What I've Learned from Rereading My College Application Essays

I’m a senior in college. It has been five years (I took a gap year) since I had to deal with college applications and all of the dreaded essays that came along with them. I’m sure we all remember wracking our brains for some creative way to answer questions like, “Why College X?” or “Tell us what makes you different.” Despite the nightmare that was the college application process, I kept all my essays for some reason. So I decided to take a look at what I wrote and, as it turns out, this walk down memory lane proved extremely impactful.

First of all, I had to write a lot of essays. Every one of my schools had supplements, and I applied to a few programs that required additional work. I think I wrote more than ten essays by the end of the process. If one of my professors told me I’d have to write ten papers, each with the power to determine my future, in one semester, I’d drop the class and probably drop out of college. But I did it and looking back on these essays I can’t help but feel like I’ve lost the part that myself that wrote those, because I don’t think I could write anything like this now.

In one essay, answering the prompt, “Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?” I wrote, “It was an interesting experience to live in a fragmented world, only seeing one piece of the world’s puzzle.” Rereading that sentence after so many years was like traveling back in time to a totally different person. I opened myself up and was completely vulnerable in pieces of writing that would be judged harshly by total strangers. I don’t remember a time since then that I have been so open to anyone.

In another essay, prompted by the classic, “Why ____ University?” I wrote, “I will be able to debate with classmates and professors in every subject in an open setting, collaborating with peers to gain a more accurate understanding of the world, which will, in turn, increase my understanding of my own faith and identity as a Jewish woman.” That is some serious optimism. And what’s crazy is that I remember feeling optimistic about the opportunities I would have in college to change my worldview. Not that I haven’t changed since starting college, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as optimistic as I did my senior year in high school. It felt like I was about to change the world; like somehow, college would transform me into someone whose potential was within reach. Now, with college almost over, I’m awaiting a job that will give me that same excitement and so far, it’s nowhere to be found.

Reading these essays makes me feel like I peaked when I was 18, which is super depressing. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m an almost-college-graduate now, which means I’m re-entering this world of applications, judgment by strangers and the unknown. Maybe I’ve blocked out memories of 18-year-old me sitting at a desk, reading freshman me’s essays and thinking exactly what I’m thinking now. All I know is that I am very tempted to take parts of what I wrote and use them again for potential employers because I can’t seem to find creativity like this anymore.

Luckily, reflecting back on these essays has also made me understand that ...SPOILER… I have actually evolved in the last five years. I am not the high school senior who was searching for herself and needed to be that vulnerable – I know who I am now and I’m awesome. I am still optimistic, but I have also been granted the opportunity to debate and collaborate and understand, and its lead to an evolved worldview that I think is pretty solid.

This is something that brings me comfort. Sure, I’m jealous of my past self for being able to crank out more than 10 great essays that got me admitted to college, but my reality now is that those essays were from a young girl who had no idea what she wanted or who she was. I think that anyone who rereads their college essays and sees a different person than they are now has been successful, because it would be a terrible life if we all stopped growing as seniors in high school.