By Alex Tan on November 2nd, 2020

When They Ask You to “Be Yourself” in Your Essay: Thoughts on the Reductiveness of College Applications

When They Ask You to “Be Yourself” in Your Essay: Thoughts on the Reductiveness of College Applications

“They want to know who you really are, beyond the grades.”

“Think about the smallest details in your life that you wouldn’t usually consider important!”

I heard such advice constantly while working on my Common App essays. My teachers and college counsellors emphasized, time and again, that my application should highlight a core aspect of my identity. They made it sound like I just had to be myself, and the rest would follow.

But what if it wasn’t that easy? What if I wasn’t interesting enough, funny enough, quirky enough, relatable enough? What if 17 years hadn’t been enough time for my identity to form its core? Sitting in front of blank Word documents, I brainstormed endlessly. I had a million ideas and zero willpower to actualize them.

The stakes were incredibly high. I felt like I had to compress all of myself – my life, my thoughts, my emotions – into 650 words. These words somehow had to accurately represent me on paper, since I wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet the admissions officers in person. Not to mention that there was a limited quota for international students. I had so much to prove.

Perhaps what made me most uncomfortable was that I began to compartmentalize myself. I was aware of how so many universities, especially in the US, were using words like “diversity” and “inclusion” in their admissions processes. So, I thought of myself in those terms. Here is my personality. Here are my activities and my achievements: in the arts, in academics, in leadership.

Add to that that as students in the Singapore education system – infamous for being one of the most competitive and stressful in the world – we weren’t exactly known for having too much personality. A stereotype, perhaps. I think it’s true, though, that the kind of education you receive really shapes the modes of expression that you’re used to. All my life, I had been taught to comply with rules. Often, that meant suppressing what I really wanted and needed.

You can imagine how wearying this eventually became. I didn’t know where to draw the line between performing a marginalized identity and remaining authentic. It was overwhelming to want to be sincere, while at the same time worrying and obsessing over having to stand out in a sea of other applications. In Orphan Black, one of my favorite TV series of all time, the nerdy scientist character Cosima – who happens to be gay – says: “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.”

Let’s face it: college apps are reductive. It is impossible to package yourself – in all your complexity – into any number of words. The Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgård, got famous for writing six whole novels about himself. That’s over 2500 pages, literally titled “My Struggle”. Oh, Mr. Knausgård, if only you knew the struggle of students writing college application essays!

What’s more, they encourage each and every one of us to see ourselves as unique individuals, and to be proud and confident in displaying that. Many of us find that challenging, especially at an age when we’re still figuring out who we are, what we want, and how to negotiate our place in the world.

I still am one of the most timid and self-doubting people I know. Now that I’m actually in college, I can’t bear to look back on the essays I wrote then. I feel like I made so many exaggerated claims about myself that I’m not sure I live up to. There are so many moments when I don’t feel like the creative, curious, politically engaged version of myself that I wrote a in my application. And that’s okay! We constantly evolve and grow, and go through successive versions of ourselves. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday.

At the end of the day, I do think that an element of performance is necessary and inevitable in our college application essays. We are, after all, marketing ourselves. We’re trying to convince a group of human beings on the other end to accept us into the institution they work for. It isn’t any less true for being “personal”.

But this doesn’t mean that you are pretending to be who you are not! I believe that you can still be sincere and authentic, while remembering that you are putting up a performance. Most importantly, I believe that if you’re currently in the process of applying to colleges in the US, or thinking of applying soon, I hope you remember that there is no essay you can write that will capture you fully, in your beauty, messiness and dimension.

No matter the outcome, you are, and will always be, more than the essays you write.

Alex Tan is a second-year undergrad at Columbia University in New York City.

Read more on the LiveCampusTours blog: A Journalist's Advice for Writing a Great College Essay

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