I read “Being and Nothingness” one summer for a theater course at Northwestern (Sartre wrote “No Exit”) and was fascinated with his image of a servant looking through a keyhole at some unspecified but vaguely naughty activity going on behind the door. While he’s focusing on that activity, Sartre says, he’s totally in a state of “being,” simply “himself.” Suddenly, however, he hears footsteps in the hall and becomes a self-conscious “actor,” not truly himself.
We’ve all had the experience of being caught at something we shouldn’t be doing. The more we try to behave “normally,” the more we twist ourselves into behavioral knots. The same is true when we ask high school students to write their college application essays. We’re asking them to “act” and not “be.” More often than not, we get essays that are weird fun house mirror images of the applicant as he or she tries to be “authentic.” and we complain that the essays end up being artificial.
In trying to help students, we often advise them to “relax” or “have fun” with the essays, which they hear as “I’m lulling you into a false sense of security before we reject you.” So they frantically try to suss out what colleges really want, losing themselves in the process. The most often prescribed advice is “Just be yourself,” which, as far as I can tell after reading thousands of them for Amherst College in the 90s, has no appreciable effect on the essays but doesn’t stop us from giving it out.
Believe it or not, I don’t blame the applicants; I blame the advice. After years of prescribing “Be yourself” myself I think it’s probably the worst thing you can tell a kid under pressure to write for an unknown audience. It requires a self-understanding beyond even a 40-year olds’ and is most often interpreted as “Talk about yourself,” which, if you’ve ever been stuck in a conversation like that, quickly makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a pencil. But it also requires the writer to run smack into himself as he tears himself away from the keyhole and tries to “be himself.”
I’ve never known what else to say but the other day I thought, well, why not have them write about what’s going on beyond the keyhole instead of having them try to explain what they’re doing looking through it? We should really say, “Be somebody else.” Placing the focus overtly outside themselves can free them from having to construct a “self” for us, acting instead of being. We can see how this works when we ask students to introduce each other rather than themselves; it’s always easier to talk about another person than feel exposed yourself. (Of course, some can do it without problem or effort, but most can’t, especially not in writing.)
The things we do tell as much about us (and may even be more revealing) than what we say we do. I might say I love the opera and Russian novels, but I may actually watch “The Real Housewives of Orange County” religiously and have a shelf full of Danielle Steele. But even if we ask an applicant to, say, write in a voice other than her own, we can learn a lot about whom she chooses and how the essay goes. Over the years I’ve advised a lot of students that their essays about other people or books or events are very good, but they’ve been brainwashed to think that unless they talk explicitly about themselves the essays won’t help them get into college or tell the admission people about themselves.
One of my students several years ago wrote about his Jewish grandfather, who spent World War II selling mattresses in Shanghai. It was wonderful, memorable (see?), and gave me a glimpse not only into a part of history I had never heard about but also revealed how much he cared for this man, who had survived the war and made it to the United States. (Unfortunately, his parents were horrified that he wasn’t “being himself” and vetoed the good essay in favor of a tedious one.)
I’ve written elsewhere about the existential issues surrounding the college application process, including the problem of imposing an overwhelming self-consciousness on 17-year old applicants. But asking students to be or focus on someone or something else can relieve them of that burden. If application readers are careful readers they sense the writer’s personality no matter what he or she writes about. A focus on an external person, object, or concept without worrying about “being yourself” might actually accomplish the thing we want most–creation of a window into the applicant.
A shorter version of this essay (as well as other entries) originally appeared on the Admitted Blog at the NACAC website.