The Crucible of the Application Process

The Crucible of the Application Process

Dillon Bowen
Dillon Bowen

[Note that this was written in its entirety before hearing any admissions decision on my applications this year]

Over the past two years, I’ve applied for some of the most prestigious academic positions in the world: for numerous scholarships including the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall, as well as for Master’s and PhD positions at Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, and other top universities.

A large part of the application process has been working with applications reviewers, primarily from the university where I studied for my undergraduate degree. In total, I’ve worked with five essay reviewers, a dozen mock interview panellists, and the university’s scholarship advisor. Even though it’s part of their job description to assist students in applying for these positions, it’s extremely clear to me that everyone I worked with went far above what was required of them, and I feel the most appropriate way to start this essay is by expressing my deep and sincere gratitude for their advice and mentorship.

This essay is about my experience with the application process—specifically how I was repeatedly encouraged to alter my applications to conform with far-Left political ideology. These alterations would ostensibly bolster my chances of being accepted to and receiving funds for graduate programs.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that my political ideals tend to lean left. I’ve voted for the Democratic candidate in every national election since age 18, I’m deeply concerned about social issues including women’s rights, LGBT+ issues, and racial discrimination, and I believe that redistributing wealth through government intervention is fundamental to a healthy economy. At the same time, I don’t think the political Left is correct about everything and often find myself disagreeing with the far-Left narrative, especially as it is currently instantiated in the world of academia. Unfortunately, my experience with the applications process convinced me that the viability of my candidacy was largely predicated on hiding these disagreements from applications reviewers.

As a brief disclaimer, none of what I say here should be interpreted as a criticism of my advisors – not of their job performance and especially of their personal predilections. If anything, I think they did their jobs well. Given what I perceive as the entrenched far-Left political ideology in the world of academia, I’m confident that their advice improved my applications in the eyes of review committees. I can honestly say that by the end of the process, I felt as if the only way to be considered a serious candidate – by the Rhodes Trust, Harvard Admissions, etc – was to present myself and my proposed research as conforming entirely to a far-Left political narrative.

Some background on myself and my research: I started my undergraduate as a philosophy major, and in many ways still consider myself a philosopher at heart. My subspecialty within philosophy is the study of ethics and morality.

During my Sophomore year, I attended a talk hosted by the philosophy department on practical ethics, which centered on the notion of using reason and evidence to find the most effective ways to improve the world. I began to realize that not all charities and careers are equal in their ability to improve the lives of others, and decided that I wanted to devote a substantial portion of my time and money to doing as much good as possible.

Since then, I’ve put a lot of effort into figuring out how I can use my life to do the most good for others. From a purely empirical point of view, efforts to alleviate extreme poverty and attendant problems (such as preventable disease) are some of most effective ways to reduce suffering in the world. Compared to most issues we face in the developed world, poverty in the developing world is orders of magnitude more severe and vastly more neglected.

Mosquito nets in Mwanza, Tanzania

And so it’s no coincidence that certain charities working in the developing world are highly effective at improving the quality of people’s lives. These charities include the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which combat malaria and neglected tropical diseases respectively. I plan on donating at least 10% of my lifetime income to these and similar organizations.

In addition to asking how I can use my money, I’ve thought a lot about how to use my time – that is, what career will allow me to do the most good. For similar reasons, I concluded that work in development economics was one of the highest-impact careers I could pursue. Almost from the moment I came to this conclusion, I began taking classes in economics with the eventual goal of researching and implementing projects aimed at alleviating global poverty.

This brings me to today, where I’m now studying economics as a graduate student at Cambridge.

Early drafts of my personal statements looked more or less like what you’ve just read. When I would show these drafts to my writing fellows or scholarship advisors, the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?

Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.

Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?

What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.

I would have these exchanges over and over again throughout my application process. My essays would state that extreme poverty was the greatest problem in the world and I wanted to help solve it. They would ask why I wanted to help solve it. Because it’s the greatest problem in the world, I would say. And my interlocutor would respond with utter bafflement.

It quickly dawned on me that my advisors were, for the most part, largely incapable of understanding how a wealthy White American could possibly care about impoverished Black Africans, apart perhaps from White guilt or some deeper personal connection to poverty.

In the world of the far-Left, the only sensible explanation for why one person would care about the suffering of another is that they personally identified with them on the basis of culture, ethnicity, race, or gender. Moral universalism has become inconceivable for many academics on the Left, who doubt that it’s possible to care about the suffering of another human being independently of your respective identities. Do I think this problem is exclusive to the political Left? No. But I do think it’s been exacerbated to phenomenal levels by identity politics.

During my teenage years, I attended a Catholic high-school. Not a progressive Catholic high-school, but a right-leaning Catholic high-school. Most of our teachers opposed gay marriage and regularly spoke about abortion as a modern Holocaust.

