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.”

Set alongside authenticity, ideas like organizational standards, institutional approval, acceptable values, and successful performance seem discordant. We tend to think of authenticity as what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a certain way of being human that is my way”55xCharles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism and the “Politics of Recognition”: An Essay with Commentary, with Amy Gutmann, Steven E. Rockefeller, Michael Walzer, and Susan Wolf (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 30, emphasis in the original. —as living in accordance with one’s deepest convictions, or maintaining a fidelity between one’s outer persona and inner life. It turns out that those are old ways of thinking and living. A new meaning of authenticity has appeared,66xJoseph E. Davis, “When Your Authenticity Is an Act, Something’s Gone Wrong,” Psyche, March 31, 2021, and in the contemporary ethos informing college applications, there is no disjunction between an applicant’s authentic self and the specific type of person sought by colleges and universities. Indeed, one’s “truest self” and what admissions officers are looking for go together, with the latter even being the measure of the former. What might this new and tacitly embraced conception of authenticity mean?

Test Optional, Essay Critical

To begin, we have to consider the growing importance of the essay in relation to more objective measures of academic ability. Consider the testimony of a University of Pennsylvania student whose place-securing essay was featured on the website of College Confidential, yet another company selling advice to college applicants and their parents: “I did learn something about the college application process though. I realized that the most important part of the whole application was the essay. No matter how high your GPA or SAT scores are, a bad essay can make or break you.”77xCollege Confidential, “Common Application and Supplemental Essays (Cont’d),” October 8, 2015, Not all four-year schools require an essay, and even at the large number that do, no single admissions factor can be singled out as “the most important.” Among the “holistic criteria” institutions use, the essay, even a “great” one, never stands entirely alone. But it is very important, especially at places like Penn. “Essays,” according to the coaching service Prompt, “are where applicants mess up.”88xBrad Schiller, “Strong Essays Increase Your Admissions Chances by Up To Ten Times,” Prompt, July 29, 2021,

And over the past three decades or so, colleges and universities have been placing increasing stress on the personal essay—or essays, since many schools require supplemental ones. In 1993, for instance, 14 percent of the universities surveyed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling attributed “considerable importance” to the essay in determining which applicants to admit. In the latest survey, in 2018, it was 23 percent (with another 33 percent attributing “moderate importance”), with private and “selective” institutions (the latter admitting less than 50 percent of applicants) relying on it far more heavily than typical state schools and those classified less selective.99xMelissa Clinedinst, 2019 State of College Admission, National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2019,

The number of applications to many of those selective institutions has skyrocketed since the 1990s, creating a larger and more competitive pool of prospective students with nearly identical academic records and lists of accomplishments. The essay (sometimes factored into a “personal score,” along with recommendations and activity lists) can “make or break” a student’s application. In 2015, of the nearly twenty thousand applicants to Tufts University, 74 percent were “deemed qualified for admission” and 42 percent were “recommended for acceptance.” Only 16 percent actually got in.1010xGlenn Kessler, “End the College Application Inflation,” Washington Post, April 18, 2015,, quoted in Feeney, Little Platoons, 218.

Yet another trend is moving the personal essay further and quicker up the hierarchy of deciding factors. In a process that began slowly in 2005 and has accelerated in recent years, colleges have been moving away from requiring standardized entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.1111x“Test Optional Growth Chronology, 2005–2021,” National Center for Fair and Open Testing, updated July 13, 2021, Nearly 1,100 schools had already gone “test-optional” before the pandemic, and in response to COVID-19 and limited testing availability, another 650 colleges, including many of the most prestigious, made the move in 2020. The expectation is that that many of these institutions will make the change permanent.1212xScott Jaschik, “ACT Admits That Test-Optional Admissions Isn’t Going Away,” Inside Higher Ed, March 1, 2021,

In the absence of standardized test scores, the remaining admission factors necessarily take on greater weight. Grades and the strength of the high school curriculum are already highly emphasized. Other factors, like class rank and recommendations from high school teachers and counselors, have been steadily losing importance.1313xClinedinst, 2019 State of College Admission. They are no longer considered very reliable. That has endowed the personal essay with a newly elevated significance.

