This paper explores inequality along the path to college through an analysis of college admissions essays and institutional documents that shape admissions expectations in the United States. The research considers how successful applicants from two different universities and students who are the first in their families to go to college compared to those who are not, approach the college essay in relation to the presented institutional expectations. The sample consists of institutional materials from two universities, one a small private university and one a large public institution. Institutional materials also include documents from college preparatory agencies (such as Kaplan and Khan Academy). Thirty-five student essays were collected from the same two universities mentioned above. Through values analysis, a narrative analysis method, I ask how students with less exposure to the culture of college (taken for granted knowledge about college that is passed down from families) perform the college essay genre. Findings show that students with less exposure to the culture of college focus more on challenges and narrate less expression of their “true selves” in their college admissions essays. Findings can help stakeholders create a more equitable college admissions process that more clearly illuminates institutional expectations for students.
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