Perhaps some of you remember this situation from your life: the Common Application (or other college application). As far as filling in biographical information and activities go, the process isn’t very taxing (after all, I’ve known my name and DOB for about fifteen and a half years now).
Then there’s the essay. Five prompts to choose from, 650 words to share a story about your life that challenged you, when you rose above conformity, became an adult, or solved an ethical problem. Essentially, you must produce a 650 word story about some experience in your life that made you YOU. Bonus points if the admissions officers remember your story for the day after they read it.
I would have expected the hardest part of the process to be condensing a story down to 650 words; I’ve never been a very concise human being, and I’m fond of detail in my story telling. However, filling 650 words isn’t my problem (yet). The most difficult thing about this essay is thinking of a topic itself.
I think of myself as a living a full, meaningful life. I’ve cultivated incredible relationships, gone to beautiful, exotic places, and thoroughly enjoyed my time alive on this earth. Now, though, with the pressure to write, I can’t think of anything I’ve done or learned that provides a window into myself.
I think. And think. And draw blank after blank. I’ve never experienced a death in the family, never battled against any unfair circumstances, never changed the world around me beyond the relationships I have. I’m not a researcher and I haven’t written a published novel. Not a single small, sentimental, character-filled event in my life comes to mind.
I understand the purpose of the essay, but in some ways, it makes me feel empty. Reflecting on my life for the purpose of speaking to it has made my life seem so narrow. What moments have transformed me? I wish I could list them off here, but I can’t even think of number one.
Reflection is supposed to be such a critical component of life; it is in retrospect and hindsight that we find the meaning in the events of our lives. We are advised not to swim downstream without turning to look upriver. But what if we look back upriver and the things we once found so beautiful are muddled, lost in the current, and all we see is a wall of empty blue?
I’m sure my essay will turn out alright. I plan to write about how much I love to write (and hopefully I can convince the admissions officers that I have potential in the field). It’s just interesting to look back on life with the purpose of digging up something valuable, because the harder I dig, the less I seem to dredge up.
The truth is, I love my life. I may not be able to point to a period of hours and define it as a turning point, but so what? I have evidently evolved in my life, slowly, over days and years of observing the world and interacting with it. I am not the person I was five years ago, and that’s what I’m proud of. I may not be able to pull out life-changing anecdotes from the years, but all together, I’d say they were incredibly special, and I wouldn’t go back and relive them if I could.
If I could change the college application essay, I would. Rather than asking for a moment or experience, I would ask kids to describe a traitor theirs that has evolved over the years, and what sequence of occurrences fostered that change. Maybe it can’t be answered in 650 words, but I believe it’s a far more accurate window to view people through. After all, I can contrive a moment; I can write that taking care of my sisters one night made me feel like an adult, when all I was really thinking about was the following day of school and how many cups of milk to add to the macaroni and cheese I made them. I cannot contrive the spiritual path I’ve followed for the last five years and how I have let go of certain beliefs and ignited others.
Perhaps I’ll share my final essay here, so you all can see me in a new light. I hope you will see a character and personality emerge from it, one that is mature enough to thrive in a college environment.
When you think back on your life, don’t search for the single moments that make it special; think about the collection of moments, the days and weeks and months and years, through which you’ve become the person you are today. It is in the everyday that we cultivate our character, not only in the struggles and joys. I am still someone when I’m having a mundane conversation with my mother, taking my dog for a walk, or ordering food at a restaurant.
I’m learning more and more than life isn’t about experiencing the incredible, it’s about recognizing the incredible in the credible, the amazing in the ordinary, and the evolution that happens not in a moment, but in a lifetime.
What do you all think? Can you point to moments, or do you see life as a cumulative experience? What do you see in the mundane?