Further, the key reason colleges and universities say they are moving away from standardized testing is to increase socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity.1414xThere is also the added hidden benefit of boosting the number of applications and, thus, a school’s perceived selectivity and perhaps national ranking. See Lynn O’Shaughnessy, “U. of California and Other Colleges Rush to Dump SAT and ACT Tests during COVID-19,” The College Solution, Accessed August 5, 2021. Dropping the test requirement is meant to give underrepresented minority and first-generation students a better chance at admission. Announcing its test-optional policy, the University of Chicago said that it “levels the playing field” and gives underserved prospective students the chance to “present themselves as well as any other college applicant.” Now, “empowered” with “greater flexibility,” they can “craft an application,” both in essays and other media, that frees them to “personalize elements of their application” and “present their best, most authentic selves” to the admissions committee.1515x“UChicago Empower,” University of Chicago College Admissions, Accessed August 5, 2021.

But just how does a college applicant, any applicant, present his or her “best, most authentic” self to a committee of strangers with the power to accept or reject this “self”? Home videos of teens posted online show them greeting college acceptance notifications with rapturous joy—or receiving rejection letters with tearful heartbreak. The stakes are high. How do you get “just being yourself” right?

The Rules for Presenting Authentic Selves

The college prep consultants emphasize that there is no single “formula for success.” Each student is different, with a unique voice and story to tell. No one else can tell your story for you, and, of course, no one should try—the essay “needs to be your own and to look your own and to sound like you,” according to a former Princeton admissions dean, and it “should smell authentic.”1616xFred A. Hargadon, “Advice from the Inside,” in 100 Successful College Application Essays, 3rd ed., ed. Members of the Staff of The Harvard Independent (New York, NY: New American Library, 2013), 13, emphasis in the original. Apparently parents, counselors, and tutors are tempted to ghostwrite or rewrite students’ essays, because the prep counselors and former admissions officers sternly warn against doing any such thing. It will backfire, they insist, because only genuine essays are convincing, and application readers can tell the difference. The constant plea to “be genuine” or “authentic,” however, surely arises in part from a concern that the readers might, in fact, be taken in by a carefully doctored product. All those teachers and tutors and writing coaches know the game, as the occasional admissions scandal makes clear.1717xErica L. Green and Katie Benner, “Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality,” New York Times, November 30, 2018, Admissionado, an admissions consulting company, claims that its special approach “allows our essay experts to be exacting at the line- and word-level, ensuring that the logic is airtight, and that the prose sparkles with clarity, persuasiveness, and most importantly, personality. Doing this in a way that allows you, the author, to maintain your own distinct voice, requires a next-level mastery of the feedback process.” “College Admissions Consulting,” Admissionado, Accessed July 15, 2021.

While the prep advisers are right in asserting that no formula can guarantee success, the whole process of presenting your “best, most authentic self” is highly formulaic. The endless articles on “how to write an awesome college essay” are remarkably similar in this regard. They reflect a shared set of values about what “self” to depict and what “self” to have. Put bluntly, this “best, most authentic self” is the version best suited to institutional evaluation and approval. It is “what admissions officers are looking for,” and their conferral of recognition through acceptance is the confirmation that the student got his or her performance right, was the right type of person. Share your “truest self,” says the College Essay Guy, and “trust that your perfect-fit college will see you for who truly you are and say ’Yes!’”1818x“35+ Best College Essay Tips from College Application Experts,” College Essay Guy, Accessed July 15, 2021.

Although the personal essay may be a new genre to most students, self-presentation is by now an already familiar skill. The extensive profile-based identity work they do on social media, for example, has schooled them in assembling a story (text and images) of themselves that is presented for the approval of others, especially people they have never met. In profiling themselves, they have already learned “second-order observation,” the art of looking at and judging how issues or people, including themselves, will be seen by others.1919xHans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio, You and Your Profile: Identity after Authenticity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021). The skill of reading “essays just like an admissions officer,” to quote CollegeVine, will have to be learned, but students are already practiced in observing themselves from the perspective of other observers.2020x“Improve Your College Essays through Feedback,” CollegeVine.

