During my senior year of high school, a college admissions counselor presented my class with a rundown on Common App essay clichés.

Don’t give a summary of your accomplishments—that’s what your resume is for. Avoid discussing your parents’ divorce or your grandmother’s death. That time you tore your ACL before the big game? No one cares. And never, ever, under any circumstances, write about your church’s mission trip to a developing country.

He offered two alternatives: one, write about a hobby (ideally something that doesn’t show up elsewhere on your application); or two, write about overcoming adversity (ideally something less common than death or disease). Illustrate how your trauma is a part of you, but doesn’t define you. In the eyes of admissions officers, he said, resilience in life translates to rigor in completing coursework.

But, as illuminated in a recent New Yorker investigative piece from staff writer Rachel Aviv, there’s another reason that writing about hardship might give an applicant an edge: Schools want to be applauded for their role in saving disadvantaged students from misfortune and propelling them to success. 

Unless that misfortune is a bit too nuanced.

The article follows Mackenzie Fierceton, a University of Pennsylvania graduate whose Master’s degree and Rhodes Scholarship were rescinded after the administration raised doubts about her identity as a foster child and domestic abuse survivor.

Fierceton applied to college the same year I did. For my Common App essay, I took the hobby route, writing about my love for baking; Fierceton went with the other recommended approach, composing a piece that reflected on the abuse she’d endured from her mother. From the story:

Mackenzie responded to the prompt “Describe an experience which caused you to change your perspective” with an essay about finding herself in the pediatric intensive-care unit and looking at her bruised face in the mirror. She described “the one who almost killed me . . . the one who is my mother. She broke me.” She concluded, “I was never broken. She was.”

Because Fierceton had been placed in foster care during her junior year of high school, when she applied to Penn, she was listed as a first-generation student; as an independent estranged from her family, the information that her mother was a wealthy college graduate was not required. 

Fierceton excelled at Penn, completing both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in four years and receiving a Rhodes scholarship to continue her studies at the University of Oxford. As the scholarship is awarded to just 32 students nationwide, it came with media attention, including one article that stated, “Mackenzie Fierceton grew up poor.”

The father of one of Fierceton’s high school classmates wrote to the university to point out the story’s inaccuracies, and things began to come crashing down.

“Penn had once celebrated her story, but, when it proved more complex than institutional categories for disadvantage could capture, it seemed to quickly disown her,” Aviv writes.

It’s a riveting story that reads like a mystery and raises questions about the ulterior motives of universities and the boxes we fit people into. As Harvard professor Anthony Jack asks in the article:

“Colleges are in such a rush to celebrate their ‘first Black,’ their ‘first First Gen’ for achievements, but do they actually care about the student? Or the propaganda campaign that they can put behind her story?”

When you’re finished, check out the response to the story—in the two weeks since it was released, there’ve been some developments.


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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.