Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Colette Daiute

Committee Members

Juan Battle

Cheryl Smith

Nancy Budwig

Martin Ruck

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology


college admissions, college essay, qualitative research, access to education


This dissertation examines inequality and access in the college admissions process and, in particular, via the college application essay. With a research design and analysis sampling documents from multiple stakeholders in the college admissions process, this research considers how students with diverse histories of preparation for higher education interact with actors relevant to the admissions process in their college admissions essays. This research project ultimately asks how the college essay process (its importance, the preparation, and ultimate writing) mediates inequality in admission to higher education. Essays were collected from students at one large public university and one small private liberal arts university. These were analyzed alongside university admissions requirements and college preparatory agency information. Analyses showed that all student essays interacted with the institutional expectations and presented an awareness of the need to write for their audience. Students addressed their audience more and less directly, by conveying challenges they overcame and describing the personal growth that came from those challenges. Differences in essays by students across public and private universities emerged in how the students approached challenges and development. For example, first-generation college students and those who did not participate in college preparatory activities devoted more words to describing the challenge itself, whereas their non-first-generation peers and those that were exposed to college preparatory work devoted more attention to exploring the development of their passions. This study sheds light on how students use the college essay process to negotiate their understanding of higher education and their potential place in it, in relation to numerous messages they have received. That said, barriers to higher education access remain. The findings can help researchers consider innovative designs for studying inequality and for considering practices of educators, policy makers, and families to better understand the college process.