Many students, through family or school, have also been socialized into cultivating those “unique qualities” that conform to institutional expectations. Savvy parents (and school advisers) know to start early. According to Elizabeth Wissner-Gross, a “nationally sought-after college ‘packager,’” if parents want their children to get into the “most desirable colleges,” they need to begin developing an individualized “game plan” in the “grade-school years.”2121xElizabeth Wissner-Gross, What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know): Create a Long-Term Plan for Your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting Into the Top Colleges (New York, NY: Plume, 2008). First published 2007. The goal is not just academic optimization—designing a strong program, making strategic use of summers, and so on. Being the right package also depends on cultivating personal characteristics that translate into social assets—a certain personality and orientation to self—qualities that anticipate the college application rite of passage. Because not all kids will have the same background, the college prep people proffer strategies to change disadvantage and deficits into signs of authenticity and merit.

The performance of authenticity is complicated because the application essay involves mixed messages, some of which don’t easily mix. “The goal of the personal statement,” according to the prep service Kaplan, “is to show the reader your unique character and traits.”2222x“Ultimate Guide to College Application Essays,” Kaplan, Accessed July 15, 2021. Your “unique qualities will shine through,” states The Princeton Review, if you’re “honest and genuine.”2323xRob Franek, “Crafting an Unforgettable Essay,” The Princeton Review, 2021, Accessed July 15. But being different from others is not enough; one’s uniqueness must count. It only matters if what is special or meaningful about you demonstrates that you have more to offer than the next candidate. You are trying to “distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool.”2424x“Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them),” The Princeton Review, Accessed August 5, 2021. And, unfortunately, the others all have unique qualities too. Your authenticity, your specific difference, must lift you above them, into that coveted file marked “exactly who we’ve been looking for.”2525x“35+ Best College Essay Tips,” College Essay Guy.

The first prerequisite of the distinguishing essay is holding the attention of the admissions officers. Prep adviser wisdom begins with “know your audience.” The people reading the applications, often recent college graduates, are assigned a great pile, hundreds per admissions cycle, and, consequently may “only spend a few minutes on each.”2626x“Improve Your College Essays through Feedback,” CollegeVine. They may be tired and bored when they get to yours. At the same time, the advisers instruct students not to attend too closely to the rhetorical situation and to avoid “trying to write what you think colleges are looking for.” Instead, as the College Board counsels, “be authentic,” and “just focus on showcasing who you are.”2727x“8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay,“ College Board Big Future, Accessed July 15, 2021. The secret is to “sound like your best self.”2828x“How to Write a College Application Essay,” College Board Blog, January 8, 2020, To convey this impression, the writing, according to various sites, should feel “relaxed” and “unpretentious,” without obvious “effort to impress.” It should “come from the heart” and be “relatable” and “realistic,” conveying “genuine emotion” and “excitement.” It should “avoid cliches,” “surprise the reader,” and be “interesting, entertaining and memorable.” The writer should not be afraid to show “vulnerability.”

If that is not challenging enough, showcasing yourself also involves expressing other personal qualities that admissions officers want to see. According to the prep advisers, students should seek to “come across as humble, accessible, likable (this is HUGE!), and mature.”2929x“35+ Best College Essay Tips,” College Essay Guy. They should demonstrate those traits that translate into college success, such as “leadership,” “initiative,” “grit,” “creativity,” and “perseverance.” While “genuine emotion” is ideal, colleges like confidence, according to the College Board, so “keep a confident tone even if—especially if—you’re not feeling that way.”3030x“How to Write a College Application Essay,” College Board Blog. Readers recoil at crude egotism but, advises the College Essay Guy, there are ways to “sound smart”3131x“How to Sound Smart in Your Personal Statement,” College Essay Guy, Accessed July 15, 2021. and to “brag without being annoying.” The secret is to “simply think in terms of values.”3232x“How to Brag in Your College Essay (without Sounding Annoying),” College Essay Guy, Accessed July 15, 2021. Framing your accomplishments in terms of the prized values can transform them into signs of your empathy, your commitment to community, or your passion for diversity.

