Though I am currently a sophomore at Haverford College, I can remember the college application process as if it were yesterday, especially the late nights writing essays that were attempts to sell myself to schools that were trying to sell themselves to me. They wanted my money; I wanted their education (and a hefty side of financial aid). The entire process was a lengthy and tiring ordeal for my whole family.
Now, two years later, I'm on the other side. This semester I have begun working in Haverford's Office of Admissions as a tour guide and host. I'm talking to students and families who have the same overwhelmed looks on their faces that I remember wearing not so long ago. It's my job to strike up conversations with these families to help them feel less stressed and confused.
The conversations usually begin in a similar fashion: I'm Damon, a sophomore planning to major in mathematics with a minor in education, and they're a senior in high school, interested in English, political science, music, tennis, student government, etc., etc. What truly interests me is where the conversation goes once we've finished those formalities. This is the point at which students and their families lower their shields and take a break from trying to subtly promote their lists of accomplishments and SAT scores. Because I am not an official interviewer, I get to hear their honest questions, concerns, and musings, as well as the raw excitement that sometimes bursts forth when someone realizes that Haverford sounds like a really, really good place for them.
The conversation usually ends when either the tour is over or when an interviewer interrupts us to summon the student into their office. This is the point when I can usually see the shield go back up: time to dress to impress.
Throughout the entire college application process, there is a certain degree to which students really do need to dress to impress. According to the New York Times' recent data on 2013 college admissions, the number of applicants to the University of Southern California jumped up by 10,000 in just the past two years, bringing its total to 47,000 applicants. Stanford and Harvard accepted, respectively, 5.69% and 5.79% of their tens of thousands of applicants this year. Schools across the country are receiving more and more applicants, and they are therefore forced to accept smaller and smaller percentages of those applicants. Even a welcoming college like Haverford only accepts about a quarter of the students who apply. Students generally respond to this staggering competition for limited space by selling themselves and spinning their accomplishments as aggressively as possible.
Having been on both sides of the college application process, I am especially aware of how difficult it can be to remain authentic while trying to do everything “right.” For example: in drafting a college essay, you are instructed to answer a prompt with your full integrity, and yet hundreds of articles and books advise you on how to say only what a school wants to hear. It's hard not to raise your shields and try to make sure that everything you say is somehow going to make you more endearing to the person reading your essay or running your interview. But it is my opinion that simple authenticity is best.
This is where Quaker values come into the equation. Integrity is arguably a huge cornerstone of Quaker testimonies. For me, the following quote seems to capture some of the Quakerly view of integrity: "But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your 'yes' be yes and your 'no' be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12, ESV). Historically, Quakers have generally refused to swear oaths in courts of law. Why should we sometimes swear to tell the truth when we strive to tell the truth always?
When I wrote my supplemental essay for my application to Haverford, I had already read the school’s academic and social Honor Code. The school's Quaker roots and its climate of integrity are embodied in this Honor Code, and it made me feel like I could let my shields down and be fully authentic while writing my supplemental essay.
Like so many others applying to college, I had tried to market myself to schools in ways that would make me appear appealing and unique, that would make me stand out among so many other qualified applicants. Throughout this process, I came to believe that it is important to stay true to the core of what makes you you. When I glimpse those flashes of realness from students and their families while guiding them across campus, those are the moments when I have a good sense of whether Haverford would be a good fit for them. I believe that the students who can carry that Quakerly integrity into their interview rooms will end up impressing their interviewers the most.
Here is my advice to someone going through the arduous process of applying for college (and this holds for jobs and internships as well): Hold your head up and speak from your heart as you write and as you interview. Keeping your posture authentic. Lower your shields, and keep them down – that’s the best way to market yourself to your target audience. ~~~
Damon Motz-Storey is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado. He is currently studying mathematics and education at Haverford College near Philadelphia, but visits Denver as often as possible and returns home for Inter-Mountain Yearly Meeting's summer gatherings in New Mexico. He just finished a two-year term as co-clerk of IMYM's Senior Young Friends and is now a co-clerk of the Haverford College Student Quaker Community.