With the drop of the ball and the turning of the calendar, we have arrived at the new year, which brings opportunity, renewal and hope. In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of talk about resolutions, new beginnings, and how to become a “better” version of yourself. Self-reflection, improvement, and personal growth are enviable goals, but what if we also choose to be proud of who we are and assertive about the strengths and interests that make us unique?
Many high school students will begin their college search in the coming months. It’s an experience that, if done right, involves similar reflection and growth. However, young people too often feel the pressure to produce excellence. This desire is most often seen in selective college admissions, but can occur in all students as they face the perception that they are being evaluated for admission.
Meanwhile, college admissions offices are trying to ease the tension by telling students that they simply need to be “authentic.” It’s one of those admissions buzzwords like “holistic” and “passion” that gets used so often it’s starting to lose meaning. Young people ironically ask themselves: “What kind of authentic person should I be?”, “What kind of authentic person are they looking for?” and “How can I best prove my authenticity?”
As we enter the new year, I asked college admissions leaders to unpack authenticity for applicants. The response was overwhelming and common themes emerged. Students, as you approach the college search and application experience, we hope you find comfort in their messages. The following is a sample of the wisdom leaders offered. You can see more thoughts here.
“Students should spend their high school years participating in organizations and activities that bring them joy. It always saddens me when a student or parent asks what clubs or organizations I should join to increase my chances of getting into college. Living only to please others is never a good strategy for happiness and personal fulfillment. By exploring genuine, authentic interests as you move through high school, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and put your talents to best use in colleges when the time comes.”—Grant Gosselin, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Boston College
“Being your authentic self should be natural and easy. Often, in the process of choosing and applying to college, we are faced with candidates who force in boxes that they think we want to check. We want you to be “you,” because as much as you want to be here at our university, it’s important that the “you” who shows up feels comfortable and doesn’t sacrifice your needs to fulfill some notion that “this school is ” wants “this version of you” and thus you will achieve enlightenment and the path to contentment.”—Jody Glassman, Assistant Vice President for University Enrollment and Admissions, Florida International University
“Communicating authenticity is difficult because it goes against the general need for applicants to highlight their accomplishments and plans. Our authentic selves (at 17 or 50) have boundaries, insecurities and gaps. I find that these come out best in essays, not as a deliberate ploy to prove authenticity, but when students accept the tiniest bit of help from well-meaning adults eager to edit their work. Some applicants’ entire personal statements can be a bit meandering, nonsensical and unhelpful in ways that no adult reader would allow – and in doing so scream ‘authenticity’ that can help others in the application click.”—Jonathan Burdick, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment, Cornell University
“Students shouldn’t spend their junior and senior years of high school trying to contort themselves into being something they think we want. There are literally hundreds of colleges in the country that want them exactly as they are right now—without starting clubs or winning any awards.” – Thyra L Briggs, Vice President of Admissions and Financial Aid, Harvey Mudd College
“Authenticity may be a lost art form for a generation of applicants exposed to the “likes” of reality TV and social media. My advice for 2022? Step away from social media apps for a quiet hour of reflection, then call a friend or family member and have a real conversation in real time. It might be awkward at first, but it will better prepare you to finish your college essay, fit in better in class this semester, and make you more comfortable talking to your future roommate.”—Catherine McDonald Davenport, Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Admissions, Dickinson College
“Being authentic means revealing the best version of yourself in college application materials, not the best version of someone else. Colleges value honest self-reflection in your writing samples or essays. That’s a tough ask. Honest self-reflection is a lifelong process. However, colleges don’t expect you to know the end of your story…they are more interested in where you are now as a high school student. Tell us what you are interested in, your successes, your challenges, why you are interested in a certain field or why you do not yet know which field you are interested in. Tell us something that only a few close relatives or friends know about you.”—Wendy Beckemeyer, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Cornell College
“A great way to authenticate is to simply read your application out loud. If it sounds like you, then what you are sharing and representing is authentic. If you question certain elements of your application or stumble over phrases while reading aloud, chances are you’ve strayed a bit from your authentic self. You can fix this by going back and reworking certain parts of your application to make sure it’s all coming from your voice.”—Leigh A. Weisenburger, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Bates College
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and author of the bestselling book Think Again. He writes, “The time people spend building personal brands could be better spent making personal connections. Products have brands. People have relationships and reputations. Authenticity doesn’t mean marketing yourself to create an image. It’s about aligning your actions with your values.” In the coming year, whether we’re applying to college or simply living our best lives, let’s nurture our relationships with ourselves and others and focus on those connections as we authentically live our values. Let who you really are shine through.