As a secular liberal, I didn’t fit in with most of my high-school peers (to say the least). But the one positive thing I will say about my high-school community is that no one there would have been even slightly surprised if a White person were to express concern for people in Africa, India, or South-East Asia. Caring about others—regardless of their identity as well as ours—was a core part of Catholic teaching.

That notion of impartial, universal caring has been, if not abandoned, then at least grossly distorted by certain academics on the far-Left. Over the past several centuries, our scope of moral concern has been expanding. Many of us now appreciate the virtue of caring for people of other races, cultures, religions, and gender identities in a way that nearly all of our ancestors didn’t. My worry is that identity politics is morally regressive—encouraging the spread of ideas which will contract the scope of our moral concern. Instead of promoting a notion of caring characterized by universality and impartiality, the far-Left seems to be pushing a localized and deeply partial notion of caring which extends only to those with whom we can personally identify.

But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.

It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?

Throughout my application process, the question of why I care came up so frequently that I decided to make it the main focus of my personal statement. In the precious 1000 words allotted to me, I spent the first 350 talking not about my views on global poverty or my ambitions to reform macroeconomic policy-making or my experience conducting randomized evaluations in India, but simply trying to convince the review committee that I as a White Westerner am psychologically capable of caring about people in developing nations. Whether or not my application was accepted seemed to be predicated almost entirely on my ability to successfully convince the review committee of this fact.

I quickly learned that a more effective way to explain why a White Westerner would be concerned about global poverty was by appealing to a sense of justice rather than a sense of caring, specifically by invoking postcolonial White guilt. If I couldn’t explain that I care about people in developing nations for their own sake, at least I could explain that I as a White Westerner felt a sense of responsibility to formerly colonized regions of the world.

This is, of course, not at all how I feel. I believe that holding people accountable for the sins of their ancestors requires a bizarre and Medieval notion of justice, and in fact that there is something fundamentally opprobrious about helping others out of guilt rather than compassion. Though it’s clear that colonialism created a system of inequality which persists through to the present day—a system from which White Westerners have benefited (and arguably continue to benefit) at the expense of formerly colonized territories—I don’t believe this fact should have any bearing on the extent to which we act to help the developing world. In my view, efforts to assist people in developing nations are better motivated by compassion than by guilt. However, the current trend in far-Left academia is to lay blame on former colonial powers and use that blame as the foundational argument for reparations, so this is what I decided to do both in my personal statement and in interviews.

The strategy of playing upon White guilt does, however, come at a cost. When we leverage guilt as our primary motivation for helping the developing world, problems which aren’t obviously related to colonialism, including preventable disease and geographic impediments to trade, almost by definition become unimportant. (By contrast, if we were driven by a sense of universal compassion, then we should care about every problem in the developing world regardless of whether or not it’s a derivative of colonialism).

In other words, the Left’s obsession with structural oppression and social justice has led it to neglect problems like malaria which are, in my view, arguably more critical. When I would mention the problems posed by disease, either in my essays or in mock interviews, my reviewer would often respond with something like, and how do you view malaria as being related to structural oppression?

My honest answer is that I don’t. Structural oppression isn’t the only thing wrong with the world, and many of the major challenges facing developing nations are non-structural in nature. Sometimes our efforts are better spent distributing anti-malarial bednets than trying to restructure society. However, I was explicitly encouraged not to say anything like this in my applications. To many on the far-Left, structural issues almost by definition trump all other concerns, and to think otherwise is something of a heresy. And so, I began to deliberately avoid discussing non-structural issues, omitting any mention of geography and giving only a cursory nod to disease, instead focusing almost exclusively on things like power relations between developing and developed nations.

My view on the relative importance of structural and non-structural issues isn’t the only thing I decided to avoid mentioning to the review committee. Another is my position on free market economies.

Having read over a draft of my personal statement, one essay reviewer asked me how I intended to tackle the ‘root cause’ of poverty. Well, I responded, I knew of several effective interventions which were proven to reduce disease, enhance educational achievement, and increase annual earnings by several hundred dollars.

Yes, but what about the root cause of poverty? She asked again. What did she mean? Weren’t reducing disease, enhancing education, and increasing earnings critical stepping stones on the path towards greater prosperity? When I asked for clarification, she said (as if it were the most obvious thing in the world), Well, I don’t see how we’re going to eradicate poverty without getting rid of capitalism.

I was floored. That’s what she meant when asking about the root cause of poverty? I remember giving her some halfhearted answer about protecting infant industries by adopting certain trade restrictions, which was the most accommodating answer I could give without outright lying about my views on free market capitalism.

Honestly, my position on this is fairly mixed. Free international trade can be and has been tremendously beneficial for developing economies under certain circumstances, whereas centrally planned economies often create more market inefficiencies than they resolve. In fact, capitalism is a large part of what allowed Western society to reach its current state of prosperity. Without going into greater detail, I believe there is an immensely strong case to be made that one of the best things we can do to grow developing economies is to liberalize their markets.