In addition, the distinguishing essay, according to admissions consulting service Admissionado, telegraphs “what those accomplishments suggest about [a student’s] future potential.”3333x“The A-List of College Admissions Consultants,” Admissionado, Accessed July 15, 2021. The best, most authentic self is going places; it is afire with a “passion.” As with authenticity, the college prep literature assumes its own special meaning of this word. An undergraduate I asked said, “Making money is not a passion.” Rather, she said, a passion is a personal commitment—to a career, a field of study, a cause, a group, a hobby—that has a higher, even altruistic goal. According to the prep advisers, specialization propelled by deep motivation is what colleges love to see.3434xSee, for example, “Building a Well-Rounded Class: Why Colleges Want Specialists,” IvyWise College Admissions Blog, October 29, 2014, Conveying that, they say, is what makes essays gripping and memorable, and signals the student’s drive, sense of direction, and exciting prospects for the future.

Witnessing to Metanoia

In the college prep literature, there is no discernable gap between being your authentic self and being what colleges select for. This alignment does not reflect any deep institutional openness to student differences and particularity as such. If it did, then there would be no need for prep consultants to “demystify” the personal essay. A student’s self-presentation would simply stand by itself. There would be no need to read “just like an admissions officer” or have the writing hemmed in and shaped by the preferred attitudes, traits, and values, not to mention worries over the HUGE! issue of whether a college administrator would find them likeable. Students could just be their “truest self” in their best writing, with all the differing sensibilities that would bring to campus.

How, then, is an alignment of authentic self and college admissions possible? At first glance, a personal essay that presents a student’s chosen self would seem to put that applicant’s essay beyond evaluation. The foremost tenet of liberal individualism is that no one can tell you who you are or what you feel or what has meaning for you. True and false still obtain in the realm of objective facts, and lying about them in the essay is a bad idea, according to the prep advisers, because facts can be checked.3535xKate Hunger, “8 Fast Tips to Write an Amazing College Application Essay,” American Honors (blog), November 21, 2014, But today the bedrock of self-understanding is autonomy and choice. Granted, what you claim for yourself must be recognized by others and therefore persuasively performed, but there is also strong social pressure toward honoring these performances and even treating this acceptance as a right. If inauthenticity used to mean portraying yourself as someone you were not, it is far less clear what it might mean now.3636xGordon Marino, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2019). At some basic level, you can’t really be wrong.

If the self, presented as authentic, cannot be judged, how, then, can admissions officers read essays and render verdicts on them? How, that is, do essay readers read them, especially when the writing is reasonably crisp, and the self is portrayed in a pleasingly crafted fashion? Their reading, I propose, is guided by the composition theory known as expressivism. The criterion of quality in this perspective, argues the rhetorician Adam Ellwanger, “is the depth of the engagement of the author with herself.” The self is sacrosanct, beyond judgment, but what can be judged in this method of reading is “the self’s judging of the self.”3737xAdam Ellwanger, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020), 161, emphasis in the original.

What makes this possibility compelling is that the content of the personal essay is largely focused on self-transformation. Although there are different “prompts” that students can write on, they share a common theme: They require students to reflect on a meaningful experience—encountering an obstacle, solving a problem, questioning a belief—that affected them and brought about some personal development, insight, or new perspective. According to the prep advisers, the personal essay is a place to display your “personal growth,” “self-awareness,” capacity for “introspection,” and ability to “explore the significance” of the story you tell.

