Episode 63: A Sense of Self

Episode 63: A Sense of Self

Date of Publication/发布日期
January 23, 2022
Curtis Westbay
Files & media
Volume 2 2021-2022
Tell us about a time where you challenged your pre-existing worldview. Why? Would you do this again? Write about a moment that illustrated your shift from child to adult within your community or family. Describe something you’re passionate about. How do you learn more about it? What makes it so appealing?

Who even are you?

The prompts listed above are just a small selection of essay prompts which beg depth from a writer. A coming-of-age story is a well-traveled theme for seasoned professional writers like Sylvia Plath, Harper Lee, and John Steinbeck. Transformation of identity under the seismic pressure of a change of heart is a hard enough realization to grasp, let alone to put a voice to in a novel-length work. Expression of passion is something that plays out over a lifetime of effort. And yet, here colleges are, asking students to handle these goliath questions in a couple hundred words.

So, maybe students should keep it simple at first by asking themselves, who am I?

Boiled down, students might try to answer this question with a few adjectives. “I’m persistent. I’m clever. I’m openminded.” Next, students try to find stories in which their self-assessment isn’t just taken at face value, but is evidenced in the ways they have behaved. They write the story, and then a counselor helps them use techniques like in medias res to draw a reader in. Space is at a premium in an application-length essay, so there’s no point to laying out your story in a more adequate format. If you haven’t picked up on my feelings toward college essay questions like these yet, I don’t think that asking students to try and tackle this impossible thing in such a superficially-short space is truly productive... but the college application is what it is.

Now, you’ve got to navigate a mine field of topics that are overdone. Those commonest topics won’t catch the attention of the reader, generally speaking. Most students at our school will likely expound upon topics that took place at— you guessed it— school! Sorry. A lot of students will write about experiences that happened at school, as school attendance is, definitionally, one thing that all college applicants have in common. Better to avoid a story about how transitioning to high school signaled your shift from childhood to adulthood because you had more personal responsibility. Have an academic passion? Better to avoid it as a topic— it will make you look less like a human and more like a school robot. Have a moment that stuck with you from an academic conversation where you changed your mind? Better to avoid it as a topic— purely academic exercises seem trivial in comparison to some of the cognitive shifts that other students will likely write about.

Get back to the heart of these questions: who are you?

If a personal quality is such a resonant, unshakeable feature of who you are, you shouldn’t lack for examples of that quality in action in your life. You can traverse the mine field of non-starter topics to find a more interesting angle. In short, you have to authentically ponder a sense of self, and then all of the roadblocks that a calculating, detached essay coach will put up in front of you. And, fortunately for the student, this thought exercise doesn’t just yield benefits to the college application.

Our seniors are about to embark on daunting journeys. We can talk about how exciting that will be, but transitioning to college is also quite daunting. Think: our students will be, in most cases, on the other side of the globe. They will be separated from every supportive person they have come to rely upon. They will be in a culturally-unfamiliar place, with strange foods, strange accents, and strange personalities. Oh, and the classes they take will be more difficult than ever.

A student could have roommate issues with a random person who shares an intimate space. They could prefer to sleep at different times, disagree about a baseline for tidiness, and simply not understand one another’s backgrounds. College is hard enough in the 15-20 hours of class that students will have every week, but the biggest problems that students have in college usually stem from this new total autonomy that students have. Not only will students not have people telling them what to do (e.g. study your notes!), but they also won’t have nearly the same amount of support in conflict resolution as they’ve had before.

You can’t prepare for every eventuality. Students can, however, make this move confident in their self-identity. The difficult questions that colleges ask students to answer in a farcical word count provide answers that a reader may skim over in a few minutes, but students live with those answers. If our students take pause over their answers, they can cling to a sense of self even in the tempestuous times that lie ahead.