Johnny Cash's Lesson for College Applicants

For many students, drafting a college application essay is like trying to compose a symphony when you can hardly play Chopsticks. They resemble none of the English or history essays that they've written in school, and they call for a level of introspection and vulnerability that schoolwork rarely requires.

Moreover, many students live in a world -- that of high school -- that requires them to grind through their days without a thought of a higher purpose. In many cases, getting into college is their higher purpose.

I was pondering this state of affairs at the gym after a long day of reading college essay drafts a few weeks ago. That's when Johnny Cash shuffled to the top of my playlist.

Songs can be instructive for writers of personal essays. Unlike textbooks and novels, they are typically delivered in the first person. Lyrics combine narrative, observation, emotion, articulation of desires, and declarations of beliefs.

Every so often a song doubles as a manifesto -- a statement of principles that connects the singer with something bigger than him- or herself. You can think of these songs as personal "mission statements." It so happens that this notion is often applied to college applications (and, even more often, to MBA applications). I'm not a fan of the terminology, but I am a fan of conviction. A mission expresses what an applicant wants to accomplish rather than merely who she is.

Some missions are lighthearted. Katy Perry wants to have fun. Taylor Swift wants to "shake it off." Justin Beiber's intentions are less clear.

Then there's Johnny Cash. I hesitate to denigrate him with business-school jargon, but let's call his masterpiece "Man in Black" a mission statement. It's worth quoting at length:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colors on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times....

...just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back
Up front there ought to be a Man In Black

I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men....

Well, there's things that never will be right, I know
And things need changin' everywhere you go
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right
You'll never see me wear a suit of white

And Jay-Z thinks he has problems.

It goes without saying that Johnny Cash is cooler, harder, and more talented than any of us will ever be. So don't try this at home. And yet, he still gives us a way to think about ourselves, our beliefs, our relationship with the world, our capacity to care, and the ability to meld ethics with identity.

Cash's crucial turn comes at the end of the first measure. This is the one that college applicants miss too often when they're telling their stories. Cash's man isn't an accidental assemblage of apparel and mood. He has a purpose. He's not drifting insensate through the world (or between his classes, as it were). He wants to testify.

The "Man in Black" knows exactly what's going on in the world around him. He exists because of forces playing out far beyond his person: Destitution. Injustice. Godlessness. Violence. He exists because of war, suffering, and betrayal. He explains himself in plain language, with a rumble of emotion so deep that no one can misunderstand him.

If that doesn't move you, don't get a college degree. Get a conscience first.

Really, though, Cash assumes that you don't have a conscience. Many of us don't. We're "driving streak of lightin' cars," wearing "fancy clothes," and listening to music. He wants us to be angry at ourselves. Or at least wants us to let him be angry on our behalf.

There's something sublime, equal parts ambition and humility, about deciding what the world needs and then becoming it (with the help of some musical talent). Cash lives his convictions, in honky-tonks, concert halls, and prisons. The Man in Black challenges us to figure out what we believe. He wants us to question the way we are living our lives and come up with better ideas.

Johnny Cash was no saint. Neither are most high school students. Few of us grow up to be criminals or folk heroes. Most of us are somewhere in between. We don't need to upend our lives for our causes, but we can nudge ourselves in the direction of righteousness.

For high school students, this nudge might mean rising above the fray of trends and cliques and spending time on worthy causes. It might mean turning down the pop music and tuning in to intellectual ideas. It might mean going to one fewer party and going to one more political rally. And it might end up guiding their approach to higher education. They might resolve to learn even more about the causes that move them and ideas that intrigue them.

Though they might not resort to verse, they might indeed write about those causes on their college applications and move their readers the way Cash moves his fans. Self-descriptions are perilous, fraught with opportunities for unseemly boasting and expression of disembodied feelings. Whatever he chooses to wear, the sincere author can overcome these challenges.

Anyone who thinks hard enough about the world -- even high school students -- can indeed do a little more to make things right.

Even young students can learn a lot from old music. For similar musings, please see my blog on the Grateful Dead. And please see the rest of my blogs for further insight into college applications.