Two key consequences of so many colleges and university systems scrapping the SAT/ACT requirement are that the numbers of applicants at top schools skyrocketed and suddenly more attention is being paid to the college essay. But the essay, a central element of the application “package,” is arguably more biased than standardized tests. One recent study shows the college essay is tied to household income. Another critic notes that students from elite schools are trained by admissions coaches to write winning essays on current themes. Not surprisingly, The New York Times observes that this admission season the vast number of essays in 2020 focused the pandemic, racial justice, family, and science. And a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece laments that the need to demonstrate leadership and “passion” in the college essay was being replaced by the need to demonstrate “authenticity.”
The college essay is supposed to serve as a window that allows admissions committees to peer into the applicant’s life. But the essay also reflects back to applicants the idealized, curated self desired by colleges. Why not get rid of it altogether? Not only does it seem clear that there is plenty of socioeconomic bias in the process, but also college applicants are clearly expected to present an artificial picture of themselves. Encouraging high school students to transform themselves into a standard narrative — to reflect back the image the college desires — may do more harm than good.
Some decades ago in a famous essay called “The Mirror Stage,” the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorized that we acquire our sense of self through an encounter with the mirror. The infant or small child sees her reflection, and in an aha! moment, realizes that the roundish shape staring back at her actually is her. Before her encounter with the mirror, the child’s experience is precarious and chaotic, the boundaries between interior and exterior porous and ever shifting. After the mirror, the child thinks, “Oh look! I am coherent, not precarious. Inside, I feel a mess of confused and contradictory desires. But I look much better than I feel. I see no self-doubt. I look good!”
While René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire (wanting what others want) is newly popular, Lacan’s mirror stage is the more apt metaphor for the college application process, even more resonant for students who spent the year staring at reflections of themselves on Zoom or Skype, literally comparing their own reflected faces to the faces of classmates.
For Lacan, no literal mirror is required. The “mirror” could be a mother’s eyes, the nurse’s “good boy!” or whatever early external voice (say, a friend of a parent) reflects back to the child a sense of organized, gestalt selfhood. Lacan writes,
It suffices to understand the mirror stage in this context as an identification, in the full sense analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image — an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect.
That is, when you see yourself in the mirror, you identify with the image presented back to you as an “ideal-I.” You are jubilant, not noticing that this idealized self, this reflection of yourself, is also external to you. Your ego, who you are, stands at some distance, like a GoPro stick.
Before the pandemic, a college-bound teenager might spend months if not years in a counselor’s offices or with expensive coaches working on the application packet, compiling, shaping, and packaging disparate pieces of a life into a coherent whole. Internships, extra-curriculars, and community service activities would be carefully selected and organized for the applicant to appear positive but realistic, likeable but not overly concerned with others’ opinions, courageous but prudent, kind, widely respected, resilient, and intellectually curious. Athletics and volunteering, while praiseworthy, were the sort of activities the savvy applicant knew she had to take part in precisely because they would make her look good to college admissions committees. External, visible, remarkable attributes matter more than inward, private ones.
Lacan suggests that neuroses may lie ahead for anyone identifying with their ideal-I (i.e., everyone). The mirror stage constructs the ego as a fictional object, outside the self, fundamentally compromised, and productive of limitless neuroses. In the best-case scenario, in the college admissions mirror stage, you merge with the aspirational image you presented. The application process’s organizational tasks may yield the secondary benefit of organizing you. Your better self stares back and imprints itself back on you. What’s the harm?
Lacan points to the tragedy of knowing that the ideal-I is not really the self. Who can live up to such an Ideal-I? Who indeed. In the years after an elite college, many graduates carry around idealized, overly coherent versions of themselves, banishing internal contradictions and striving for a sense of completeness. Occasionally they live up to its standards, but more often, especially in the current economy, they fall short. For some, in this desolate distance between you and your mirror image, imposter syndrome takes hold. For others, it means a lifetime of repressing those strange, wonderful, and unclassifiable aspects of yourself that never made it into your college essay. Worst case scenario, your ego hardens into a fixed bundle of data points recognized by your alma mater, and your only consolation is that she loves you, if an institution can be said to love.
Students who spent months on end staring at themselves may come to a different truth. Perhaps old forms of performative self-presentation no longer matter. This might be good in the long run. Mimetic desire may be preferable to desiring to be what you have told others that you are.
At Sonoma State University, where I am Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, I am glad to see students who are not pre-polished. Sonoma State, like the rest of the Cal State system, does not require an application essay. Many first-year students arrive without having gone through the process of reflection and image-shaping that applicants to elite institutions have. They tend to be more interesting, more unpredictable, and more risk-taking in their choices and ambitions. A greater burden is put on the institution to guide these students in finding their strengths and talents. The responsibility of mirroring falls on both faculty and student affairs professionals; the magnitude of the task may be why elite institutions prefer to outsource it to the application process.
Some of our most focused and driven students are transfer students from California’s exceptional community college system. These students are often well into their 20s or 30s (or beyond) and may have families of their own; their sense of self developed in response to work and life rather than in the crucible of the high school application process. The elite institutions now tossing the SAT, removing the barriers for transfer students, and welcoming more students from the military, finally recognize that a diversity of experiences have an invigorating effect on the student body and campus life. Perhaps they recognize that there is no such thing as an “ideal” applicant, and to pretend that there is one does a disservice to their students and to themselves.
Whatever the reasoning, the elimination of the personal statement should be the next change these institutions make to the application process. The personal statement is the last bastion of an outmoded and limiting conception of “the college student,” one that excludes many of the qualities and experiences that make for a truly diverse student body and risks curtailing the very excellence all academic institutions prize.
Top image: Paul Seignac, Woman and Child Before a Mirror, 1870s, Oil on panel. The Clark Art Institute, 1955.854.