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The College Advice No One Tells You

Develop a purpose-driven notion of self.


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I remember sitting down to nervously type my first draft of the common app essay one night in May. I wrote quickly, getting all my thoughts down, to be refined and organized later. It was messy, awkward, and to be honest, quite a cringy piece of writing. But that would only be the first of dozens off essays I would write in the next six months.

Most students would describe life at college as a journey, the last frontier before adulthood. But applying to college would prove to be a journey in and off itself, with its own victories and pitfalls and moments of truth. Yet at the end, all the effort proves to be worth it.

There is a lot of fluff advice on the internet about applying to college, countless lists of “tips” and “hacks” to gain an edge. Before you comment what a hypocrite, I am being for criticizing other advice columns, hang in there, I am going to attempt to prove that there is a difference between superficial advice and genuine advice, and I will tell you how to avoid the superficial.

At first, I felt like I was furbishing an image of myself to be sold to the colleges I was applying to. My essays were not authentic, and how could they be? After all, what did I have that set me apart from the thousands of other qualified candidates with higher scores than me, better grades than me?
It took me months to realize, that I was writing to answer the wrong question. Instead of trying to explain to college counselors “why choose me?” I only started writing good essays when I started answering the question, “Here is the life I choose.” The social sciences offer some insight into this. Psychologists and psychiatrists’ group teenage development in stages. With each stage, comes a different existential question which defines a teenager’s mental growth. 12-13 is the “Who likes me” stage 15-16, is the “where do I belong stage?”. 17-18, the age at which most of you will be applying to college is termed the “What is my purpose” phase? This is the question that a college applicant needs to focus on in order to produce a genuine essay.

Like many teenagers, I didn’t have a clear conception of self, and still do not. Every human’s life story is filled with so many desires, memories, talents, and little sub-identities, that trying to produce a college essay to introduce oneself in only 650 words can seem impossible. Each essay I produced seemed insufficient.

The essay I had actually ended up using was an essay which started off as a class assignment that I had no intention of using ever again after submitting it to my teacher. The class was planning to volunteer for the immigrant’s advocacy group Faithaction, which produces ID cards for immigrants to access services like police protection, healthcare, and education. The teacher had asked the class to write their thoughts about FaithAction. In that short essay, I stated my purpose for working with Faith Action, and from there on, what started into a hastily written homework assignment evolved into an essay which secured me a seat at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, George Washington University, and Northwestern University, where I will be attending next fall.

By turning the question into “What is my purpose?” or even “What is one of my purposes?” you are able to subvert the usual narrative of “this is who I am (and why you should accept me) and turn it into “This is what is important to me, and this is what I contribute to campus.” Following surface level advice such as “Just be yourself” will send you running in circles. Students who show a sense of purpose do not necessarily need to stay with the same major their whole life or specialize in one thing.

To live with a purpose means to live deliberately and showing how you have worked toward your purpose will prove that you can be successful in whatever journey life may lead you.


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