Zaynab E.

Confessions From The College Front Line: Jumping the Hurdles of the College Process — The Essay

Phase 2. The lists have been created, the deadlines are looming, many of them have passed, and every senior is on the brink of a mental breakdown. Mrs. Robinson is running on no sleep, Mrs. O’Grady is sick of receiving lazily written essays, Mrs. O’Reilly is madly working to send recommendation letters and transcripts to hundreds of colleges, and Ms. Singh is desperately making meeting schedule after meeting schedule. To say the least, the college counseling team and seniors are climbing up the college process ladder as fast as possible. Together we are fully and completely in the thick of the college process or purgatory.

Coming out of Senior College Week, the first week of October when all seniors have school off to work on the college process, I felt nervous and overwhelmed. During Senior Week I visited seven colleges in five days. After the week, it felt like a cloud had cleared and there was some clarity. I understood the schools I was looking at on a deeper level.

However, that fun and joy were quickly crushed by the anvil of the process, specifically the essay, the ultimate personal statement and reflection.

To be clear: the essay looms over you for months. Beginning at Jump Start, a workshop over the summer for incoming seniors, I was introduced to sample essays and began to write my own. Many Westridge students write their essays during this week or at least solidify a theme. I was still lost weeks after the workshop. During Jump Start, I wrote three different essays about various topics and really couldn’t connect to any. The first was about a project I did last year, the second was about a backpacking trip, and the third was about a horrible article I wrote for this very paper two years ago. Needless to say, nothing was working.

What I wasn’t expecting was that the hardest part would be choosing a topic. It had to be something that articulated everything about who I am, something that I want a college to know. It also needed to be specific and engaging. After I wrote my first essay, I sat down with Mrs. O’ Reilly. I remember telling her that I wasn’t sure exactly what to write about. I rattled off five or so ideas and asked her which was best. She laughed and said that it was my decision and that whatever I feel can communicate “me” best is what I should write about. To say the least, I was still on the essay topic train headed nowhere.

I was swimming in a lake of life stories, desperately looking for one which would show “Caroline” the most. I felt stupid just writing about one thing because, like any life, mine is multilayered. I finally found my theme when I truly sat down and talked it out with a friend. Who do I want to be in college and who am I already? I questioned what my most vulnerable essay might look like and went from there.

I wrote about something personal to me: my relationship with my mother. At first, it felt like I was exploiting important, deep, and intimate parts of my life so that I would get into college. (I won’t go into the fact that the entire process seems exploitative of time, energy, and resources. That’s another column.) My experiences felt like pawns for my ultimate success. But as I wrote, I realized that the most truthful and honest essay would be sincerely indicative of who I am.

Ultimately, I was able to write something I’m proud of and something I think reflects who I am, but looking at my essay journey now, I feel, once again, conflicted. Is it okay to share your most vulnerable experiences with a million strangers so they can judge if you are the right person for their college? Is it a meaningful way to assess a student’s potential merits to a college community? Is it even equitable, given that many students have access to professional help? Is the essay ethical?

Or rather, could it be that the essay is the most ethical part of the process because it gives students the chance to represent themselves outside of sometimes arbitrary grades and test scores?

I don’t believe there is a clearcut answer to these questions. As a community, we are going to have to come to terms with the pure messiness of the process. But this is what I do know: when I finished my final essay draft, I was proud of how I communicated myself, and I was excited for schools to hear my voice. I’ve decided that no matter where I get in, if a school cannot read my story and appreciate my words, then that school isn’t for me.


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