My phone buzzed at 6 a.m., jolting me awake. On the other end was my friend’s younger sister, Audrey, who was anxious about her college-application essay. Because she had procrastinated, she had missed a few deadlines, and others were now creeping up on her as the end of application season approached. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I told her to write about doubt and failure. She dropped her phone.
The college-essay portion of the Common Application asks students to write an autobiographical piece that reveals who they truly are. It’s stressful for many high school seniors because it’s the only part of the application where they’re not a number or ranking, so they can be themselves.
But how to be themselves, imperfections and all, when they’ve been packaged as perfect people? How to write about failure when they regard it as something to be ashamed of, rather than a gift to be embraced? Do admissions committees even want to see imperfection—wouldn’t it sully the image of the student body?
What’s happening on our college campuses, especially the elite ones, is disconcerting: Homogeneous thought is increasing, and suicide rates are rising.
We’ve all heard about the cult of perfection’s impact on Madison Holleran, who chose to run track at the University of Pennsylvania over an offer to play soccer, “the sport she loved most,” at the less prestigious Lehigh University, according to Philadelphia Magazine. When, as a freshman, she struggled with demanding academics and track practices, the perfect image she had cultivated in real life and on social media was suddenly tarnished. After posting a festive image of Rittenhouse Square lit up with holiday lights on her Instagram account, she jumped from a downtown Philadelphia parking garage.
Her death was the third of six suicides at Penn in a 13-month period. Clusters of students also took their lives at Tulane University, Cornell University, New York University, and elsewhere in the 2014-15 academic year.
In his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz says that students at Ivy League universities, after having been admitted thanks to perfect grades, exemplary test scores, and the right extracurricular activities, are more focused on building their résumés than nurturing their souls. While they do their assignments well, there isn’t passion, engagement, or dissonance in their work. Furthermore, he laments the “grandiosity and depression” wherein the self-esteem students derive from praise for high grades falls apart the moment they encounter failure.
The college essay is, after all, a memoir."
Similarly, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” their much-discussed Atlantic article from the fall, conclude that the extreme political correctness on college campuses, where students seek protection from words and ideas they don’t like (also referred to as “triggers”), not only paralyzes the free exchange of ideas, but also leads to depression. That’s because if you’re struggling with an issue, it’s healthier to confront it than to sweep it under the rug. In other words, it may not be a good idea to run your gripes through the Perfect365 app, which allows users to “make over” or edit photos before sharing them on social-networking sites. President Barack Obama agrees: “That’s not the way we learn,” he said recently of shielding students from conflicting points of view.
The precursor to the homogeneous ideas students will voice on campus appears to be the airbrushed essays they will write to get in. In the ones I have read, in my capacity as a former high school English teacher, I have seen much self-aggrandizement, but little self-effacement. I have come across perfect grammar, but no imperfect expression. I have rarely seen the vulnerability that is in us all.
Perhaps that’s because of college counselors’ proclivity to play it safe.
Phillip Lopate, an author and the director of the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University, praised his daughter’s original Common Application essay about her “mixed attraction to the idea of melancholy,” but her college adviser nixed it out of fear that colleges would deem her a “downer.”
For her college essay, Sarah Lewis, the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, wrote about the importance of failure and snuck it past her parents and college adviser because it was considered “high risk.”
A former student, Francesca Mileo, submitted an essay about a friendship she struck up with a girl while visiting her brother at a rehabilitation facility when he was recovering from a diving accident, but the essay’s more interesting aspect was her reaction to the attention her parents lavished on her brother. For many months she felt ignored and selfishly acted out on those feelings. Her revelation of her vulnerabilities was renegade.
Mileo recently graduated from Villanova University. And Lewis not only got into Harvard University, she’s now an assistant professor there—and a best-selling author.
Clearly, revealing imperfections can work.
The college essay is, after all, a memoir. In excellent memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the protagonists are wonderfully flawed. Cheryl is a promiscuous drug abuser; Jeanette is resentful toward her parents; and Maya struggles with her looks.
Lopate says that students should be pointed away from the “self-righteous inveighing” that kills honest writing. I agree. When I taught memoir, I asked students to identify a topic that took them out of their comfort zone and a side of their personality they weren’t proud of. The exploration of their frailties led to revelatory final drafts.
So, is there any hope for the college essay to draw out flesh-and-blood human beings?
Turns out, the Common Application essay prompts have been revamped to include a question that asks students to discuss an incident when they failed and what they learned from the experience.
When I met Audrey for coffee the day after she woke me up at the crack of dawn, I told her to be herself, not the selfie version of herself. I explained that when Francesca Mileo was accepted to Villanova and other great schools, she was rejected from a few Ivy League schools, which devastated her at the time. But she ended up being much happier at Villanova than she would have been in a more stressful environment. Now, she is contentedly working at Condé Nast, her first job after graduating.
I suggested to Audrey that she view her essay as a rebellion against the cult of perfection and against homogeneity, and its reception as a litmus test of whether or not she is truly suited for a particular college.
While she might not get into her first-choice school, a rejection could be the best thing to ever happen to her.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Your College Essay Isn’t a Selfie