Admissions process forces re-invention

Dear Admissions Officer: here is a version of myself created by me just for you . It isn’t quite accurate, but I think you’ll enjoy it. Sincerely, me—only a slightly elevated model—tweaked, polished, refined, superior.

A friend of mine asked me to review the essay that she submitted to The Common Application after she had applied to a very ‘prestigious’ (whatever that word means) university’s Early Decision program. The piece was flooded with exaggerations, scattered with little white lies that added up to create a mostly-fictional story rather than an accurate depiction of self. I had to laugh. I asked, “Why?”, but she couldn’t see the harm in it. Why attempt to sell yourself when you can sell someone else—someone smarter, better, somehow more worthy—and get the same reward?

She was admitted.

And so was I. I’m here, after all, and I couldn’t be happier. But I have to ask, would I be in the same position had I told my full story—sharing parts of myself that are less attractive but certainly  crucial to the person I believe that I am?

No matter how candid I felt I was in my application, I still left out a substantial portion of my (arguably) most critical characteristics. Because many of the ways I would choose to describe myself—overly emotional, insecure, apologetic to an obnoxious extent, a ceaseless procrastinator—are not particularly appealing. Vassar’s Class of 2017 was able to admit a small 24% of its applicants.

For every one person granted admission, about three others were denied. It would be impossible for me not to question whether or not I’ve launched myself into this small percentile through a veiled self-portrayal . They give us 500 words or less, and we have to choose them wisely.

The College Process. The term itself is entirely off-putting . Rather than being an adventure, an exploration of self, applying for college has become systematic altogether. There’s an unspoken yet understood procedure, outlined with specific rules, regulations and strategies. If you’re in on it, great. If you’re not, better luck next time.

Thousands of pages have been written and thousands of dollars have been spent, all so a couple thousand members of our generation can feel the pride associated with their cap, gown, and security in quickly acquiring a high-paying job.

But what does this say about us, that the best practices for going through the admissions process include often neglecting what we feel are distinctive parts of our identities and personalities? That those of us lucky enough to learn the protocol for college applications are, in essence, learning how to properly sell our shiny outer layer, while repressing our more (supposedly)  disagreeable features?

I’m not saying this is true to everyone’s experiences. I say all of this from an extraordinarily privileged position. I grew up in New York City, where the term ‘prep’ carries a more serious and significant meaning among my peers than nearly any other concept.

I went to a high school that had not one but four college counselors, so that each student received the attention they wanted and the advice that they felt they needed. And this is all on top of the fact that I was lucky enough to avoid the difficult process of applying for financial aid.

There’s a paradox at play, and it isn’t unlike the current state of obesity in America . It’s easy—too easy–to sit and poke fun at those who carry extra weight when you yourself have gourmet, organic food fed to you from a silver spoon .

Blame it on laziness, blame it on an inability to put down the cookies, blame it on anything except the reality that most of these overweight individuals just don’t have access to healthier options.

There are deep and disturbing parallels to the college process here. If you aren’t  raised in an environment that grants you admission into the inner workings of the admissions process, you’re at an undeserved but still existing disadvantage. It simply isn’t enough to be hardworking and studious. There are codes and tricks of the trade that a select few of us have the opportunity to learn at the grand old make-or-break age of 17.

Coming from an environment in which people spend their four years in high school preparing to spend four years at the best undergraduate institution imaginable, it’s simultaneously fascinating and depressing for me to think about how many of us are  trained to put our best foot forward, to memorize big words, mathematical equations and that graceful, subtle college-interview smile. And in doing this, we reduce ourselves to superscores, to tricks we’ve learned from Fiske guides, from experts, from overly-involved parents. When we’re selling ourselves, we’re really selling ourselves short .

Why does this happen? Why do we assume a phony persona before we even have ourselves fully figured out? Why is it that from junior year in high school onward (and for some, even earlier than that), our world is defined by a series of letters: SAT, ACT, AP, IB, A+, B-, etc.?

So we can make it here. To this moment. So we can sleep in these twin beds, walk through the collegiate quad, breathe in the fall air, pass the frivolous Ultimate Frisbee games. But also to learn, to keep learning, and to never stop learning.

In those key moments, when we receive our acceptance letters or our diplomas, when we toss our caps into the air with unfiltered and unbelievable ecstasy, we become the people from our Common App essays. We are the best versions of ourselves, no matter how honest they were in the moments when we clicked ‘submit’ and prayed for the best.


—Anna Blum ’17 is a student at Vassar College

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