Those of you still bitter about rejection from our Cambridge rival, take heed. Below is the introduction of a successful Harvard admissions essay.
“The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer.”
Everything a college essay shouldn’t be, right? Vague, unsupported, lacking distinct voice, and packed with bottomless platitudes that could be applied to any number of top-tier liberal arts schools. And tempting as it may be to cite this as proof of subpar standards up in Boston, Harvard received 35,000 applications this year and will admit around 6 percent of those in April. As with Yale, there’s little room to be bland. So what gives?
For starters, this essay was not written for admission to the Class of 2015, but rather the Class of 1940. And if you were to skim the personal information listed above it, you would read the following: “Kennedy, John Fitzgerald. 294 Pondfield Rd, Bronxville, New York.”
JFK’s Harvard application is one of many personal relics recently digitized by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (RFK’s surprisingly modest $106 bachelor dinner bar tab among them), and Yalies would do well to read it. The complete file showcases an average grade of 68 while Kennedy prepped at Choate — passing by just three points. His highest grade was an 85 and his lowest a 55, in English and French, respectively.
But I can’t be too hard on the guy — he turned out all right. Graduated from Harvard cum laude, slept with Marilyn Monroe, and became the coolest president ever (and I do mean ever — sorry Barack). His trajectory was a sign of the times: Kennedy was admitted to Harvard with those credentials because he could be. He was not an exception, and droves of other mediocre students from top preparatory schools were admitted to elite colleges — Yale very much included — without a second glance. There was little incentive for them to try any harder.
“Try” is the operative word there. The tone of Kennedy’s application predicts the decline in old money, Anglo-Saxon social dominance that occurred post-Camelot, but it also provides a crucial warning to the successors of the WASP throne of higher education (read: us). The most substantial component of Kennedy’s Harvard application is a letter from his father to the Dean of Freshmen, which admits, “Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, but is careless and lacks application in those which he is not interested.”
Trying too hard — that is, trying at all — was one of the greatest faux pas known to WASP-dom, a realm in which Kennedy, though Catholic and Irish-American, was decidedly archetypal. Look no further than “The Official Preppy Handbook” for proof of this. Published in 1980 as a brilliant satire of WASP culture, “The Handbook” was instead embraced by its victims as the defining text of their people — much like “American Psycho” and the banking set — and inspired a self-perpetuating cycle that later produced J.Crew and the renaissance of L.L.Bean. Chapter One of “The Handbook” includes “The Preppy Value System,” and there at #5 (behind Consistency, Nonchalance, Charm and Drinking) resides the issue: Effortlessness.
With the right family, the right connections and the right degree of privilege, effort was not as necessary in Kennedy’s day. As “The Handbook” states, “If life is a country club, then all functions should be free of strain.” The WASP institution frowned upon strivers as ungraceful and uncouth; effortless success reinforced the belief that such social standing came naturally, deservedly and — above all — permanently.
That last part proved to be a problem. In the late 1960s, administrators at Harvard and Yale — themselves products of this culture — began to open their doors to a more diverse array of students. They, unlike Kennedy and his cohorts several decades prior, were rather fond of effort. It got them places. But rather than adapt to the meritocratic system being implemented, many WASPs stuck to the Preppy Value System — which did little to help them compete with motivated, ambitious peers who lacked the safety of trust funds to temper their work ethic.
All other things being equal, JFK would not have been admitted to Harvard in 2011 — or Yale, for that matter. The cancer of effortlessness decimated the WASP empire, and provides an invaluable lesson for students at top schools today, regardless of background. Effort is not a transgression. In a rapidly globalizing, increasingly competitive world, your Yale diploma entitles you to nothing. Make it look easy if you can, but don’t be scared and unwilling to earn your keep — or you’ll surely lose it.
Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.