Colleges Ask Applicants to Prove Their Worth

And A New Kind Of Secular Confession

The core purpose of The University of Texas at Austin is, “To Transform Lives for the Benefit of Society.” Please share how you believe your experience at UT-Austin will prepare you to “Change the World” after you graduate.

When my students begin the process of writing their essays that will be submitted as part of their college applications, I like to begin with a blank-slate brainstorming session that encourages story-telling over resume-telling. The latter is technically easier to write but a lot less fun to write — or read. Retelling random stories from snapshots in our lives can take a while, but it’s a total pleasure when done authentically, not to mention an exercise in reflection and awareness.

But when the weight of evaluation looms over the writing, what could be an enjoyable exercise in personal narrative writing turns into a loud and busy display of accolades; personal stories become public performances; hyperbolic retellings of transformations and lessons learned begin to sound like righteous confessions. In short, students are pressured into self aggrandizement or degradation — whichever sounds more compelling in the moment.

The recently discussed this phenomenon, noting the lack of grace in college essay expectations (as well as the out-of-touch notion that 17-year-olds know how they plan to execute their futures, not to mention change the world).

Of the UT Austin “Change the World” essay, comically writes:

“Who cooked up this non-sense? We’ll never know. I’m 100% certain nobody working in UT admissions imagined in high school that they’d be “transforming lives” by becoming a middling bureaucrat. What Starts Here Changes The World seems not to apply to the entity responsible for admitting and enrolling their future students.”

Possibly more nauseating than the UT prompt was a recent prompt a student had to respond to for a local scholarship competition:

Please tell us why you are especially deserving of this award, specifically how you intend to achieve your goal to make something of yourself.

Yikes! Doesn’t this just sound like mom after she catches you in some illicit activity?

I advised my student to simply discuss a few of her future goals as an aspiring nurse and to not get caught up in the “make something of yourself” part. Especially since this student has already at 17 endured her fair share of hardship; she’s already made something of herself.

The subliminal message of “prove your worth” in so many of these college essay prompts is only feeding into the performancism students are already clinging to so tightly in their mission to prove themselves.

What students need to hear loud and clear right now is you are worthy, you belong here, and you are loved — exactly as you are today. Your life up to this point is not a “lead up” to something better; this is your life now and it matters. Your story needs no embellishment; it— and you — deserve to be seen, and if a college doesn’t like what they see, well then you have your answer…

I can’t change this year’s essay prompts, but I can hopefully convince you to stick to and honor your story. Just say it like it is, specifically paying attention to those moments that are less-than-glamorous, rough around the edges, and basic — therein lies the heart of the matter, which will be a pleasure to write, and for the right eyes, a pleasure to read.

Alex Ellison is the author of Go Your Own Way: 7 Student-Centered Paths to the Best College Experience, and the creator of the . She works with families, schools, businesses, and non profits to promote healthier approaches to college and career planning.

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Alex Ellison

Student-centric counselor and consultant. Teen advocate. Author. TEDx and SXSW speaker. | |