An Open Letter to College Admissions

When I was twelve years old, I attended my first Ivy League college reception. In a musty hotel room, filled to the brim with fidgety high schoolers and anxious parents, a go-getter in a ponytail confidently raised her hand and asked: “So, what are you looking for in an applicant?”

The Harvard Admissions officer smiled wholesomely, leaned down to the mic, and said in a soothing voice: “We just want you to be yourself. Your authentic self.”

It was a heart warming sentiment. Wow! I thought. All I have to do is be me, and I, too, can get into Stanford? How simple!

And this admission officer’s mantra was repeated on into my high school career. This summer, I picked up a book on how to write the perfect college essay. In it, the admissions officers interviewed for the book started off by saying: be yourself! Write about the things you care about!

How simple! I thought.

And then, ten pages later, they listed off their ‘Pet Peeve’ essays: sports, mission trips, cliche extracirriculars, dead loved ones.

Of course, this list could alternatively be called: Top Five Things Most High Schoolers Care About.

Later on in the book, one of the admissions officers talked about how angry it made him when teenagers said they wished someone close to them would die so they could write an insightful essay about it. But instead of talking about the startling morbidity behind this statement that is quite obviously indicative of a poisonous culture of college admissions, he talked about how teenagers should just be themselves in their essays. Authentic.

It was ironic, given that this interview was in a book which literally gave the reader a step-by-step guide to writing a college essay that was ‘guaranteed’ to get you into an Ivy.

Be authentic, the book commanded. But make sure that your authenticity is in line with what we want to hear.

Because admissions officers don’t want you to actually be yourself — let’s be honest, if I wrote my essay about how much I loved scrolling through my Instagram page, or sleeping in until 2 PM, I wouldn’t get into Stanford.

Sure, admissions officers want you to be yourself, but they want you to be a very specific version of yourself. A person who loves having fun and has a bunch of friends and is super cool and cute!…but also a person who devotes a majority of their time to community service, or speech and debate, or basketball.

But that kind of person does not exist naturally — that kind of person is manufactured carefully.

So I have spent nearly half of my life chiseling myself into what colleges want me to be. And in pursuit of this manufactured existence— walking the tightrope between writing a ‘polished essay’ but not having it be ‘overedited’; having ‘regular interests’ but making sure they tie in concretely to intellectual pursuit — I think I might have forgotten who I am.

When reviewing one of my college essays where I talk about how much I love reading the news, I had a momentary jolt of panic. Do I actually like reading the news? I asked myself. Or is that just something I started doing for college? As I scrolled through my New York Times app that night in bed, all the words I read were enveloped in a haze of uncertainty.

Because can you truly love something if you’re using it as a means to an end? Do I love reading the news, or do I love telling admissions officers that I love reading the news?

My authenticity is not something that springs from within, it’s something that I put on every day. But I’ve grown so used to the exterior that I think I’ve forgotten what the interior is.

The elite college admissions process has turned genuine interests into pawns for a larger game. And in a world where a bachelors degree is the new high school degree, it’s a game I am forced to play.

So I am authentic. But I am a very specific brand of authentic. One that (let’s hope) gets me into Stanford.

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