I applied to college in the fall of 2017. From my vantage point at the time, this was a period overwhelmed by jealousy, desperation, and anxiety; I wanted to get into a top school, and all my classmates wanted to do the same. We felt a constant pressure to one-up each other, perhaps because of the opportunities those schools offered — but, given that we all lived in an upscale suburb of New York City and didn’t really need any more opportunity than we already had, more likely because it would prove that we were worth something. I now look back on this time with mild irritation. I wish I would have calmed down. I wish we all would have calmed down.
In September, all we could talk about were essays. Most of us were writing our personal statement for the Common App so that we could apply early to our top choices in October, a process that I can only describe as too personal. Several of my friends wrote about their eating disorders. Others wrote about feeling ostracized because of their ethnicity or sexuality. One wrote about almost becoming a parapalegic, and another wrote about the death of his father, which had only occurred a few weeks before. It was a sudden, shocking death, which he seemed to sublimate far better (or, depending on your perspective, more poorly) than I could have; when I asked him how he was, he told me that at least now he had something to write about for college. The basic strategy, I learned, was to highlight the worst parts of your life to distract admissions officers from the reality that, on the whole, you are very privileged.
I wrote about being mixed-race. This takes up very little of my mental energy today; I eventually realized that in the United States, there is hardly any practical difference between being half-black or fully black. It was more important to me then. I wrote about my hair, which I’d straightened for years out of a combination of ignorance and race-shame but had recently decided to let revert to its natural state. The basic arc of the essay was thus: I once hated myself, or was made to hate myself, because of my racial identity. I felt out of place. Wearing my hair curly was symbolic of my personal growth; I had overcome that self-hatred.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I landed on this topic. I vaguely remember starting multiple different essays; I think I tried to write about my love of outer space, and maybe about my relationship to the outdoors. Though I did think a lot about race at the time, it didn’t really consume me, and I didn’t feel that my race had significantly impacted my own life. This topic was among the more dramatic ones I could have chosen, even if I wasn’t sure it reflected my own thoughts and feelings, which was perhaps the point. I wanted to appeal to admissions officers in the way that my classmates were — by writing about our trauma — without really exposing myself.
Essentially, I understood on some level that the level of meaning in this particular essay topic would appear greater to the white people who read it than it would to me. By that point in my life, I’d already observed how the white people I knew had reacted to “The Help,” a book I found trite, or “Precious,” a movie I found grotesque. A desire to understand racism, I knew (but probably couldn’t have verbalized at the time), masked a powerful appetite for entertainment derived from suffering. This is an old impulse, of course. It is always betrayed by its affinity for made-up scenarios which have nothing to do with the reality of black America.
Looking back at the actual essay, none of the content was particularly outrageous — my instinct, which I think I was right about, was really about how it would be interpreted. I wrote about two girls in my year — one black, one white — having an argument about what my race was. I wrote about a crossing guard in my town who told my (white) grandfather that my parents shouldn’t be together. Everything that I wrote was true, and it did impact my self-esteem. I genuinely did come to the moment of self-acceptance I wrote about. What I didn’t say, and what white admissions officers and guidance counselors seemed to miss, was that choosing to write about racism in my Common App essay didn’t mean that the experience of racism had defined my entire life.
I am a very privileged person, but oddly enough, this essay seemed to conceal that fact from others. I showed it to my guidance counselor and she cried. I sat across from her, a little uncomfortable, trying to figure out what exactly about what I’d written was so sad. “It’s so horrible,” she said, fighting back tears, “that people like you have to go through this.”
A few weeks later, I was talking to an admissions official at an elite liberal arts college, which had specifically invited me to apply for a merit scholarship intended to increase racial diversity in STEM. He was asking me questions which, I realized in retrospect, were going to go in my admissions file. “Do you think you’ve overcome anything particularly significant?” he asked, raising his eyebrows a little. I stared back at him, trying to figure out what he wanted me to say. “Um,” I said. “When I was younger my mom got sick for a year.” He seemed unsatisfied; I later suspected that he wanted me to tell him a story about poverty or oppression, which I couldn’t do because I’d never really been poor or oppressed.
What both of these instances have in common, I think, was a willingness to believe that my life had been particularly hard because of my race. This is a trap I probably could have fallen into — my classmates who were writing about unfortunate things certainly seemed to accept, at least for the duration of admissions season, their own victimhood — if I didn’t actually know people whose lives had genuinely been hard. A large part of my family were sharecroppers into the 1970s. Some of my relatives have been lynched; others have been shot. Of course, bad things have happened to me. It’s just that being born black was not one of them.
I probably shouldn’t complain too much; I got into Harvard. It’s possible, too, that my interpretation of the reactions to my essay is too cynical, that it underestimates the ability of those reading my essay to understand race (though I somewhat doubt this). Perhaps more disturbingly, it’s also true that I was also at least somewhat aware of this dynamic as I started to write my admissions essay. Perhaps I was willing to capitalize on it.
I don’t particularly regret writing my essay, though I do think it’s telling about some habits that I maintain to this day. I wasn’t a writer then, but I am now. Some writers write about themselves; others deliberately avoid it. I am one of the former. I write constantly, almost obsessively, about myself, usually about myself at my worst moments. When something bad happens to me, my first thought is, shit. My second thought is, this will make a great story. Call it a commitment to verité. Except, actually, maybe it’s not — everything I write, though literally true, is filtered and manipulated based on the ends I’d like it to serve. I might trauma plot, but I never trauma dump. I have mixed feelings about this crafted adherence to reality. To be black and write about your race is always to risk exploiting yourself. But if you’re not truly writing about yourself, do you gain some power back? I don’t really know.
A few months ago, my mother called me up and asked me to request my admissions file. I told her I didn’t want to; whoever those admissions officers are talking about isn’t actually me.
— Associate Magazine Editor Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ibuprofenaddict.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.