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)

3 responses

  1. That’s a powerful essay. As I help people apply for jobs, I, too, am surprised at all the websites that encourage the use of superlatives in describing one’s abilities. Really? A recent college graduate with a record that is superb, unparalleled or extensive anything? I am not any of those adjectives on anything I do!

  2. Thanks for another insightful discussion!!!

    As your article suggests, maybe we are educating students to become professional performance artists…???

    I think “authentic” authenticity evolves through engagement in mutually empathic, mutually empowering relationships over time. In these types of relationships, we can bring more of ourselves, more of our energy, into the relationship.

    Unfortunately, most of us who suffer from some form of injustice in the world must consider whether or not being authentic in certain relationships can be dangerous in these dangerous times.

    Thanks for your post on authenticity!

    • Oh, thank you for this comment! Your observation about how authenticity can be dangerous really caused me to think. If we are equating authenticity with vulnerability (even partially), then I think you’re right. However, can caution or guardedness also be authentic, in that we are acting to true ourselves and our safety? Lots to think about here!!!

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