Trauma Drama: The Trouble with Competitive Victimhood

Theory and Research in Education (forthcoming)
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Writing a college-application essay has become a rite of passage for high-school seniors in the U.S., one whose importance has expanded over time due to an increasingly competitive admissions process. Various commentators have noted the disturbing evolution of these essays over the years, with an ever-greater emphasis placed on obstacles overcome and traumas survived. How have we gotten to the point where college-application essays are all too frequently competitive-victimhood displays? Colleges have an understandable interest in the disadvantages their applicants may have suffered, but this interest—and the awareness of it among both applicants and their advisors—has led to a “race to the bottom”: in order to thrive (or even survive) in a particular competitive context, participants are forced to continuously lower relevant standards in a game of one-upmanship. With college essays, the competition is among high-school seniors for admission, the one-upmanship is an ever-escalating effort to persuade admission committees of one’s greater disadvantage, and the relevant standards being lowered are honesty, privacy, and dignity—or so I shall argue. As we shall see, this particular race to the bottom imposes unequal costs on certain groups and has implications stretching well beyond collegiate admissions.

Author's Profile

Robert S. Taylor
University of California, Davis


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