The Kids Are Alright

Read these college application essays about race, money, and class.

Photo: Annie Worner/Flickr

“The professors’ home was a telescope to how the other (more affluent) half lived. They were rarely ever home, so I saw their remnants: the lightly crinkled New York Times sprawled on the kitchen table, the overturned, half-opened books in their overflowing personal library, the TV consistently left on the National Geographic channel. I took these remnants as a celebrity-endorsed path to prosperity. I began to check out books from the school library and started reading the news religiously.

Their home was a sanctuary for my dreams. It was there I, as a glasses-wearing computer nerd, read about a mythical place called Silicon Valley in Bloomberg Businessweek magazines. It was there, as a son of immigrants, that I read about a young senator named Barack Obama, the child of an immigrant, aspiring to be the president of the United States. The life that I saw through their home showed me that an immigrant could succeed in America, too.”

The New York Times ran four excellent college application essays about race, money and class over the weekend. All of them are very, very good. The excerpt above is from Jonathan Ababiy and is brilliant for how it captures the silent markers of class — hard to put your finger on in the abstract, but you know it when you see it.

Zöe Sottile writes about how the Dell laptop issued to her and all other full-ride scholarship kids at Andover was its own class marker and reflects on the very specific feeling of your cultural capital not matching with your socicieconomic status.

My parents attended college and grew up wealthier than I did, giving me cultural capital many of my full-scholarship friends never had access to. Moreover, I’m white and could afford occasional concert tickets or sparkly earrings. The laptop, carried by all full-scholarship students and coded with hidden meanings, pivoted my friends’ understandings of me. At home, I grew up middle class, then became the privileged prep school girl. But at Andover, suddenly, I was poor. Trying to reconcile these conflicting identities, I realized how complex and mutable class is. My class is connected to my parents’ income, but it’s also rooted in cultural knowledge and objects that are charged with greater meaning.

Which brings me back to the laptop: in the middle of my senior fall, my exhausted Dell broke and I couldn’t afford another. When I managed to borrow a slim Mac from my school, I felt the walls around me reorient. I hoped that now I wouldn’t have to think about the electric web of privilege and power every time I sent an email. Instead, I felt a new anxiety: I worried when I sat in the magnificent dining hall with my beautiful computer that I had lost an important part of my identity.

These are the kinds of things I thought at college but never actually expressed, because no one really talked about it at all. My school had a reputation for being the school where kids who couldn’t get into NYU but could pay for it at full tuition ended up. I was neither. It was an interesting experience, for many reasons. It is also where I learned how to recognize the Boston-in-the-2000s markers of class — specifically Longchamp nylon totes and these Herve Chepalier two-toned shopping bags that I wanted very badly that cost, for no reason, $124. Once you start learning about the subtle signifiers — the detritus of class — you can really spot them anywhere. A tattered L.L. Bean tote bag crusted with salt and sun-bleached maybe says summer house; an affinity for S’mores and a high-level knowledge of square knots whispers sleepaway camp. You’ll find them for the rest of your life, even if you don’t want to.

4 Standout College Application Essays on Work, Money and Class

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