#BlackLivesMatter One Hundred Times

For many years, one of Stanford University’s ( college application essay prompts has been, “What matters to you, and why?” It’s a wonderful essay topic and has often been answered with passion and creativity. This past year, a student responded to the prompt by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” ( one hundred times. That was it, the entire essay.

Because the student was ultimately accepted at Stanford, much has been written about this particular application essay. College and high school administrators, students, and parents have all had strong opinions about whether the student deserved his acceptance. As a college application essay tutor for over ten years, therefore, I thought I should offer my own thoughts on this controversial subject.

A Stanford Standout

First, I applaud the audacity of the student. It’s hard to distinguish yourself in a 250 word application essay and he certainly accomplished that. He also demonstrated fearlessness, conviction, and a connection to the world around him. In addition, the student was already an established activist, so his essay was a clear reflection of who he is.

On the other hand, it was a stunt.




Using the basic idea as a starting point, the student could have easily expanded on it. He might have also utilized a personal anecdote that illustrated his dedication to the concept, or demonstrated his insight and advanced thinking through well constructed prose. Instead, he used repetition alone to make his point.

Stanford, We Have a Problem

Without having first hand knowledge, I am confident that the student possessed credentials that, regardless of the essay, made him a viable candidate for freshman admission. But this, for me, is where Stanford’s actions become problematic. While the vast majority of applicants with appropriate credentials take the time to write a true essay, draft after draft of it, they rewarded a student who went with one point, splashily presented.

In working with high school seniors, transfer students, law, med and grad school applicants on their college application essays and personal statements, I always encourage them to push beyond their first, second, or third idea, to demonstrate the deep thinking that top schools look for in prospective students ( What Stanford has done, in my opinion, is undercut that philosophy and encouraged a different approach, one that favors concept over content.


Several years ago a student asked me if he could answer an essay prompt with a single question mark. He felt it was bold, showed an understanding of his own limitations, and a desire to learn. I advised against it for the same reasons I take exception to Stanford’s stamp of approval on the #BlackLivesMatter essay. While attention getting, a cutesy approach can’t fully explore an essay prompt, whatever it may be. It can’t reflect an applicant’s level of maturity, broad perspective on life, or her ability to establish and develop a point, all critical considerations of whether that person is ready for college.

I sincerely hope that the notoriety this incident has gained doesn’t lead to a trend of similar essays, arm waving, look-at-me work that walks away from the difficult task of creating a truly superlative application essay. It is indisputable that Black Lives Matter. But essays matter, too.

Or, to put it in way less than 250 words

What happened at Stanford was an aberration. There are no shortcuts to an outstanding essay.

For personal help with the college application essay, contact Craig Heller at [email protected] or 818-445-4697.


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