Footsteps in the Hall: The College Admission Process as Existential Crisis

[NOTE: This essay was published in the Journal of College Admission, January, 2008)

The college admission process puts adolescents in a bind: it asks them to observe and evaluate themselves before they’ve had a chance to develop a consistent sense of who they are. At a time when they’ve been trying on personalities and exploring the world of adulthood in an effort to establish an identity, they’re suddenly asked to manufacture one to the vague yet compelling specifications that colleges impose upon them. They are evaluated, measured and sorted by mysterious strangers, and asked to be “authentic” in an entirely inauthentic situation. Just as threatening, they are asked to submit to what Jean-Paul Sartre calls “the Gaze,” a pitiless stare that tears them out of themselves and forces them to “act” instead of “be.” As a result, adolescents now go through an existential crisis of identity well before they’re ready for it or even realize it’s happening.

The existential moment may come for most of us in our forties or so. We have enough experience to look back at life and wonder if there’s been any purpose to it or if who we’ve become is the person we actually are. Usually married, well into a career, with children and possessions to anchor us, we may face a sudden death, loss of a job, or other crisis that forces us to confront how we’ve defined ourselves. We may feel directionless, hollow, and cynical, unable to hold on to the things we once thought important. The film American Beauty illustrates this condition particularly well. Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, goes into free fall realizing that, although he’s done everything according to the rules, he’s “lost something,” even though he’s not sure what it is. He feels his life disintegrating: His marriage is cold, his job banal, and his daughter a stranger to him. The world has become artificial and he sees himself as simply an actor in a particularly bad play, not as a human being. The adolescent struggling with a college application hasn’t even voted yet, but is being asked to be an actor before having become a fully integrated self.

Role Reversal
In the past, the college admission process was primarily functional and had little to do with identity development. It was simply the mechanism to reach the next step in one’s education. Through the seventies and early to mid-80s, even as the number of students applying to and attending college rose significantly, the procedure was relatively simple: Most colleges drew from their geographic regions, most students didn’t go much farther than 250 miles or so from home, and there was less concern about competition to get into the “best” colleges. Teens took their high school courses, took their tests, and took their chances, filing a few applications and going where they were accepted. The idea of planning years ahead so one could get into a particular type of college or even a particular college was little known. An application rose or fell on one’s history, the day-to-day decisions and activities pursued in high school. Choices were made on the basis of interests and needs that had to do with the student’s immediate concerns. Those choices were “authentic” in a Sartrean sense: They were immediate and not calculated, essential to the adolescent’s “self.” Students participated fully in activities and developed their personalities and characters as they went along; college followed out of these choices.

The college process today turns adolescent development on its head, creating an existential dilemma well before high school students are prepared to handle it. Rather than resulting from authentic life decisions, it dictates them, forcing students into an “inauthenticity” that separates them from their own lives. They learn they’re supposed to take AP courses, be president of a winning Model U.N. club, and do significant community service, so that’s what they do, even if they have no genuine interest in those activities. (One current book even suggests that students who play the violin find time to play in nursing homes so they can look more compassionate.) They become cardboard cutouts and assume that others are as well.

“Authenticity” as a Challenge
Up until this point, even in today’s competitive environment, adolescents (with many precocious exceptions, of course) may see their lives as confusing and chaotic but not necessarily “inauthentic.” There’s an immediacy to what they do even if it’s a short-term commitment. They live essentially and for the moment. As adults we see this when our children do impulsive or reckless things: They’re fully in the moment, not considering the long-term consequences of their behavior. The college application process, however, asks them to reach a conclusion before they’ve had a chance to have a “being.” They’re asked to define themselves before they’re capable of doing so, bringing on a crisis that challenges their sense of who they are. When Lester Burnham is asked by a consultant to write out a job description (read “college essay”) for himself he realizes his days at the magazine are numbered. Being forced to contemplate himself sends him over the edge. Asked to do so by colleges, adolescents struggle with the same angst and see the same blankness.

The college admission process tears adolescents out of an environment of relative certainty and throws them into a confusing arena that has no clear boundaries. They are suddenly asked to sum up their lives, to construct a consistent personhood they have yet to develop, and to consider themselves in the context of a larger world they have yet to fully understand. In the process they lose the authenticity of simply “being” who they are and become “performers” of parts they have not yet fully developed. Like nearly all the characters in American Beauty, they must present artificially constructed lives to the world, rather than their own realities, in order to be “successful”: Lester’s wife Carolyn is a real estate agent who has to psych herself up to meet clients (“I will sell this house today!”) and “perform” for her biggest rival; Ricky, the boy next door, pretends to be “an upstanding young citizen with a respectable job” so he can carry on his profitable drug dealing; Ricky’s father disguises his attraction to men with a brute military bearing; and so on. Even high school girl Angela (Mina Suvari), who seems in touch with her sexual power and even her reputation as the school “slut” is only playing a role to disguise her insecurity. (Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that college freshmen are often attracted to the works of Ayn Rand. I used to wonder about that until I realized that Rand’s exaltation of individual identity and fidelity to oneself is the perfect antidote to the Sartrean dilemma.)

The Dilemma of Being Looked At
All of these characters, like our adolescent college applicant, are caught in “the Gaze” of others, another element of existential anxiety. Consciousness of the “Other” prevents us from having genuine interactions, whether those others are potential home buyers or admission officers. Becoming subject to “the Gaze,” of the college admission process, adolescents’ “personhood” is disfigured. No longer able to be “authentic,” they create a shell for those Others, becoming “objects” and not authentic persons.

