I made a terrible mistake the other day: I read my old Common App essay. Like most Amherst students, I hadn’t given much thought to my personal essay since the day it had been ritually sacrificed to the gods of comedy at Amherst Voices. I can’t say what possessed me to open that Google Drive document, but as I sat reading it, I couldn’t help but visibly cringe. I felt as though I were examining the victim of a particularly vicious four-way car crash.
The pain of examining my old essay didn’t just stem from the embarrassing lines (e.g. “When I was a child, while other children hoarded candy, I hoarded facts”) or the formulaic structure. The problem was that in the essay, I saw an uncanny valley version of myself, recognizable yet unmistakably different. Old friends of mine from high school have reported similar feelings at reading their old essays, so I can only assume that the problem isn’t unique to me (except for the candy line, I’ll own that). The problem is with the whole concept of a Common App essay.
Criticism of the Common Application is, well, common. Most critics focus on how the Common App outcompetes other providers, or how ineffective the Common App essay is in helping admissions officers understand the potential of an applicant. After all, how can anyone adequately summarize their existence in 650 words? But the Common App essay’s issues go well beyond the disadvantage to admissions officers — it is also problematic for students. The entire context and structure of Common App essays make them a uniquely existential and troubling process for young people.
As some college students may attest, people’s writing suffers under pressure. And for a young, ambitious high school student, the college admissions process is often the most stressful process that there is. Not only must students summarize themselves in fewer words than there are on a McDonald’s Menu, but they also have to do it in a pressure cooker. This combination of circumstances often leads to essays formed in the least risky and, thus, most formulaic way imaginable.
Applicants feel enormous pressure to present their best selves in their essays. Admissions officers often advise students to recognize some of their flaws in their essays because it shows sincerity, but showing too many flaws makes you unworthy of admission. But how are high school seniors supposed to know where to draw that line? I feel safe to say that most take the simpler way out and carefully avoid information that could paint them in a negative light.
The result is predictable. People lie. I don’t mean they lie about their grades, or scores, or classes. They lie about things far more important — their passions, their motivations, their identity. And why wouldn’t they? Students want to create the best image of themselves. And while essay readers say they value ‘honesty,’ that doesn’t do much to disincentivize deceit. It may be hard to tell if someone is lying in person, but it’s almost impossible to tell through reading a short and exhaustively edited essay.
The situation is still more complicated because Common App essays aren’t solo efforts. Most essays, including my own, owe a great deal to the suggestions of family members and other mentors. And while it’s certainly unfair and wrong that some students must write their essay without help, the communal nature of the essay further dilutes the identity present in the essay. It takes ownership of the essay away from the writer.
Keep in mind that most people writing Common App essays are 17 or 18 years old and unfamiliar with structured personal essays. That makes the essay difficult from both a technical and an existential perspective. By asking teenagers to describe themselves, the Common Application implicitly asks them to figure out their own identities, hardly an easy task for a hormone-addled rebel without a cause. Describing yourself is a daunting mission in the best of times, and when confronted with a witch’s brew of stress, external intervention and self-promotion, it’s demoralizing in the extreme.
What you end up with is an immaculately edited essay that doesn’t feel like a true reflection of the author. That discrepancy exerts a real toll on students. Knowing that the admissions office picked an idealized version of one’s self is bound to cause students to doubt whether they deserve to be in a particular college. It’s no wonder that impostor syndrome and depression are so common, particularly among first years.
Since applying for college, I’ve written many more application essays for jobs and programs. Yet as I look back on them, none creates even a tenth of the deep, almost physical discomfort of looking back on my Common App essay. Perhaps I’ve gotten better at shameless self-promotion. Or maybe I’ve grown to better understand that nothing I write has any bearing on the course of my life.
The key to escaping the shadow of the Common App is to laugh at yourself. That’s why Amherst Voices, where upperclassmen make skits out of first-year students’ application essays, is one of our college’s best traditions. Reading the most cringe-worthy essay lines out loud to a hysterically laughing audience reminds us that we all sound foolish and staged in our applications. Voices mark the point where Amherst students can truly set aside the person depicted in our applications and realize that the essays we write don’t define us, and never did.
Unless you love this piece, in which case it totally does define me.