WHEN OPINIONS CONFLICT

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I’ve written before about who you should listen to and why. Predictably, the answer was that you should listen to me (and the people that I employ), not to your friends, counselors from other centers, or students at the schools you’d like to attend. 

There are two main reasons for this, 1) these people will not be hurt if you fail and/or 2) they lack sufficient information to make good judgements. Think about it. If you fail, your friends will pat you on the back and go right on being friends with you. Undergrads at your target school don’t know you and also don’t know anything about admissions. Counselors from other centers actually have an interest in seeing you fail.  Hint: our failure is good for their business. If your parents knew enough to give you meaningful feedback on your essays, then they wouldn’t have hired us. You should take the advice of the first three groups with lots of salt and advice from the last group with intravenous antibiotics. The kind you can taste in your mouth when they push it into your veins.
On the other hand, you have the devoted people that you’ve already paid to help you. To us, your contracts are assets, but they’re also liabilities: if you fail, it hurts my soul, my reputation, and my income statement. I have no reason to give you bad advice and every reason to give you the best possible advice. I will refer to this general phenomenon throughout as having “skin in the game” (thank you Nicholas Nassim Taleb <3). We have it. Most other people in this process do not. So far as this is concerned, everything should be easy and clear, even if you students do often irrationally overvalue the opinions of people who do not have skin in the game. The rational path is clear.

What I haven’t talked about, and what is less clear, is what to do or think when people who have skin in the game conflict.
One of the most frustrating things that you do to us is take some version of your essay to another counselor, especially before it’s done, and then prompt that counselor to criticize the essay. Then you bring that counselors objections back to the original counselor and ask for help. This is maddening. You do this because you want reassurance that your writing is good. Sadly, you will almost always be told bad things about your writing. This behavior isn’t forbidden, but it isn’t exactly encouraged and it almost never produces the reassuring results students hope for.

There are a few reasons for this. First, when you bring someone something to criticize, they will invariably criticize it. That’s what my people are hired to do, and they’re good at it. You could bring them a poem written by Shakespeare himself and they’d probably attack some aspect of it. Second, they’re always trying to be helpful, and every student essay could better in a variety of ways, including essays that are very much submission ready. They can’t be helpful unless they find something to dislike, so they’re motivated to dislike anything that’s put in front of them. Basically, I hire people to dislike your essays, so don’t be surprised when they do. All in the service of helping you achieve your best, of course. 

Different counselors might see different potentials in the essay and want to help you take it in different directions. All of this plays into a person’s evaluation of your writing. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that everyone’s taste or opinion is equally valid, even among my counselors. In addition to skin in the game, here are a few things to consider when deciding who to listen to.

Experience

How long has someone been working in the field? How many results have they observed within that field? This is a very important consideration because having very many observations (the product of long experience in a given area) is necessary to account for certain types of bias. 
Let’s say that you write an essay about cheese and get accepted to Harvard. Or let’s say that you know someone who wrote about cheese and got accepted to Harvard. What can we conclude from this fact? Almost nothing. There are so many factors that go into a single admissions decision that, from this single decision, you know very little. The one thing you can say with certainty is that writing about cheese does not result in automatic rejection from Harvard. You might think that writing about cheese is at least a good idea, since it worked in this one case. Even this isn’t a good extrapolation, since you can’t know how many other essays were written about cheese that failed to gain admission. Perhaps, out of 100 essays that were written on the subject of cheese, 1 resulted in an admission. But out of 100 essays written on the subject of hot dogs, 30 resulted in an admission. You can’t know without examining all of the essays written by successful Harvard applicants AND all the essays of rejected applicants. Various kinds of sample bias blind us, often in complicated and surprising ways.

When you ask your friends, recent graduates of your high school, or undergraduates at your ED school if your essays are good, you are asking them generalize from too few cases. Such people have a very limited pool of observations from which they can draw and their thoughts are unlikely to be useful. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have thoughts. And unfortunately, since most people don’t think about sample sizes, they will give you an appraisal, and since you crave peer validation and authority (it’s all very golden calf in the desert), you will take the appraisal to heart. These appraisals are then used to call the validity of your counselors’ opinions into question, despite the our greater access to information, because you’re bad at thinking about credibility, authority, and how you know things. You should improve that. It would really help our relationship.

This hierarchy applies to counselors individually as well. The more applications and outcomes someone has observed, the more credible their opinion on the likely success of the application. In this sense, the hierarchy is clear and maps onto the number of counseling seasons observed.

Area(s) of Expertise
What does a counselor know very well? What don’t they know very well? 

I have spent the last 12 years thinking about the Greco-Roman world, reading Greek and Latin, translating, commentating, and reading English poetry strongly influenced by the classical literary tradition (e.g. Milton) .

Anna has devoted her life to producing beautiful English poetry and prose. She’s spent a lot of time in Vermont and Minnesota, does a lot of yoga, and has had some very unusual and painful experiences in India.

Alvin has studied (and continues to study) Vietnamese, is learning Chinese, and has chosen to dedicate a large part of his life to the history of Vietnam and China.

Michael has spent many years studying Vietnamese, Film, and Urbanism.

Etc.

So, if you’ve done the annoyingest thing, gone to 4 different counselors and received 2 or more opinions, who should you listen to? It depends. 