Sartre illustrated this quandary in Being and Nothingness. He describes a man peering intently through a keyhole at some (presumably salacious) activity in the room beyond. His intense curiosity focuses his entire being on what he’s doing—he has no consciousness of his “self” but simply is that self. For those moments he is entirely “authentic” (think of how we feel when we are completely involved in an activity we love). Suddenly, however, the man hears footsteps in the hall. He becomes conscious of another person as well as himself spying on the room’s occupants and now sees himself acting as well as actually acting. He is embarrassed, aware of the implications of what he’s doing, worried about the other person’s reactions to what he’s doing, and so on. He stumbles as he rises, straightens his clothes and tries to act “normal” but has lost the ability to do so. Even the phrase “trying to act normal” implies that he can’t really be his normal self. To the inadvertent observer (the Gaze), the man at the keyhole is “acting,” not “being.” His equilibrium has been upset and he cannot function as “himself.” He is torn from his personhood and left in a kind of purgatory of uncertainty.

Looking for the “Genuine” Applicant
The college admission process has become those footsteps, seriously undermining adolescents’ sense of self by demanding that they “act” instead of “be.” Students submit to the Gaze and twist themselves in knots under its power. It causes adolescents (and those with a stake in their success) to forsake their “authentic” selves in order to create a persona that will be acceptable to those mysterious observers. This situation gives rise to a particularly poignant irony: Colleges, saying they want “genuine” or “authentic” students, guarantee that they will get exactly the opposite. The stage is set for the artificially enhanced super-student who feels compelled to do what’s necessary to gain admission to a particular school or group of schools instead of doing what engages him and insisting that colleges judge him accordingly. Their lives become “constructed” instead of organic, less and less in touch with a reality they can readily recognize. By the time they are accepted to college they’re living a life like Lester and Carolyn Burnham’s, “an advertisement for ourselves,” and not a reality.

Holding Yourself Together
High school students thus become “inauthentic” at an early age, a situation Sartre also calls living in “bad faith.” They not only have to develop their identities, they have to be aware of themselves doing so. Appeals to “live in the moment” and “enjoy what you’re doing” in order to be accepted by a college fall on deaf ears because they know they need to do certain things and not others to “succeed.” Is it any wonder that cynicism and ironic detachment follow? Students have succumbed to the power of the Gaze and in doing so have sacrificed their authentic lives. Worse, adolescents often end up negating their own being and desires to achieve something that may or may not be in their best interests. This is more than just doing what one’s parents want, it’s an active denial of one’s one authentic existence. Knowing all this on some level, they become like Lester at forty: cynical, sarcastic, and unable to inhabit themselves fully.
In the process of acting for others rather than being for themselves, adolescents also become dependent upon the Gaze because it’s what holds them together. Applying to college implies that there is a meaning to what they’ve done so far in life, yet dependence on the Gaze turns them into people who cannot embrace the freedom to explore, discover, and take chances. They become objects, subservient to the will of others, just as the servant at the keyhole is subservient to the one who discovers him, and therefore unable to truly “be themselves.” Lester Burnham’s slavish obsession with the adolescent Angela’s “Gaze” is an adult case in point: His attraction to her and his consciousness of her consciousness of him permanently disables his ability to act rationally, leading to his death at the end of the film.

The Process and Its Products
Students going through this process think less about authenticity than they do about being accepted and looking good to admission deans. Yet it does several things that are antithetical to healthy adolescent development: It creates a situation where one’s “self” must be defined before it has been truly developed. It also puts that “self” at the mercy of others, forcing the adolescent to create an artificial rather than authentic self, leading to a feeling of acting rather than being.

We wonder why there seem to be more problems on college campuses with binge drinking, casual sex, studying, and relationships in general. While one can’t blame the college admission process for what is largely part of a social and cultural phenomenon that crosses many boundaries, one can see the whole process as a shock to the system: Adolescents previously fully involved in creating their own being are suddenly asked to create a “being” that can be gazed at before they’re ready. This acute self-consciousness, like that of the man at the keyhole, deforms their ability to behave unselfconsciously. They arrive at college not having a sense of themselves as integrated individuals, but as constructs that hold together only as long as they are “seen.” As a result, they look for ways to assert themselves meaningfully, to fill the emptiness of that construct. Unfortunately, that includes surrendering to the intensities of sex, drinking, drugs, and dangerous “extreme” behavior, all of which can be seen as attempts to re-experience a time when each moment was unique and for them alone. Thinking again about American Beauty, one can see how the sudden realization of emptiness, of having lived for the Gaze instead of for oneself, might put adolescents on the brink of despair. Deprived of a meaningful life in high school, they try to fill the void and reestablish that meaning, a situation Sartre and Lester Burnham understood all too well.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to Footsteps in the Hall: The College Admission Process as Existential Crisis

  1. Catherine Doyle says:

    As a parent with three children, two of whom have safely made it to their chosen colleges and one who is presently a senior,
    I cannot help feeling a sadness regarding your perspective on the College Admissions process. It is true. I have worked for a little more than two years as an independent college counselor, and my knowing what I do is inevitably transferred to my daughter. She would prefer not to be in the same room with me these days — and I for one understand and wish I could take back discussing ‘my students’ at our dinner table. My goal now is to not talk about college and let the counselor at her school handle the remaining months.
    It is very hard not to be guiding her — yet I prioritize our relationship over ‘which college’ she gets into. She is planning to apply ED to an excellent liberal arts college because it is such a good school, and somewhere deep donw (in my heart) I’d much rather have her at a middle of the road school closer to home. Perhaps I am selfish — I do not know. Thank you for opening my eyes even wider to how brutal the Admissions process has become on this generation — thanks to us.

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