Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder….
Just when you thought that you had seriously underestimated today’s youth….
Just when you were trying to convince yourself that today’s young people are really no different from those of past years….
In his column yesterday Frank Bruni offered us a peek at some very strange college admission essays. We can call it oversharing, as Bruni did, but it is also symptom of a culture of shamelessness.
Many of us have railed against a culture that promotes complete openness and honesty. We have warned against the dangers of breaking down the barrier between public and private. And yet, we did not really believe that it would come to this.
How did young people learn these things? How did their parents and teachers and counselors allow them to do such things? Whatever made them think that such revelations would make them more attractive candidates for college?
Bruni described a college admissions essay:
THE Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.
Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.
“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto….
And how about this one:
The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.
“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
If you dare judge these students, they and their adult enablers will tell you that they are just showing their vulnerability. Didn’t you know… it’s good to show your vulnerability, even at the cost of embarrassing yourself?
It’s supposed to make you more lovable.
In one sense it does: when you show yourself to be in that much trouble, to be that pathetic, they naturally want to help you.
Bruni explains that admissions officer Motto was rightly concerned about some of these essays:
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
Are these two examples mere anecdotes or are they indicative of a trend.
In Bruni’s words:
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction.
Fair enough, they were a small minority. The truth is, they should not exist at all.
Some adult authority should tell these students that self-demeaning vulgarity is not the royal road to Yale. Let’s note, with Bruni that the girl who urinated on herself and the boy with substandard genitals were not accepted.
And then, there was the student who wanted to write about his own special affliction: cyclical vomiting disorder.
Since his parents had hired a consultant to help him with his essay, he showed the essay to the consultant. The consultant did not run screaming from the room. He did not tell the boy that this was a very bad idea. No… he advised the student to fold it into a narrative of how his problem got him interested in medicine.
Yikes. This is what happens when students have adult supervision.
Obviously, there are many exceptions to this rule. Some counselors, Bruni notes:
… try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
Instead of steering them away, counselors might tell them that it is an extremely bad idea. They might even forbid it.
If the students do not know any better, they need to be told what to do.
Surely, children who believe that they need to expose their vulnerabilities to the world are likely to be emotionally unstable. If they are not in trouble yet, they are courting it. If they are not being medicated yet, they soon will be.
But still, wherever did anyone get the idea that shameless oversharing would show you at your best? Could it all be a sign that we live in a therapy culture?
Bruni is appalled by it. So am I. His analysis is on point:
It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet….
Let’s be clear. In many segments of our culture oversharing is considered to be healthy. It is not. Parents and educators and mental health professionals should take a stand against it. They should not be underwriting a culture that is in the business of producing emotional distress.