Why College Applicants Should Embrace Adulthood

Depending when you want to mark the transition, juniors will become seniors sometime between that last triumphant Friday in June and the first reluctant sunrise in August. Amid summer frolic, let’s consider that designation: seniors. The title implies a lot: age, wisdom, and maturity.

While those virtues are probably overstated for all but the most precocious, I like to take them at face value. Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds have vast faculties. They’ve learned a lot about the world, about how to relate to people, and how to take care of themselves. They’ve had plenty of chances to think for themselves and explore the world on their own terms. Whether or not they make the right choices or think interesting thoughts is another matter. Most importantly, this transition to seniorhood presages a far more dramatic one in the year to come. As college freshmen, they will have no choice but to exercise their maturity.

And yet, while many rising seniors ache over their desire to attend their “dream schools" — where they will encounter venerable ideas, recent breakthroughs, and some of the most sophisticated knowledge humankind has come up with — at the same time they often disavow their own seniority. In applying to college, many applicants take years, or even a decade, off their own lives.

When left to their own devices, even college applicants who have aced vector calculus, analyzed Finnegan’s Wake, or achieved fluency in Mandarin, drift back to the past when they write about themselves on college application essays.

Aspiring engineers write about Legos. Aspiring actors write about performing plays in their living rooms. Aspiring doctors write about ailing grandparents. Chemists write about baking soda volcanoes. Programmers write about dismantling old Dells. Budding literary scholars write about Harry Potter. Biologists write about digging up the lawn and terrorizing worms. The reminiscences can go on and on, back nearly to the womb.

I understand this tendency. Childhood stories are cute, and they are often genuine. The future engineer probably did build mini-skyscrapers. And American culture particularly celebrates childhood, with all of its wonder and magic and whatnot. Even the most impassive teenagers can feel the warmth of nostalgia when they remember those Tinker Toys, Hot Wheels, and Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Childhood stories nominally answer prompts about origins: "What do you want to study, and why?” "Tell us about a time you were excited to learn something.” "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

But do they really answer those questions? Does the engineer want to become an engineer because of Legos a decade ago? Or, just maybe, does she want to become an engineer because she wants to build something a lot cooler a decade from now? The past can be an inspiration and an introduction. Childhood stories might illustrate interests or foreshadow future accomplishments. But the past can’t be a reason for future ambitions. You don’t build buildings, treat patients, or prosecute criminals in the past.

Consider this: What percentage of children play with Legos, Tinker Toys, and bugs? What percentage of kids read Harry Potter? How many have coped with illness? I reckon the numbers in all of those cases range somewhere between a whole lot and 99 percent. If everyone played with Legos then surely Legos cannot be the cause of those aspiring engineers' present-day interest. Otherwise, we’d all be engineers.

Moreover, I’d wager that every engineer played with Legos. That means that even if Legos were inspiring, they’re not uniquely inspiring. In other words, they’re a cliché.

Ambitious, accomplished students can do better.

Here are questions that the child must ask of the adult: What happened in the past five, ten, fifteen years? How did those fantasylands on the kitchen floor or under the old oak tree evolve into the passions and convictions of today? How did idle amusement turn into expertise? You may pledge eternal fealty to Hufflepuff, but how did you get from Prisoner of Azkaban to Crime and Punishment? If you were delighted by fun and games at age 5, why are you committed to books and careers at age 18? What knowledge have you gained and what skills have you developed?

In other words: What have you done for us lately?

Granted, childhood stories can be endearing. They’re humanizing. But, really, endearment can take many forms. Surely it’s not limited to toddlers? And, anyway, do colleges admit students because they were cute ten years ago — or because they’re impressive today?

You can tell where I stand.

Notwithstanding the tomfoolery that ensues (some of it fun, some of it regrettable) on college campuses, let’s make no mistake: college is for adults. It should go without saying that college has nothing to do with what you were like in kindergarten. Colleges want to know what applicants are like today, what they’re going to be like next year, and, ideally, what they’re going to accomplish four years from now.

Childhood stories persist in part because it’s not cool to be sophisticated and, probably more importantly, because childhood stories are easy to tell. They have straightforward narrative arcs, and they feel profound because they superficially involve reflection and character development. But students who are applying to selective colleges shouldn’t expect to succeed by taking the easy way.

Students might recoil at the abandonment of childish things. But, really, it’s not much of a challenge. The moment they banish memories before, say, age 15, and truly start interrogating themselves they will automatically come up with the sort of mature, compelling reasons that will ennoble their applications. If they can't, well, no amount of childhood fables will suffice.

I know this advice sounds cold-hearted or even heretical. That’s because I’m fighting against a deeply held cultural value: the veneration of childhood. In millions of ways, we celebrate the cuteness, innocence, and simplicity of childhood. That’s a cheery fiction, and a comforting one for many parents, but it doesn’t help kids develop into college students. Indeed, kids are constantly encouraged not to grow up, even as the aging process continues apace.

Hobbies that adoring parents fawned over many years ago are likely to strike admissions officers as irrelevant and cloying. Remember, admissions officers are not your friends. They are all to eager to toss an application into the ‘reject’ pile and get on with their lives. In this game, not everyone gets a trophy.

Fortunately, the blank page of a college essay is as good a catalyst for maturation as any. Kids shouldn’t be bashful about or embarrassed by their accomplishments, knowledge, or convictions. They shouldn’t be afraid to look into the future. They should apply with appreciation for the past, awareness of the present, and, most importantly, excitement for the future.

Someday, they’ll even become seniors yet again — as senior citizens. Somewhere in between all of these milestones, they might even buy their own houses — made of brick and wood, not of plastic blocks or sofa cushions.

For help brainstorming and preparing for your essays, here are a few past blogs:

Have a question about college essays or interested in essay guidance? Please email me. 

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