However, I didn’t dare say this to the essay reviewer, who I also knew would be on my nomination interview panel and who was designated to draft my institutional endorsement. Since then, I’ve decided to hide my views on free markets from any potential reviews committees.

But perhaps the most disappointing moments in my applications process occurred when discussing the role of emotion and reason in altruistic decision-making.

In my applications essays and mock interviews, I expressed my opinion that learning to think about altruism more rationally and less emotionally would help change the attitude of apathy and neglect with which developed nations regard those in the developing world.

This opinion was summarily dismissed by my applications advisors. Many of them were skeptical of the notion that reason and rationality could be valid thinking tools at all. Their model of human psychology, it seemed, was one of a blank slate on which culture was free to paint any picture it desired. There was no room in this model for individuals to respond to rational argument and empirical evidence in ways that would compel them to dissent from the edicts of their culture.

I was repeatedly told, for instance, how quixotic it was to expect that I could convince even a single person of the importance of extreme poverty through reason and evidence. Worse yet, I was scolded for ‘presuming’ that there was any rational basis for preferring to work on extreme poverty over other issues.

Initially, I would respond to these criticisms by saying that my convictions regarding extreme poverty were, in fact, the product of having been exposed to evidence. For example, I believe GiveDirectly, which gives unconditional cash transfers directly to people in Uganda and Kenya, is an extraordinarily high-impact program. I believe this because I’ve read randomized evaluations of its work, compared the results to those of numerous other NGOs, and concluded that it’s one of the most effective evidence-backed charities in the world. Now consider that 97% of donors do exactly no research to find the most effective charities. Surely, I would say, I have some basis on which to claim that my decision to donate to GiveDirectly is more rational than average.

I was told that such statements were arrogant and inconsiderate, that which organizations and programs do the most good was merely a matter of opinion, and that I should refrain from speaking as though certain acts of altruism could be more rational than others even in principle.

Like the other criticisms I received, this sort of pushback isn’t exclusive to the political Left. What surprised me, however, was the level of explicit, unapologetic, and profound skepticism that reason and evidence could have any bearing on what we believe and how we behave—at least in the domain of pro-social decision-making.

Moral psychology reveals a level of bias in altruistic decision-making across the political spectrum. Still, many of us aspire to the ideal of reason, even if we don’t always live up to it. Many on the far-Left, by contrast, seem to have discarded the notion of reason as an ideal to which we should aspire at all.

It took some time for my advisors to finally convince me to stop talking about reason, rationality, and evidence in my personal statements and interviews. The last straw came when one of my scholarship advisors told me that my views on reason and emotion were, in fact, sexist. Because ‘rationality’ was associated with masculinity and emotion with femininity, she explained, my preference for rationality over emotion was indicative of my unconscious bias against women.

I realized not only that I was tired of having this argument, but also that I was fighting a losing battle. If the review committees were anything like my advisors expected them to be, they would never take my views on reason and emotion seriously. As a result, I mention ‘evidence’ exactly once in my personal statements. ‘Reason’ and ‘rationality’ make no appearance at all.

These are the most salient examples among many of experiences I had during my application process which convinced me that being forthcoming about my (fairly moderate) political and intellectual beliefs would hurt my candidacy. By the end, I could barely recognize my own voice in my personal statements and interview answers. I hid certain of my beliefs, exaggerated others, expressed tremendous confidence in positions I considered dubious, peppered my language with critical theory jargon, and in many ways molded my application to the far-Left narrative to the greatest extent I could without outright lying.

My grievances with this process extend beyond my personal frustrations. As a result of my experience, I’ve become concerned that the highest echelons of academia may be systematically selecting against any deviation from a particular, narrow conception of far-Left ideology.

To be fair, my concern is largely based on limited interactions with only a handful of individuals. My experience with the applications process may be something of an aberration, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest that there are any sweeping conclusions to be drawn from the anecdotes I’ve provided.

Still, if my experience was in any way representative of a larger trend, we should be deeply worried that the academic filtration process is stifling inquiry into critical questions in development studies and beyond. To what extent should development interventions focus on structural versus nonstructural issues? Can we use market liberalization to grow developing economies? How can we put aside our emotions to make macroeconomic policy on the basis of reason and evidence?

These are all important and unresolved questions, and getting the answers right could mean the difference between life and death for tens of millions of people around the world. Yet, I as an applicant have to act as though they’ve already been decided. And if academia continues to filter candidates in this way, there may soon be no one left asking these questions at all.

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Dillon Bowen

Dillon Bowen completed his B.S. in cognitive science and philosophy in 2016, and is currently studying economics as a graduate student at Cambridge University. He has several academic publications on