This College Application Season, Make Dignity Your Strategy

College counselors give students all kinds of advice about ‘strategy.’ Some recommend that students present themselves as ‘well-rounded,’ with a variety of interests across the humanities and sciences and a ‘balanced’ series of activities and projects.

Others prefer the Cal Newport school of thinking. In How to Be a High School Superstar, Newport argues for the “relaxed superstar lifestyle,” in which students permit themselves more free time to explore things they genuinely care about. Out of these explorations, Newport suggests, students are more likely to discover and pursue authentic passions and accomplish truly impressive feats that will stand out on a college application. Do less stuff, but do what you do really well, and colleges will notice you.

The second line of thinking feels slightly healthier than the first, but it still doesn’t sit quite right. Newport names some of the crazy-making aspects of high school life - the intense pressure for standardized test scores, the nonstop resume-building - and parts of his approach are meant to help students be more honest with themselves and live saner lives.

But instead of treating honesty and sanity as ends in and of themselves, Newport sometimes slides into treating them like means - to impressing older people, to getting into fancy colleges, etc. And by doing so, he undermines the value of his own advice. Should students schedule more free time and allow themselves to follow their curiosity because that’s a basically healthy way to live, or because doing so is a clever way of playing the same old competitive high school game? The titles of some of Newport’s other books - How to Become a Straight-A Student, How to Win at College - suggest an answer.

Newport’s model also just won’t work for everybody. Most of his case studies involve students who’ve poured themselves into a project or two, often developing rare expertise or accomplishing something unusual. And if that’s where their interests have taken them, wonderful! But what about the students who don’t discover a passion in high school? What about students who are just getting to know themselves and the world, feeling the intensity of adolescent emotions, and sampling a bit of this and that?

I’m not sure Newport has much to say to these students, because their high school lives don’t yield bursting resumes or obscure accomplishments. They’re just students - curious about some things, less curious about others. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unfortunately, many of my students think otherwise. They look at their grades and extracurricular activities, and they feel the need to apologize. In fearful voices, they ask whether they’ve fallen short. They struggle with regret, and they ask what they can do to overcome their limitations. When we begin working on their application essays, they often stop themselves in mid-idea and ask, “Is this okay?”

When my students express these doubts and uncertainties, I feel sad. Somewhere along the line, somebody - or many somebodies - implanted the idea that they aren’t good enough, and that going to a good college means becoming someone else.

It doesn’t.

Every year, college admissions offices nearly drown in applications from students who don’t quite exist. Their essays often drip with fake passion and commitment; students seem to think that getting in means convincing admissions officers how much they love ____ (the college, soccer, recycling, their grandmother).

These students often have sparkling resumes and startling accomplishments. To hear them tell it, they know much of what they need to know already, and they’re just heading off to college to get a bit of final training before pursuing their destiny.

These kinds of applications lack some of the very things that colleges want most: self-respect and openness.

Real life is complicated and confusing, and very few 17-year-olds - or 70-year-olds - have it figured out. And colleges don’t need students who’ve figured it out. They’re in the business of education, after all - of helping students see and grapple with the world. More than anything, colleges want students with questions. They want students who find something interesting and care to understand it more fully. They want students who are puzzled by some aspect of their own lives or the world around them - and don’t feel the need to apologize for it.

Getting into college doesn’t require perfect SAT scores, an obsession with nanotechnology, or years managing an NGO in a distant country. It also doesn't mean becoming a more ‘impressive’ version of yourself. It means getting to know yourself better. It means looking around inside, noticing the bumpy, intriguing, scary aspects of your own experience, and then asking some questions. And it means sharing what you find.

Of course, it’s not easy to write essays that reflect your actual life. It's much easier to read 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays and try to copycat. But that won't feel very good, and colleges will smell it a mile away.

So this year, take some of the pressure off yourself. Your goal is not to be ‘impressive’; there are tons of students applying to college with more-or-less the same qualifications you have, and you have no way of knowing which particular mix of grades, SAT scores, and extracurriculars are going to strike the admissions officers’ fancy.

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And you don’t have to. Instead, just carry yourself with some dignity. Don’t start this process by comparing yourself to a thousand imaginary students. Start by looking at your own life and asking yourself why you’ve spent your high school years the way you have, and how you might like to spend your college years. Better: try to imagine the most interesting conversation you can - the one where you’re coming forward in your chair, ideas and concerns and questions elbowing each other out of the way. The conversation where you feel present. The one where you’re not thinking about impressing anyone anymore.