Shot in the Dark

One of my favorite and most distinct memories of the summer of 2016 was sitting in front of a bonfire crackling underneath the quiet and breathtaking New York sky, huddling for warmth with all my friends crowded around me.

Amongst all the wide grins and playful pushing being spread across this tight circle, I still vividly remember the one daunting statement that was uttered from my friend Josh’s lips:

“It’s kind of impossible to comprehend how I still have to raise my hand to go to the bathroom during school, but I’m simultaneously expected to figure out my entire future by myself and hope I don’t go to Bergen Community, huh?”

Josh managed to make us all erupt in even more laughter as we finally realized why he was so lost in thought for the last 10 minutes. The irony was certainly not lost on any of us, but as the smiles faded, you could quickly sense the overwhelming worry and lack of purpose present in the back of each of our heads. No matter how hard you worked for the last 17 or 18 years of your life, it’s hard to fully guarantee you can reach your dream school or even know if it’s the right choice for you.

We did choose to avoid the subject for the rest of the night to keep spirits up, but it proved that like most students, a college application seemed like a shot in a darkness more encompassing than the pitch black New York night surrounding us.

So when an applicant chooses to apply to the colleges they hope are the right paths, one tends to overcompensate and try to differentiate themselves through the essay; it’s the one piece that isn’t a collection of numbers or inflated accomplishments. As a result, many students assume they have to make the essay as unique as possible to stand out from the thousands of other applicants, and pour out their feelings and thoughts directly onto the essay, effectively “erring on the side of too much description or too much exposition” (Warren 2013, 51).

This desire of uniqueness leads to the common question of if qualities like diversity means having a unusual or dramatic story (Kirkland and Hansen 2011, 104). While that’s certainly not the case — as you can turn even the simplest of qualities into a description of your true character — most people don’t understand the struggle of avoiding this overdone mistake until they begin to write their own essay.

Even when knowing this common tendency, I still struggled to put words on a paper that weren’t overly complex or an altered image of myself, as I desired to truly make it pop and unique. It’s become a basic instinct, a nagging in the back of your head, to dump every possible detail into the paper, no matter how unnecessary.

It’s an all-consuming worry and habit that even extended to my friend’s papers, who had asked me for assistance as I had experience due to my English courses. However, I quickly became disgusted with myself as I slowly started to wonder if I was creating competition for myself by improving these essays to my own standard, which shows how overly significant these prompts have become to students. While I pushed to bury these selfish thoughts, I couldn’t avoid the one connecting factor between all the essays: the aforementioned over-reliance on trying to stand out.

Even though I only revised a few handful of papers, I quickly became annoyed with the reoccurring attempts at uniqueness by drowning the actual subject matter with useless adjectives. It seemed everyone desired to paint a Picasso to speak a thousand words (or rather 650) for them through visual imagery.

If I could be so easily jaded by a few essays, an admissions counselor would easily roll their eyes at the blandness of the thousands of “dramatic” stories that passes through their hands. So while these students think they’re effectively setting themselves apart from the crowd, they end up being tossed in with the pile of applicants who — to the counselor — make the all too common error of misinterpreting the question and not providing a complete answer to the vague prompt. So this tendency to “package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions” (Bruni 2014, 4) shared by most students ends up being the unwilling downfall in their application process.

It brings to question if the college essay process is really beneficial as a universal standard that every student is expected to fulfill and comprehend in already complex college admissions.

Or if it rather brings unnecessary stress that creates an Achilles Heel in terms of appeasement to an admission counselor, crippling the student before they even stood a chance at competing for that golden admission ticket.

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