If you’re really into issues of identity, especially if one of those identities is Vietnamese, then Alvin’s voice should probably be most persuasive to you. Identity is something (methinks; he’s welcome to contradict me) into which he has invested time and thought. I haven’t, except to come up with reasons why ethnic and racial identities are things should be forgotten about or otherwise ignored. I’m hostile to the concept of “identity” as it is used in modern academia, though I confess it is a legitimate topic. For this reason, when one of my students needed help on a supplemental essay that had to do with identity in Vietnamese colonial history, I forwarded the draft to Alvin straight-away. He was in a much better position to ask intelligent questions of my student than I was.
If you’re writing anything that could be described as artistic or avant-garde, anything that uses non-standard structures or unusual images, I would talk to Anna and value her opinion very highly, certainly over and against Michael, Alvin, Darren, and Adam (sorry guys). On issues of straight aesthetics (Is something beautiful or well-written?), my dissent is really the only one that should have the power to worry you. It’s worth noting that Anna and I very rarely have serious disagreements on these topics. When it comes to essay coaching, Anna and I have similar instincts (because we have taken seriously and been shaped by the same tradition of poetics) but very different methods and styles of working with students.

If you’re writing about how films function or how they should be interpreted, obviously talk to Michael. Likewise with neuroscience and Adam, etc.  

Knowledge of You

How well do you feel like the counselor understands you? 

This is an important consideration because the your goal, when writing your essay, is NOT simply to write the best possible theoretical essay on a given topic. There IS NO best theoretical essay on a given topic. In order to effective, the essay must be a true expression of you. It is much easier to help a student express themselves when we know that student well, but, people being the inscrutable and occasionally dishonest beings they are, it’s not always easy for us to tell how we know a student. You, the student, are in the best position to determine that.

So Which of These Factors is the Most Important?

It would be impossible to give a single hierarchy of opinions within Bedrock. Different people are credible on different topics and for different reasons. A couple general thoughts to guide you:

If you’re writing anything that could be described as artistic or avant-garde, anything that uses non-standard structures or unusual images, I would talk to Anna and value her opinion very highly, certainly over and against Michael, Alvin, Darren, and Adam (sorry guys). On issues of straight aesthetics (Is something beautiful or well-written?), my dissent is really the only one that should have the power to worry you. It’s worth noting that Anna and I very rarely have serious disagreements on these topics. When it comes to essay coaching, Anna and I have similar instincts (because we have taken seriously and been shaped by the same tradition of poetics) but very different methods and styles of working with students.

If you’re writing about how films function or how they should be interpreted, obviously talk to Michael. Likewise with neuroscience and Adam, etc.  

Knowledge of You

How well do you feel like the counselor understands you? 

This is an important consideration because the your goal, when writing your essay, is NOT simply to write the best possible theoretical essay on a given topic. There IS NO best theoretical essay on a given topic. In order to effective, the essay must be a true expression of you. It is much easier to help a student express themselves when we know that student well, but, people being the inscrutable and occasionally dishonest beings they are, it’s not always easy for us to tell how we know a student. You, the student, are in the best position to determine that.

So Which of These Factors is the Most Important?

It would be impossible to give a single hierarchy of opinions within Bedrock. Different people are credible on different topics and for different reasons. A couple general thoughts to guide you:


The biggest division is between the personal statement and the supplementary essays. The PS is a hybrid creature. It is artistic and its art is entwined with its rhetorical purpose. Its rhetorical purpose is always the same: to convince the admissions counselor that you would be a good student to admit to their college. Its artistic purpose, what it aims to express, can and will vary wildly. Still, it is closer to creative writing and poetry than it is to academic writing or research. This being the case, deference should be given to “literary” people — people who have devoted large chunks of their lives to reading, understanding, writing, and/or translating texts whose first purpose is to be beautiful or affective, as opposed to accurate and informative — on all questions related to the PS.

There are two further divisions within the supplements:

On supplements that don’t involve historical insight or subject matter expertise, experience is king (i.e. design a block, or evaluate our school motto). This is because every year we observe multiple students write supplements for the same school and observe the outcomes. The relationship between supplement quality and admission is obscured by many factors (overall GPA, SAT, student contribution, etc.) and you have to be careful in making assertions about what you think you know, but an overall gestalt does emerge for certain schools after awhile. We are currently looking for ways to formalize this, although that’s harder than it sounds. For now, these lessons of experience can be expressed in simple rules — thou shalt nots —  that are easy enough to share with all the more junior counselors. Deference must be given to the rules suggested by experience as promulgated by those who have it.

On supplements that do involve subject matter expertise (this sometimes includes Why essays — which should definitely NOT be formulaic), you should speak to a subject matter expert / authority to get guidance. Precisely because the PS is so artistic, or at least invites a literary approach, the supplements — to give a balanced picture of the student — should be more deliberately grounded and often are closer to academic than poetic writing. Deference should be given to fellows who possess relevant academic specializations. 
None of this is to say that counselors whose focus is not literature proper cannot help you write great personal statements or to say that someone who isn’t a subject matter specialist can’t help you write a supplement on something outside their specialty. Of course they can, otherwise I wouldn’t hire them. (And remember, I have no reason to bullshit you. If you don’t get into college, my company looks terrible, no one hires us, we go bankrupt, Phuong can’t afford good pre-natal care, my baby is born with a terrible condition we can’t pay for, I kill myself so that I can sell all my organs for money to take care of baby, baby is ok but s/he and Phuong have to live on the street. Skin in the game!) I don’t hire counselors who lack a sufficient background generally. But this is a good guide for what to think when disputes arise or opinions conflict, as they inevitably will, legitimately, in any community that isn’t completely braindead. 

Unlike some places, we have no interest in dissuading you from seeking multiple opinions from our counselors, but that freedom comes with responsibility: the responsibility to think clearly about what weight each of those opinions should have in your mind. Happy supplement writing.

Your loving director and his staff,

Justin 

Justin Shelby