My 17-year-old brother Zach is now writing his college
application essays - he's applying early decision, though I won't
say where for fear of jinxing him. The Common App has five essay
prompts for students to choose from this year, all of them expertly
designed to test kids' abilities to conceive of their lives in the
terms of cheesy narrative (this is also called "introspection"). My
brother is a good writer - in fact, I may start occasionally
outsourcing this column to him - but, like most students whose GPAs
exceed 4.0, his life story is somewhat lacking. It doesn't make for
Since I was 17, I've written many hundreds of thousands of
words, many of them at least obliquely about myself, and yet let me
say it: these Common App prompts strike real fear into my heart.
"Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that
marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your
culture, community, or family," they demand. "Reflect on a time
when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?
Would you make the same decision again?"
Obviously, neither of these things has ever happened to me, and
I'm eight and half years older than Zach is.
Here is the prompt my brother selected: "Some students have a
background or story that is so central to their identity that they
believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this
sounds like you, then please share your story."
Who does "this" really sound like? Surely it sounds like some
self-serious, self-dramatizing brat who wants to bore you with his
phony righteous origin story - or, maybe even more likely, some
innocent kid who's had some stuff happen to him and has been
tricked by grownups into simplifying this stuff (in the name of
reckoning with its complexities, of course) and politicizing it
until all that's left from it is an "identity": some readymade,
less-than-human thing with which to meet the world.
What is the purpose of the college essay? I've never really been
sure. Most obviously, it gives students a chance to show their
writing abilities - though, if that were all it were for, the
prompts wouldn't all have to shove their victims so firmly toward
soul-searching and personal revelation. Additionally, it gives the
admissions committee "a chance to get to know you"; this of course
is impossible within 650 words, and given such a tight limit, the
request seems even slightly rude - it's the asking of a deeply
personal question by someone who doesn't really want to hear the
It's also comic: imagine God as a harried bureaucrat,
determining the worthiness of human beings not from omniscience but
from a packet of materials small enough to be reviewed in 15
minutes, and that is college admissions.
The other possibility is that the college essay exists not
because admissions officers are so dumb as to believe that truth
can emerge from a one-page essay written by a teenager desperate to
impress the grownups who will determine his future but because they
believe in the importance of skillful self-presentation. From first
dates to job interviews, you must know how to smooth and compress
yourself - how to turn yourself into the plausible, comprehensible
product of some minimized, bowdlerized version of the immense
mystery that is your life. It's not just "glibness" it's the very
ability to participate in society - which, after all, never gives
us much more than 650 words. Is this worth checking for? Maybe so.
This is my 615th word.
Anyway, glibness is what these colleges are going to get:
well-sharpened little tales bearing unmissable points. But maybe
they're just looking for ways to weed out kids like Zach, whose
life reeks of an overrepresented "normalcy" that probably threatens
the liveliness of elite campuses. He isn't actually a less
interesting person because of this normalcy, but if you didn't know
him, he might seem (from the pure stats of his existence) perhaps
less likely to be interesting than the kid who was in Haiti during
the earthquake or climbed all Seven Summits before the age of 14.
And yet who can doubt but that, deep down, this kid is tragically
Zach's biggest problem, as he well knows, is that he hasn't
really suffered, at least not in any of the ways that might be
attractive to a college admission officer: physically healthy,
mostly Caucasian, and almost certainly heterosexual, he grew up in
a financially comfortable unbroken suburban home where none of his
immediate family members ever had a terminal illness or committed
suicide. His life has been unusual only in the sense that it's been
nicer than average.
Of course, no life really is aptly described by the mere phrase
"nicer than average" - not to the person living it.
Furthermore, it may be said that no life really is aptly
described. I think there is, across the board, something compelling
about the idea of the college essay, stupid as we all know it is
(and unsure as we all are of how much it determines): it's served
as the structure of at least two major films, "Spanglish" and the
recent "The Spectacular Now." For me, it just about epitomizes the
horror of writing - of all writing, at least insofar as it
functions as self-expression.
How do we stop telling these lies without ceasing to tell
altogether? When I reach into myself, I find nothing coherent,
nothing adding up, no story - at least none that means anything to
me. If I'd led a different life, one that happened to conform
better to traditional narrative standards, I might know how to
please an audience, but that doesn't mean I'd know any better how
to please myself with words - the story still wouldn't be me.
What is the reality of me? Once the fictions of identity and the
irrelevancies of biography are removed, is there anything of a
human left? Oh, I think so; I do feel it. But, Dean of Admissions,
I just don't know what it is.