Dear colleges, I am more than the sum of my struggles

High school students grapple with the despair that the college admissions process capitalizes upon.

Arlyne Noguera, Acalanes High School

High school students grapple with the despair that the college admissions process capitalizes upon.

Kayli Harley, Acalanes High School

When I began the college application process, I knew I would have to write about pain, and I accepted the task. After all, I had written about pain countless times before in my own personal writing, and I was comfortable with vulnerability. But, when I sat down to answer the general application prompt, I felt an unfamiliar sense of guilt — as though I was exploiting myself somehow. 

   I felt like the girl who cried anxiety, which was something I had always tried to avoid because I preferred to focus on the lessons I learned from my struggles rather than the struggles themselves. But with each word, the essay took something from me that had always only been mine: the ability to control the intention of narrative. 

   I realized that the reason I felt like I was selling my pain was that, in a way, that’s exactly what I was doing. I wrote about my struggles with the goal of proving my worth and demonstrating how far I progressed given my circumstances. But, more importantly, I wrote with the knowledge that my story had to be impressive enough to leave an impression on the admissions counselor who would read it. That knowledge was my first red flag. Pain should not be a bargaining chip. 

   Prompting students to describe their trauma in detail for an evaluation romanticizes the harmful notion that the amount of pain a person endures equates to their worth. Rather than asking students to use their pain as a selling point to stand out in the application process, colleges should ask students questions about the passions and curiosities that drive them.

    As a society, we must steer away from the idea that young adults need to suffer to have worth and instead emphasize that students are more than the sum of their struggles; they are also the sum of their joys.  

   When I think back on my expectation that I would have to write about pain, the word “have” snags my attention. Why did I feel I had to write about trauma? Why do colleges need to know about the pain I have endured to decide whether or not to grant me admission to their academic establishment? Most importantly, why did they only ask about hardship? When I pondered these questions, it became clear to me that when it comes to essay prompts, the college application system isn’t asking the right questions. As a result, colleges may only see a fraction of what makes each applicant who they are.

   Colleges likely don’t have ill-intent when they write or select these prompts, but the questions still promote the mentality that our pain connects us more than our joy. While I know that hardship is a powerful force in shaping a person’s identity and inspiring personal growth, it’s not the only force capable of doing so. It’s just the force we tend to focus on.

   For a period of time, I struggled with that distinction, too. I couldn’t separate myself from my pain, and I felt lost when I wasn’t constantly wading through a crisis. When I became hyper-fixated on my suffering, I lost sight of who I was without it. I didn’t want my experiences to define me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to forget them either.

   Today, this dilemma occurs on a broader scale. Pain is ingrained in our society, creating a system of connection that relies on our pitfalls. If “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” as W. Edwards Deming, the renowned management consultant, once said, then how do we create a system that balances the bad with the good? How do we disrupt the cycle?

   As I found in my personal life, the most effective way to improve my mindset was to shift my perspective. I couldn’t simply instruct myself to stop fixating on pain, but I could encourage myself to welcome joy. The same process applies to college applications. We can’t disregard the presence of trauma in students’ lives, but we can acknowledge the presence of joy, curiosity, and passion in addition to the pain. 

   To do this, colleges must broaden the scope of the prompts they provide. One of the colleges I applied to asked me to write about the truest thing I know, and another asked me to write about something that brings me joy. These questions made me excited to sit down and write because they were proof that these institutions were genuinely curious about their applicants. 

   But it’s deeper than just curiosity. To me, the colleges that asked these questions recognized the longstanding glorification of pain in the college application process and took it upon themselves to inspire change. It was as though they said: We see you. We know you are more than the sum of your pain. We want to see your joy. 

   When I responded to these prompts, I didn’t feel guilty or uncomfortable. I wasn’t trying to sell myself or prove something. I simply told them my story. And that’s the core of this process–for students to tell their stories and for colleges to listen.        

   These stories don’t exist solely in the realm of pain and suffering, and colleges need to know that if they truly want to know their applicants. If we want to break down the system that equates trauma with worth, we need to stop asking students about the experiences that tested their lives and instead ask them about the moments that make them come alive.