Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

How to Be Yourself

The Studied Art of the College Application Essay

Joseph E. Davis

Andrea Obzerova/Alamy Stock Photos; THR illustration.

The instructions seem simple enough: Pick one of the prompts (topics) and just write a short essay, no more than 650 words, that “helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice.” Most of the Common App—an undergraduate application form used by more than 900 colleges and universities—consists of fill-in-the-blank numbers and lists of things. The essay gives you the chance to tell the admissions officers what you want them “to know about you” beyond “courses, grades, and test scores.” All they are asking for is a story, really. Yes, it must be written “clearly and concisely.”11xThe quotes are from the Common App available here, That will require patience and rewriting, but help is available, ranging from parents and English teachers to professional essay coaches and editors (with a variety of packages to fit every budget). But the story is about you, about what is important to you, about what makes you unique. On that topic, you’re the foremost expert. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, judging from the burgeoning industry offering specialized instruction to college applicants in how to write a successful personal essay (or “personal statement”). Curiously, the mandate to “just be yourself” is what makes the writing most challenging. The college preparatory service CollegeVine, for example, informs applicants that the personal essay “should be an opportunity for the admissions officers to get to know you better and give them a glimpse into who you really are.” So far, so good. You’re writing for someone who wants to know you better. But then you discover that well beyond good writing technique, CollegeVine helps applicants “learn what admissions officers are looking for” and discover how they will “read and evaluate your essays.” The service will show you “what works to get accepted,” based on its extensive research and analysis. And CollegeVine produces essay guides that will provide you “with clear, actionable ways to write an authentic essay.”22x“Improve Your College Essays through Feedback,” CollegeVine, accessed July 14, 2021, Suddenly, “presenting yourself as you are,” to quote a former dean of admissions at Yale, looks rather daunting.33xJules Nash, “How to Write a Powerful College Essay Application,” XQ Institute, November 13, 2020,

There is no irony here. All of the dozens of college preparatory websites and books I have consulted speak the language of authenticity, mirroring the admissions discourse of colleges themselves, where “authentic” and “authenticity,” according to author Matt Feeney in his subtle analysis of this discourse, are the “current buzzwords.”44xMatt Feeney, Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2021), 224. The college prep advisers, as well as the few academic studies, make it clear that writing an “authentic essay” is a primarily rhetorical task, aimed to persuade skeptical third-party readers who have standards and expectations regarding what counts as uniqueness and are looking for the expression of specific values and self-transformation. The prep advisers also let students—and their parents—in on the rules of genuineness, stressing that its successful performance must never appear contrived, even as they offer advice on what it means for students to “be themselves.”

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