MERCER-GOLDEN: Applying yourself

Meditations

My last few weeks have been full of applications — mine and other people’s. As someone who is helping evaluate two sets of applications and writing many more than two sets of applications, I can say loudly and firmly that applications stink. Writing them stinks, but reading them may stink even more.

I hate trying to find the graceful balance between selling yourself and not sounding like a total tool, the reckless editing necessary to make your point coherent, the lies of over-enthusiasm we all tell. I am tired of reading boring paragraphs — mine and other people’s — that do little more than tell me how badly someone wants a particular opportunity. Reading applications that make the same mistakes as mine reinforces my discomfort with my own writing and holds me accountable in a punishing kind of way.

Perhaps what is hardest to deal with about applications is the scent of desperation that inevitably seems to hover over all of them. We wouldn’t apply if we didn’t want something — the time and energy simply wouldn’t be worth investing. But at the same time, the time and energy we invest make us more vulnerable to rejection: We have put ourselves forward to be judged, and to be found wanting seems a cruel trick after all our hard work.

I certainly struggle to justify hard work in the face of what can seem like imminent failure: I want to protect myself from the fallout of disappointment. Likewise, I want to protect others from the same sense of failure. Turning down lovely, qualified people is definitely the worst part of conducting any application process. But the very presence of applications reinforces the notion that not everyone can win, and, sadistically, victory wouldn’t feel sweet unless we know we were chosen.

How, then, do we apply ourselves to the task of writing applications in the face of uncertainty and our own insecurities? The best answer I can give is probably too easy: We can’t get what we want unless we reach for it. The challenge is to become self-confident enough that failure doesn’t hurt too much and to convince yourself that, no matter the outcome, you did your best.

Yet there is also pleasure in writing applications. I have learned more about myself in the last few weeks of writing applications than I did in the previous months of simply living. I have reevaluated what brings me joy, what I want my future to look like and who I am when pretense and anxiety are stripped away. I have a different sense of how my interests inform each other and how I can use my skills to make the world better. Writing nice things about myself has also been an unexpected ego boost, one that is thankfully tempered by my concerns about the outcome of the applications themselves.

Reading applications has also taught me — in a short period of time — a lot about human beings, collectively and individually. I now feel (maybe erroneously) that I can distinguish someone with genuine enthusiasm for and knowledge of a subject from one who is simply spinning words for the sake of it. I have a better sense of what qualities I value in friends, co-workers and employers. Becoming conscious of other people’s insecurities by reading applications — and also what people love and value about themselves — has validated my own fears of inadequacy and my desire to affirm what I believe I do well.

In the end, win or lose, a good application is a joy to read and practically writes itself. The amount of effort required in writing a good application reminds us how hard it is to know ourselves intimately and how much work is entailed in keeping up with our own changing interests and desires. Even in my irritation, I have come to be grateful both for the ways I have had to apply myself and for the ways I have watched other people apply themselves. Both have shown me the value of wanting something and working for it, how we can bridge the gap between desire and outcome and the importance of speaking honestly and fully about who we are.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

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