Mastering Genre

Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993

Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993


I read a splendid article yesterday, written by Julia Drake: The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay. Take a look at it before reading this.

I love the piece so much because it perfectly encapsulates the genre of the application essay. Drake captures the voice of a high school student; the word choice of the speaker is totally authentic (in that it is inauthentic). The piece, of course, begins with the overly detailed and indulgent description of a scene. Everything scrabbles or shocks or sears as the speaker combines as much sensory detail as possible. Later on, awkward word clusters bear the marks of a thesaurus: the prospective college student inhabits a world of copious obstacles with a plethora of challenges.  

The entire essay is beautifully stitched together with jargon and clichés. Nothing like hands-on learning can pique the intellectual curiosity and instill a passion for academic discovery. Oh yes—passion—the king of application essay clichés.

Then there are the clumsily included examples. The speaker is so delightfully transparent: you can almost see a high school boy with his chin in his hand, trying to figure out where he can add his experience as French Peer Tutor. You can see that he intended to appear well rounded, but tacking on figure drawing is just arbitrary.

The genre is perfectly parodied in the speaker’s mechanical and questionable connections. He unashamedly repeats the process over and over: past experience, lesson learned, future application. Drake exposes how the dubiety of these connections is central to the average application essay. Will the speaker’s traits acquired surviving dinosaurs really make him an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community? Does his grandfather’s learning experience with terrible lizards really mirror his personal experience in [his] position as Senior Class Co-Treasurer? Also, there is nothing more real than mentioning a co-treasurer position in an application essay.

Of course, the entire piece is laden with the unavoidable combination of narcissism and naiveté. Much of it is an exposition on his complicated and profound transition into adulthood. This is a young man that takes himself very seriously: he can easily foresee continuing his senior capstone project in college’s rigorous academic environment. In a swift move he claims, the raptors were the guillotine—nay, the Robespierre—of my childhood. The irony is impeccable: he tries to prove his maturity with elevated speech, but in doing so he disproves it. As the cherry on top, the essay begins its conclusion with an arbitrary quote from Pliny the Elder. Hint: no high school student is just casually reading Pliny the Elder.

Drake’s article is brilliant because it outlines the genre of college application essay for us. By substituting the standard subject matter for something absurd (the experiences of the boy from Jurassic Park), she reveals the underlying structure. She shows her mastery of the genre by making our implicit understanding explicit. But why does this revelation create humor? Maybe it gives us pleasure to know that we were aware of the genre and its patterns all along. Maybe we are laughing at the absurd combination of Jurassic Park and a college application. Or, maybe it’s funny because we realize that we did it too.