I spent this past summer helping rising high school seniors compare dying orchids to dermatology, fallen apples to empathy and spatial vacuums to chronic anxiety. In other words, I was being paid to advise students on their college essays.
For me, the college essay has become more performative than personal. It encourages us — before we even get here — to pretend. At Yale, we need to work to shed the culture that this inaugural rite of passage fosters, embracing who we actually are rather than who we invent ourselves to be.
Like any wannabe capitalist, I designed my services to maximize productivity. How could I create a process that was teachable, effective and expedient? My strategy came down to three words: fact, fiction and philosophy. “Fact,” I explained “was indisputable autobiographical information.” “Fiction,” I instructed, “was the artful way you craft the essay to make it interesting.” “Philosophy,” I pontificated, “was the hardest to get right, but the most important. It’s how you tell your reader that you think about things other than yourself. It’s where stuff gets real.” “These three words,” I concluded, the student’s eyes wide with hope, “are gospel.”
Effectively, I had reduced the task of conveying one’s entire life story to cheap alliteration. Even worse, I stressed that the three pillars would guide students to achieve the one goal of the essay: to entertain. Sure, we like to believe that the personal statement is meant to be a window into the soul, the lone heartbeat in the dead machine of the college application, but what does it matter if what you find soulful your reader finds boring? Ultimately, the goal is to make the reader smile regardless of authenticity. All that matters is being remembered, right?
The entertainment epidemic isn’t exclusive to college admissions. Studies conclude that the average human attention span is eight seconds — even shorter than that of a goldfish. In our digital fishbowl, we have become entitled to the experience of constant stimulation. The ability to hold someone’s attention is a commodity. Stories, compelling tales of grandeur and promise, are king.
In an effort to be heard, we reduce ourselves to characters and plot points, mere ideas of who we are and want to be. These ideas are inherently limiting. We are so much more than a moment captured in 650 words, and yet everyone on Yale’s campus is here because of the person they claimed to be.
I worry that Yale students, from first years to seniors, run the risk of falling short of the story we told. In an effort to sensationalize, to capture attention, I wonder how much of ourselves we have overextended. Are we the activists, thinkers and artists we claimed to be? Should we consider ourselves to have failed if we leave campus not having done everything we said we would? The college essay becomes a metric for our own success that we can never live up to.
So many of the students I worked with, just as I did in my essay, make promises to themselves and the colleges they apply to. They promise to be caring roommates, concerned citizens and champions of change. But what happens when imperfection strikes and our lives don’t resemble the ones we pitched to the admissions committee? By selling stories instead of who we really are, with all our imperfections, we set ourselves up for failure.
The fact is that our road to success will never be as smooth as we characterized it to be in our essays. As we continue this year, whether it be our first or our last, I suggest doing away with the careful constructions of who we promised to be, relishing instead in who we are.
Most likely, we didn’t talk about midnight conversations, broken hearts and homesickness in our essays. But maybe those plot points that didn’t make the cut — the ones that didn’t sensationalize our valiant hero or heroine — are the ones that we’ll want to read four years later when we’ve lost interest in the fiction and want to read something messier, something true.
Higher education isn’t the sole culprit. It falls on us to make things better. Can we be brave enough to allow ourselves to spill from the boxes we are told to check?
ELLA ATTELL is a first year in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .