The Ignored Insights Of An International Student

by Navasz HansotiaPhoto of Navasz Hansotia

Navasz is a Political Science major and Philosophy and Law minor from Mumbai, India. As a freshman, her inspiration for writing this essay was her recent experience with the college application process. Navasz says that “coming from a high school in India, multiple factors in the application process were not in my favor and would have been different if I had received my high school education from the United States.” This essay was special because she “learned how to inculcate the art of actively responding with my own voice in terms of academic writing rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing with the writer.” Navasz is passionate about equality and she cares deeply about women’s rights and animal rights. She says that “as a firm believer of equality in every sphere, be it gender, race, economic background. I felt empowered responding to Warren’s work and highlighting the issues faced by international students during the college application process.” Her passion for equality is what has inspired her to study law.

James Warren’s essay “The Rhetoric of College Application Essays: Removing Obstacles for Low Income and Minority Students,” is certainly insightful as it highlights a series of unconventional claims on something the majority of us have distinctively experienced — the college application essay. Warren’s project examines colleges’ deceptive approach towards the college application essay that lacks transparency and ‘widens the achievement gap’ between low-income, ethnic minority students and middle-income White students. Warren supports his causational and relational claims with evidence from his study to persuade his audience. However, is his study missing something?

Warren’s study, based on low-income, ethnic minority students and middle-income White students with regards to the achievement gap in college application essays, successfully persuades his audience with pieces of evidence to support his claims. However, his study is certainly confined. Warren fails to highlight the struggles faced by international applicants with regards to the college application essay. According to ‘Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange,’ International students make up 5.5 percent of the total U.S. higher education population and contribute 44.7 billion dollars to the U.S. economy (“Number of International Students…”). Being an integral part of the system and economy, international students are often paid no heed. Being an international applicant is exceedingly arduous, especially if the student’s origin is a developing country with a lack of opportunities and resources, even more so than a low performing U.S. high school.

Growing up in Mumbai, India, where I have completed my school, I found the entire application experience to be overwhelming due to the lack of familiarity from the disparate education system. Fortunately, English is my first language and medium of instruction, but in India and many other developing nations, students who want to gain acceptance into universities would not be able to regardless of the intellect, talent and perseverance they possess due to highly competitive English writing being a determining factor of their worthiness. I believe familiarity is a key to comfort and confidence. Warren claims, “…They may unintentionally continue to favor applicants who are academically socialized over those of similar aptitude who are simply less familiar with academic culture” (13). However, he failed to highlight the emotional and mental aspect behind his effective claim. Students are familiar with certain concepts or systems, they mechanically develop a positive attitude towards it. Humans innately find comfort in familiarity. Hence when faced with situations or concepts that are alien to us, we experience discomfort, lack of confidence and develop a negative attitude towards it before even attempting to approach it. Studying in India, I have not been familiar with various key aspects of the American educational system — GPA was never a concept for our system, neither were ‘honors’ courses, prerequisites, significant topics of the rhetorical situation model, college application essays, persuasive arguments and so much more were never even briefly introduced to us in class. I felt like I could never compete with or be at par with those who are familiar with the mechanisms of the American educational system. Due to the lack of familiarity and experience, my confidence was shattered. I already harbored a negative approach towards the college application process, including the college application essay which impacted my writing.

Warren highlights the counsel’s façade of wanting to know a student better beyond their academics, whereas the true intent is to create a high stakes competitive writing task. He states, “The true nature of the college essay is not an invitation to write for someone who really wants to know a student better. It is, rather, a high-stakes competitive writing task that can make the difference between college acceptance or rejection” (Warren 2). While I support Warren’s claim of the counsel’s facade, he does not highlight why it exists. Essentially, this could be looked as a ‘game’ as Graff states (2). This game is put up by the colleges, with no manual for the players — the applicants. Getting past the first level would be to understand the implicit purpose and the rhetorical situation, the second level would be comparing the students’ writing abilities on the basis of effective rhetoric, logical reasoning, and persuasive argumentation, and the final would be gaining acceptance. The students who lack the resources to infer the implicit purpose and instruction are instantly eliminated at the first level of this ‘game.’ Very often, as international applicants do not have the opportunity of their schools explaining to them the implicit nature of the prompt and the counsel’s expectations, they are eliminated at the first level of the ‘game.’ The deceptive nature serves as a tool to intentionally facilitate the university’s ease and convenience with regards to the tedious innumerable applications they receive.

