As I find myself again, railing against something published in the New York Times about the college admissions process, it is hard for me to deny just how much of a curmudgeon I have become. I’m pretty sure that it is not simply a function of age, but rather a fundamental difference in perspective relating to what applying to college is supposed to be about.
As an admissions officer, I recognize that while the application process can be very competitive, it is not inherently a competition. This is a nuance that I don’t think that many students, parents and journalists appreciate. I have the luxury of being able to be a purist in this regard, and I acknowledge how radical my thinking might seem.
Recently, I have been putting my radical thinking into practice by regularly suggesting to potential applicants that they should avoid trying to get admitted. In my mind, it makes perfect sense. It is, at least initially though, nearly incomprehensible to the vast majority. I do explain that I am not discouraging them from applying for admission, but rather making a distinction between submitting an application and trying to manipulate the process in order to gain admission.
In case this distinction is not clear, applying for admission involves the submission of academic credentials and supporting documents from which a composite is formed that enables the admissions office to determine whether an applicant is a good match. Trying to get admitted, on the other hand, is essentially the exact opposite. A prospective student, based upon what they believe will create a “winning” application, works backwards to repackage themselves into their vision of the perfect applicant.
Sometimes students have wonderfully transformative experiences in situations like these, and even do a great deal of good along the way. However, much of the time, students fail to connect with any underlying meaning, and merely end up with a contrived essay topic or an additional faux activity that frequently does more harm than good for their admission chances.
WARNING: You are about to encounter a mini-rant. Have you ever considered how community service became the de rigueur activity that everyone needed to do in order to look good for college? I imagine it went something like this. At the end of another very competitive admissions cycle, a journalist made calls to admissions offices fishing for an interesting bit of information that might make a good story. From that fishing expedition, an admissions officer recounted how there was this one kid that was really memorable, because she saw a need in her community and took action because somebody needed to. Her actions inspired others, and the community came together and made a significant difference. She wrote about her experiences in her college application essay because those experiences were a big part of who she had become. The journalist wrote a compelling story, which got picked up by a number of other outlets, because in addition to being a positive human-interest piece it also represented the discovery of a formula for success in the admissions process that could be replicated by virtually anyone.
Don’t get me wrong. I think kids doing community service is great, but if all they get from their experience is a tally of hours, or they have to travel half way around the world to discover that there are poor people, they are missing the point. If they can’t talk or write about their experiences with some level of introspection, and ponder questions like "Why are resources distributed in such a way that there are individuals in great need, whose very survival may depend upon the charitable assistance of others?" then something is lacking. Rather than creating an image that is unique and distinctive, they have simply completed an elaborate “paint by numbers,” that may be appealling at first glance, but is woefully short on substance. End of rant.
If you are wondering what my point is, it can be best summed up with a Latin phrase that I heard several months ago that has really stuck with me – Esse quam videri, which translates “To be, rather than to seem.”
Beyond the college admissions process, I would say that this is also a good core principle for life. Most of us want people in our lives who are what they seem. This is especially true for close friends. Most would also acknowledge that a relationship that is based upon being something that one is not, is destined for failure. Why then, would the college experience be any different? Of course, it is different because it involves multiple relationships, rather than a single one. And although, an undergraduate experience is finite (4 years for most), the relationships are anything but finite, as they continue throughout the course of one’s life.
The bottom line is this. If an institution doesn’t appreciate applicants for who they are, then the applicants will ultimately be much better off in places where they will be appreciated, particularly if they have the freedom to be themselves. If they want to have that freedom, they need to ensure that the central focus of the college search and application process is on who they are and what is right for them, rather than the prized offer of admission, from the big name universiy, that will impress their friends and family.