The College App Lie

Making Peace with the Presentation of the Self

A high school junior is typically a seething mass of inarticulate and directionless confusion and uncertainty.

Every fall I agree to help one of these amorphous beings write his college application essay, and every time I do so, I have the same uncomfortable feeling that I am teaching a young person to lie.

The college app essay demands a unified, well-developed, and coherent presentation of a self that is anything but; it requires an articulate vision of one’s personal history, educational interests, and career plans way before that kind of clarity is possible.

That’s where I come in.

My job is to draw the young writers out, to help them see who they are and what they have to offer, and to aid them in structuring the often contradictory and always crisscrossing lines of impulse, desire, hope and dream.

To do so, I have to teach them to spin, dissimulate, and package themselves, to massage the Real into a truth — and this is where the problem arises.

As adults we have grown accustomed to all the little compromises with raw honesty demanded by tasks like writing an application essay. We have already accepted the fact that the social world is essentially theatrical, a high-stakes game of role-playing, and the crude truth will not do. We have learned to spin our accomplishments into the story most favorable to our career advancement.

Artful dissimulation, we have learned, is just one of the necessities of making one’s way in the world.

But to a junior in high school this necessity is still news, and the college application essay often comes as the first big revelation of the Machiavellian insight: “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”

In writing the essay, students have to pretend that they are more goal-driven than they are, more articulate than they can be, and more stable than they feel. Young people greet this task with a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and bitterness — fear because they think they are raising expectations which they will have to satisfy, committing themselves to a performance they doubt they can pull off; embarrassment because they feel they are lying before adults who have taught them it is wrong to lie, colluding in a pretense about themselves; and bitterness because just when they thought they were getting out from under the thumb of their parents and teachers, they realize they still have to play to authority, to tell the gatekeepers what they want to hear.

Ironically, the young person’s habit of discounting his own personal experience often forces him into an unnecessary degree of dissimulation. Most high school juniors are still far away from recognizing Emerson’s truth, “…that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Most young people think their own lives are normal, ordinary, nothing special; they haven’t lived enough of life to see themselves as unique, to believe in their own intuitions, or to trust themselves, so that the unique experiences that could give their essay distinction fly completely under their radar — undetected.

Of course, now and again, I meet the exception, the young person comfortable and sure of himself and ready to take on the world to become all that he can be. Under such circumstances, all my skills in intellectual midwifery go largely untried, and I lapse into a mere editor.

But as long as the essay remains central to the application process, an initiation rite helping us turn adolescents into young adults, my job is secure. And I will continue to teach the young that it’s not so bad, this task, that in fact it’s an art, one well worth learning: of spinning the truth in the direction of one’s highest hopes.