August 27, 2014

First Prize: Who Wants to be a Paragon?

First Prize: A.I., Atlanta, GA:  Harvard ’18

Who Wants to be a Paragon?

I’ve only recently been able to let go of an insidious idea—that I, as a person, am boring. Dull. Uninteresting. It’s a pretty dangerous and widespread misconception that causes many prospective college students undue angst. The collective internal monologue of high school seniors moans: “Why would any college want me?  I’m just a normal, unremarkable person!” Since the beginning of high school, I’d set my sights on admission to a top college. But because I labored under the illusion that I was indistinguishable from the millions of other high-schoolers vying for that precious offer of admission, I set out to make myself the ideal applicant.

Take note: Perfect is boring. The best way to make yourself uninteresting is to attempt to hew to a mold—no matter how attractive that mold may seem on the surface. Throughout my four years of high school, I chased after all those positions and accolades that are considered the hallmark of the golden student. I became president of National Honor Society, despite the fact that I cared little about the organization. I started a club for no real reason other than to list my position as “founder and president.” I played a varsity sport that I didn’t enjoy; I made campaign posters for a student government position I didn’t want; I got up an hour early every Wednesday morning to attend Beta Club meetings I wasn’t invested in.

And it changed me. I read less; I wrote less. I used to spend hours riding my bike—and it began to gather dust. I was sacrificing the essential facets of my own personality to chase the myth of the perfect student—in the vain hope that my herculean efforts would make up for my perceived lack of inherent value or mystique. I thought I was too commonplace to get into a top school, and so I chased an ideal that ended up destroying elements of my individuality—my quest to escape dullness had led me to prune off the elements of my personality that made me unique.

Fortunately, towards the end of my high school career, I began to realize what I was doing. I sloughed off some of my more meaningless activities to focus on ones I actually cared about and enjoyed—such as our school newspaper and our math team. I started devouring books again, and I began writing for fun after a long drought. I started teaching myself Latin for no good reason,  I started going for long runs—and I did these things for their own sake, not for some wavering promise of an award or a resume item. I did them for myself.

And, when I wrote my college application essays. I didn’t talk about my resume-padders, about those bland, golden-boy achievements. One was a description of my dingy basement and how I use it as a little cove to retreat to—I do most of my writing there. Another was a collection of fifty haiku, each of which discussed a topic that interested me—from Hunter S. Thompson to mercury to random number generators to trebuchets. And (somehow) it worked. I’m convinced I got into Harvard on the strength of my essays—My grades were solid, my standardized test scores high, but I didn’t have any easily quantifiable indicators of my unique value. It fell to me to exhibit my uniqueness, and my essays were the portion of my application that best accomplished that task.

And that, I think, is the trick to the college admissions process. Instead of trying to tailor our lifestyles to fit the fictional ideal of the perfect student, we should focus on and refine our own idiosyncrasies. Images are powerful, and we all have our own stories. We should be trying to accentuate our unique predilections and passions, our ideas and our fears—not burying them under the generic baggage of the fictionalized perfect student. We need to tease out the beauty present in our lives. If I’d known that from the outset, I’m certain I’d have found the college application process much less stressful and much more rewarding in general.

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