Warren effectively highlights the lack of transparency within the prompt through his rhetoric. I perceive the universities’ lack of transparency as a system to evaluate and search for a particular race or class within the social and economic hierarchy, but not explicitly ask for it under apprehension of fierce backlash and moral misconduct. He states, “Universities in a powerful position to evaluate whatever it is they are looking, but perhaps not clearly asking, for” (Warren 3). Race and class discrimination has been so deep seeded in our economy and society; it could be subtly ingrained in the college admissions process as well. Warren also strongly claims that the admissions counselors actually misguide and discourage students from observing the rhetorical situation of the essay. Warren supports his claim with evidence from the Hints & Tips” page of the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions website which read “Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear” (Warren 3). This ‘tip’ actively misleads the student rather than providing guidance. It dismisses the very foundation of the rhetorical situation — to gauge the audience, evaluate and think deeper to gain a better understanding, and ultimately achieve your purpose. This especially misleads international students, who are desperately turning to guidance and tips available online as they do not receive them in their respective schools. This could be perceived as intentional segregation, without explicitly asking for what the truly want — the university receives their target applicants and eliminates those who are not.

Warren also highlights how the universities mislead students through their open-ended prompts. They have a facade of providing liberty, whereas its true nature is highly contradictory. He states, “…Such prompts appear to offer students greater freedom, but this freedom is only as good as admissions officers’ openness to textual diversity” (Warren 13). The liberty provided is actually delivered with several constraints. The lack of objectivity and transparency of the rhetorical situation of the essay makes the drafting process exceedingly arduous. It also misleads students to get overwhelmed with the liberty of such open-ended prompts. There should be set standards to expect with regards to the style, diction and dialects in writing, made easily available online for all applicants across the globe. This would increase the likelihood of even international applicants unfamiliar with the system to deliver a successful essay as per the explicit expectations of their audience — the admission officers.

As an international student, I was extremely disoriented while working with my college application essay as I was unfamiliar with the implicit expectations of the university and the concept of a rhetorical situation model. The prompt, misleadingly titled as “Personal Insight Questions,” provided by the University of California was: “Describe how you express your creative side” (“Personal Insight Questions”). The lack of transparency with such an open-ended prompt would lead anyone to think they have to write about their favorite hobby passionately, a personal narrative. As Warren claims, “Most prompts ask applicants for personal narratives, but the essays actually function as arguments that make a case for the applicant’s potential as a college student” (Warren 2). If a student’s creative side was singing and wrote that for the essay, they would be more likely to be dismissed by the counsel than a student who wrote about creative writing as their creative side. The hobby of singing would not be able to demonstrate the student’s intellect or academic potential that the admission counsel is seeking, but not explicitly asking for. Hence, universities should refrain from such prompts without explicit instruction, as a student cannot deliver as per the expectations if the expectations are not projected onto the prompt.

DeCosta-Smith observes that students from underrepresented groups scarcely enroll in for-profit preparatory courses that provide specialized instruction that clarify the implicit details and elements to be familiar with (Warren 2). Warren states that this is the embodiment that Graff termed, “undemocratic curriculum” (2). I found this term describing the U.S. academic curriculum rather fascinating as Warren aptly represents it. However, he fails to explicitly mention elements of the curriculum that would make it “undemocratic.” I believe the few key features of American democracy come into perspective — equality, liberty, and the American dream. The college application and essay process lack equality due the achievement gap existing within the low-income minority and international students who lack resources to succeed with no fault of theirs, and the students placed with opportunities they did not earn on merit. Liberty is the freedom from the authority’s repression. Not only does the counsel place restrictions, but also actively lacks transparency with regards to those restrictions. This in turn demolishes the very foundation of the American Dream — the equal opportunity to success and pursuit of happiness. The ‘American Dream’ was the foundation for several immigrants across the world, fleeing to the United States — the land of hope and opportunity for success through hard work. However, international students are often denied this opportunity, regardless of their efforts due to the ‘undemocratic’ nature of the curriculum.

However, I believe democracy can be restored in the curriculum. There can be solutions implemented to battle the façade put up by colleges. Warren makes an effective policy claim, “Demystifying the college essay is a small but important step toward increasing access to desirable four-year institutions for students who do not understand how ‘the academic game’ is played” (3). I believe this demystifying can be achieved through making college essay prompts transparent and more objective with explicit instructions and set standards to meet through a rubric. I also believe the rhetorical situation model and persuasive argument should be introduced as mandatory courses in all high schools within America and other countries as well. The rhetorical situation model and elements of persuasive arguments provide long term gains of the likelihood of securing a good post-secondary education and in turn a satisfactory job. The domino effect of high school students’ familiarity with post-secondary academic culture produces a cumulative chain reaction determining the likelihood of a student’s success or failure according to standards set by the economy and society.

Works Cited

“Number of International Students in the United States Hits All-Time High.” The Power of International Education, 18 Nov. 2019.

“Personal Insight Questions.” University of California. Personal Insight Questions UC Admissions.

Warren, James. “The Rhetoric of College Application Essays: Removing Obstacles for Low Income and Minority Students.” American Secondary Education, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013.