The self-judgment that colleges judge is a particular type of personal transformation, a “metanoic conversion,” to use one of Ellwanger’s concepts. “Metanoia,” literally “afterthought,” he explains, is a decisive change of heart or thinking; it is the experience of “a transformation of being,” an alteration of personal ethos or identity.3838xIbid., 1. This form of change or “conversion” involves a negation, a moving away from a prior self that was deficient in some way. In the context of the personal essay, as the sample essays provided by the prep consultants reveal, that prior condition or state might be ignorance, self-doubt, naiveté, provincialism, misguided behavior, or, well, the possibilities are endless. The prior self, per se, is not the key; the crux is the change in orientation. The evaluation of the essays centers on how students present the critical distancing, the finding, in institutionally congruent ways, of their motivation and their “voice.”

Stories of disadvantage and overcoming are powerful in this regard, and strongly encouraged by the prep consultants, guidance counselors, and colleges.3939xSee, for example, Elijah Megginson, “When I Applied to College, I Didn’t Want to ‘Sell My Pain,’” New York Times, May 9, 2021, But as a college enrollment manager told the Washington Post, “One of the big misconceptions is students feel they need some sort of disadvantage in their background in order to make a compelling case…and that’s not at all true.”4040xLisa Heffernan, “What College Applicants Are Getting Wrong,” Washington Post, September 16, 2019, How so? Because almost any prior self might work in the essay. A sample essay posted on CollegeVine begins, “As a child, my parents pressured me to achieve perfect grades, master my swim strokes, and discover interesting hobbies like playing the oboe and learning to pick locks.” Before this applicant saw the light, he continued, “I felt compelled to live my life according to their wishes.” But breaking free, he became self-sufficient, a transformation he illustrated with a story of how he independently discovered and participated in a summer foreign exchange program.4141xAsia Bradlee, “10 Personal Statement Essay Examples That Worked,” CollegeVine, July 1, 2020,

As far as the ideal essay is concerned, disadvantage is not in itself compelling. It only becomes compelling—becomes a sign of merit—if it speaks persuasively of a metanoic conversion: that while you are, for instance, from the hood, you are no longer of the hood. Or, as in the case of the young essayist who spurned lock picking and the oboe, you no longer pursue meritocratic achievement to satisfy your parents but for your own hard-won reasons and in response to your own now-sovereign volition. You have made a turn toward a new consciousness, toward self-discovery and biographical originality; you have turned away from the flawed self, with its limited vision and constraining ties and toward realizing yourself through institutional channels. You are becoming authentic.

Fit for the Community

As anyone, whether faculty or staff, employed at a college or university knows, administrators now constantly talk about “our community” and “our values.” Applying to college has become a request to be accepted into membership, and the personal essay, according to the prep advisers, “needs to paint a portrait of an applicant the school will want to invite to join the campus community.” In this portrait, your academic record matters, but so does your winning personality and your willingness to “contribute to the community in a meaningful and positive way.”4242xAllen Grove, “Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth,” ThoughtCo., August 17, 2019, Are you ready, the essay prompts are asking, to realize yourself in and through the institution, to align your profile with its profile? The demand for a metanoia is a test of your subjectivity and your will, and of your capacity to direct both toward successful outcomes in the terms the college—and the larger elite culture to which colleges are answerable and of which they are anxious expressions—embodies. The persuasiveness of the student story hinges on showing that its author is such an authentic person, that he or she belongs.

Students, pursuing the road to success, perhaps the only road they have ever imagined, want to be that person. It hardly makes sense to try to distinguish between what is real and what is fictitious, genuine and staged, in any of their autobiographical work. Nothing in their experience would have prepared them to understand the distinction or see any point in making it. The very concern seems increasingly obsolete. Now, as the German social theorist Axel Honneth argues, “Claims to individual self-realization…have so definitely become a feature of the institutionalized expectations inherent in social reproduction that the particular goals of such claims are lost.” Claims such as those made in the personal essay have been “transmuted into a support of the system’s legitimacy.”4343xAxel Honneth, “Organized Self-Realization: Some Paradoxes of Individualization,” European Journal of Social Theory 7 (2004): 467. Just being yourself is profiling all the way down.