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What Do You Know to Be True?

A college essay question worthy of daily answers

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

A friend of mine is currently midstep on that graceful line parents walk so awkwardly and so often: supporting a kid to reach for what’s next without doing it for them. In his case, the kid is a high school senior and what’s next is college. Which means what’s now (in anticipation of next) is essays, essays, and more essays.

For the college-bound, deadlines are landing hard this month. It’s November, early action time or, as a rebrand might suggest, ‘Do you know who you are and what you want?’ season. The irony, of course, is that the season — marked by self-inquiry, hope, and doubt — never closes exactly. Sorry, kids.

In the pre-November grind of late nights and long Sundays, my friend found himself growing familiar with the sorts of questions schools pose to their applicants. Some were thought-provoking. Plenty were average. And one in particular stood out. It stood out so far that he brought it to me and I can’t help but turn it around for you. So here goes.

What do you know to be true?

If you’re far enough away from the process of applying to college so as to only loosely remember it, this question is for you. If you just graduated, this question is for you. If you never went to college, this question is for you. If you, like my friend, are witnessing a younger charge take on the process now, this question is for you. If you hate all probing questions or sentences that try to categorize you, this question is (you guessed it) still for you.

Because, c’mon, this question is for everyone.

What, after all, do we each know to be true? I’m struck by so few, and yet also limitless, answers. There’s a rich fun layered beneath this probe. I’m also reminded of Anne Lamott’s brilliant 2017 TED talk in which she recounts her own known truths. A few favorites: “I am no longer 47.” “Our help is often toxic.” “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

What I know to be true about revealing one’s nascent humanity in a college essay is that it can feel daunting. But if there was ever a question to start asking yourself at age 17, on levels tiny and vast, and keep asking until age 97, this might be the one.

There is room in this question to wrestle with abstraction or get at the infectious nature of disinformation. There is also room to ponder the banal, like the dirty coffee mug that sits beside me as I type. What I know to be true is that I intend to wash the beckoning, well-worn prop of daily life. I intend to wash it soon, in fact. Do I know that I will? No. But, ask me again tomorrow. I’ll hope to know a new truth then — about the mug and who knows what else.

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