Ziad Ahmed and the college essay
let freedom ring
The arrival of spring signals the release of regular decision results from colleges all round the country. Around this time, the accomplishments of high school students who achieve extraordinary success in the college admission process garner the attention of the national media. Students who have been admitted to all eight Ivy League schools, for instance, have been covered by organizations such as Fortune or CNN.
This year, a different type of story on the college admissions process has emerged. Ziad Ahmed, a senior from New Jersey, gained admission to Stanford University after writing #BlackLivesMatter 100 times as his entire response to one of Stanford’s supplemental essay prompts: “What matters to you, and why?”
From any perspective, Ahmed is already an extremely accomplished individual. He worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was invited to the White House by former President Obama and was featured in Business Insider’s piece on fifteen teens who are changing the world. All of this is to say that, aside from the unorthodox nature of his supplemental essay, there were myriad factors that undoubtedly contributed to Ahmed’s admission to Stanford.
In spite of all of these accomplishments, Ahmed should not have been granted admission to Stanford on account of his essay. While its content may be inspiring to some, its utter lack of critical thinking or personal exploration is egregious.
This is not to say that any essay on the topic of Black Lives Matter is bad, or means that any student who writes on this topic is not deserving of admission. To the contrary, if a student can effectively articulate his or her personal investment in a movement like Black Lives Matter, that should be viewed positively by admissions readers. Any institution of higher learning, including Stanford, certainly benefits from students who are dedicated to fighting injustice in any form.
Ahmed’s admission to Stanford raises several alarming precedents that will surely affect students applying to colleges in the future.
First, it would be unfortunate if the admissions officers at Stanford singled out this essay as a strong point of his application. At its core, the purpose of the college essay is to allow students to express themselves openly and add another dimension to their application that GPA, SAT score, and extra-curricular activities cannot provide. In crafting the essay, students are challenged to think critically and convey an aspect of themselves that may not be clear from other portions of the application, or elaborate more fully on something that does appear elsewhere. Ahmed did neither of these. Specific to this prompt, Ahmed answered, repeatedly, what matters to him, but blatantly ignored the second part of the question, which asks why that issue matters to him. While it certainly took audacity to include such an essay in one’s application, that does not mean it was a good essay that admissions officers at one of the most selective universities in the world should view favorably.
It is also a problem if the admissions committee was unimpressed by Ahmed’s essay, yet decided to admit him anyway due to his other accomplishments. At any college information session, admissions representatives repeatedly underscore the importance of the essay as an integral part of a student’s application, and this importance is justified. Even for a candidate as preeminently qualified as Ahmed, the essay needs to remain an important consideration in the admissions process. Ahmed’s decision to not critically engage with the question, by instead repeating the same phrase as his entire essay, indicates an apparent disregard for this necessary aspect of the admissions process.
Ahmed’s admission also sets a dangerous precedent that some future applicants may include the exact same essay as part of their college applications. Most college essays are difficult to plagiarize in totality, since each one is generally unique to the author who crafted it. Ahmed’s essay, on the other hand, requires only a simple copy and paste to be reproduced by millions of high-achieving high school students around the world. Who is to say that the passion they exhibit for Black Lives Matter, or any other social issue, is any less legitimate than Ahmed’s? Will college essays in the future be judged simply by who can cite the single word or phrase that appeals most deeply to an admissions officer’s personal proclivities?
Ahmed’s supplemental essay to Stanford, which was devoid of the creativity and personal engagement that is so critical to the exercise, should have immediately disqualified him from admission to the school. Ahmed is indeed accomplished, but so are the tens of thousands of students who apply to Stanford every year, many of whom took the time to craft essays of substance and insight. If Ahmed had submitted the same essay to Duke, I am hopeful that the school would have respectfully declined to offer him admission.
Ian Buchanan is a Trinity freshman. His column, "let freedom ring" runs on alternate Thursdays.