Is the college admissions essay the first step toward a life of posturing and inauthenticity?

One of my favorite journals, The Hedgehog Review, devotes the bulk of its current issue (link here) to the theme of authenticity. I concede that among the pieces, Joseph E. Davis’s “How to Be Yourself,” a contemplation on college admissions essays (link here), immediately jumped out at me. Davis, a sociologist (U. of Virginia), quickly grasps the twist of high school students writing personal statements for college applications, with the help of tutors urging them to be their authentic selves:

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 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.”

I submit that for some young people, the drafting of these personal statements, shaped and edited by professionals who know all the magic buzzwords that warm the hearts of admissions committees, is the first step toward a life of posturing and inauthenticity that may reap rewards time and again.

Please don’t get me wrong. There are lots of folks who succeed with their authenticity intact. However, we live in a time where processed and contrived sincerity often works just as well as the real thing. 

I’ve seen these patterns play out in the academic workplace, where people who have honed their ability to sell themselves in interviews despite modest qualifications sometimes get leadership jobs over more qualified, but less charismatic, candidates. In some cases, horrible results ensue because the hired individual is mostly flash and little substance. To adapt a friend’s insightful saying, bad things can happen when the job goes to the show horse instead of the work horse.

This dynamic also has powerful social class impacts. By and large, the kids whose families can afford standardized test prep courses and tutors are the same ones who benefit from coaching on their personal statements, courtesy of college prep consultants. Providing this comparative advantage is a great way of blocking social and economic mobility early on.


Over the years, I’ve periodically revisited themes of authenticity at work and elsewhere. You might find these pieces interesting:

On living an “undivided life” (2019) (link here)

Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying (2017) (link here)

Instead of lies, spin, and deception, how about authenticity, integrity, and dignity? (2016) (link here)

Posturing vs. authenticity in our work lives (2014) (link here)

Inauthenticity and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013) (link here)

Sidebar: In praise of lifelong learning

Hello dear readers, I’m offering a bit of a Sunday sidebar for those of you who are lifelong learners, always thirsting to gain new understandings about topics that draw your attention. Earlier this year, I quietly launched another blog, More Than A Song: Adventures in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education (link here). I thought that some of you might want to take a closer look.

I post to More Than A Song occasionally and, concededly, somewhat erratically. It’s part of an ongoing project to squeeze in more writing about the importance of lifelong learning and to share some personal experiences in that realm.

Here’s a sampling of pieces so far:

Aristotle’s invitation to consider the people and events material to our lives

On developing a global orientation

Go online to take free courses from leading professors

Lifelong learning by reviving a boyhood hobby

Studying the Great Books at the University of Chicago

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this with you. Perhaps it will provide some interesting reading as the weekend comes to a close. There’s a “SUBSCRIBE” button on the right-hand column of the blog if you’d like to receive new entries.

Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2021: “All the Pieces Matter”

For years, the Workplace Bullying Institute has been sponsoring Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week (link here), which provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon and grow a larger movement addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. In attempting to capture the ongoing challenge before us, I found myself drawn to the title of a book about one of my favorite television series, All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (2018), by Jonathan Abrams.

I’ll have more to say about The Wire and that book below, but for now let’s zero in on its title: All the Pieces Matter. Exactly. This work continues to be informed by intersecting systems of employment relations, mental health counseling, and law and public policy, to name a few.

In our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2019), Dr. Maureen Duffy and I included a final chapter attempting to frame a broad agenda for addressing these forms of interpersonal abuse over the long haul. We identified these core areas as focal points:

  • Encouraging organizational prevention and responses;
  • Building a cadre of trauma-informed mental health counselors and coaches who understand bullying and mobbing;
  • Enacting and implementing laws and public policies designed to address abuse at work;
  • Changing workplace standards to embrace values-driven cultures;
  • Working towards a more “dignitarian” society inside and outside of our workplaces.

In other words, we’re talking about various systems, which leads me…

…Back to The Wire and All the Pieces Matter

The Wire is a drama series set in Baltimore that ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. Starting with an initial focus on policing and the drug trade that threads throughout the series, it then takes deep looks into blue-collar work at the city’s docks, public education, urban politics, and the media. Overall, The Wire is driven by characters and their stories, all of which interact with powerful, interwoven systems that are hugely resistant to change.

With intricate storylines that develop slowly and require a viewer’s close attention to follow, The Wire attracted mixed reviews at first, and it never drew a large audience. However, by the end of its run, it had become recognized as one of the best dramas ever. Since then, The Wire has been the rare television program whose afterlife has accorded it the status of a classic.

At the center of The Wire is its brilliant creator, David Simon, who envisioned the series as a form of dramatic social commentary that raises questions about effecting change. While reading All the Pieces Matter, I found some of his quotes very relevant to the core subject matter of this blog. Let me explain.

Bullying and mobbing are, of course, the sum of individual behaviors. In addition, they are enabled, protected, and sometimes encouraged by systems (or cultures, if you will) that reflect certain values and power dynamics. In All the Pieces Matter, David Simon said this about the challenges of reforming systems:

The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty. The reason you have collective bargaining in America and it became powerful is that workers were pushed to the starvation point. The reason that you have the civil rights we do is that people were hanging from trees.

Simon expressed optimism that individuals can change, while sharing significant doubts that systems can self-reform. Rather, he said, systemic change requires outside pressure and awareness of trauma that cut through inhumanity or indifference.

So that’s how David Simon, The Wire, and All the Pieces Matter help to inform my perspectives on how we address interpersonal abuse at work. We are talking about systems that are very resistant to change. Some of the most powerful stakeholders actually benefit from the status quo of allowing abuse to go unchecked. Accordingly, citing the trauma and destruction of bullying and mobbing at work, it’s up to us to articulate a continuing, compelling, and responsibly bold call for systemic changes and positive evolutions. 

When workplace bullies try to turn the tables

(Image courtesy of

Some workplace aggressors are expert at turning tables against their targets, claiming victimhood even as they continue to abuse. Here is a collection of past articles discussing these tactics, the underlying organizational dynamics, and possible responses.

Workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013) (link here) — One of the most popular posts on this blog, suggesting ways to prevent bullies from claiming victimhood.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (2019) (link here) — Applying Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s pathbreaking work on DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) to workplace bullying.

The bullied and the button pushers (2014) (link here) — Button pushers are experts at triggering targets to lash out, followed by their claims of victimization.

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014) (link here) — Expert button pushers can use organizational embraces of superficial civility to accuse targets of unfair criticism.

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014) (link here) — A quick summary of tactics associated with table turning.

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