Way to Make This Point:

In 1982 the current Governor of California starred in a movie about a swordsman who, over the course of many adventures, struggled to discover what his father referred to as “the secret of steel.”  If you’re averse to movie spoilers, or just not the kind of person who enjoys knowing secrets, stop reading now.  Otherwise, permit me to spare you from using your Netflix account or iTunes rentals for 129 minutes you’re likely to regret.

Much to the chagrin of Conan the Barbarian, the secret of steel turns out to be this: Steel is weak, but flesh is strong.  In other words, the sword is merely an expression of the warrior who wields it.  In college admissions the pen is even mightier than the sword, but the whole student—revealed as a composite from different, authoritative sources—is mightier still.

In this light it’s a mistake to think of the essay as the make-or-break component of your application.  That way of thinking also tends to make the task of writing it an even bigger source of anxiety.  A great essay by itself does not get anyone into college any more than a sharp sword by itself flashes across the movie screen to do all the vengeful smiting.

I’m not saying your writing doesn’t matter.  The essay stands apart as a powerful opportunity for self-expression.  Take full advantage of it.  But remember that even without his steel, Conan was formidable.

The Shorter, Highbrow Version of the Same Point:

A character in “The Fellowship,” a story by 2007 National Book Award Finalist Lydia Davis, receives the following unsettling feedback: “It is not that you are not qualified to receive the fellowship, it is that each year your application is not good enough.”

Our committee takes a broader view.

- Henry Broaddus