The overlooked value of reflection required by college essays


Colin Henke

Junior Emily Gazzaniga gazes into a mirror in self-reflection.

Mackenzie Condon, Editor-in-Chief

If I had to pick one word to describe myself, it would be persistent. Yes, I am persistent. But is that the single word I want to use? My friends say I am funny and loving. Maybe loving is too sappy of a word to portray myself? What about empathetic and inquisitive? OK, definitely scratch persistent. I’m going with either empathetic or inquisitive. But which one? Who am I, really?

With selective admission rates, standardized test scores, and the need for a robust résumé, the college application process can be daunting and stressful. The 650-word college essay and the school-specific writing supplements are time-consuming and draining. Every time I thought I was done editing my college essay, I would read it one more time — just in case — and lo and behold, I would find a minuscule change to make. By the time I was actually, totally, and completely done with my essay, I had lost my ability to judge it. It was like looking in the mirror at my own face: too familiar with it to know what someone looking at it for the first time would see. Once I finally submitted the applications, the essays I had looked at for so many days in a row suddenly vanished from my life. The job was complete. They were no longer of value to me, or so I thought.

Months later, I stumbled upon those essays and supplements. The jaded feeling I had toward them was no longer there. I could no longer pinpoint the words or sentences I had once agonized over during late, stressful nights in my bedroom.

As I scanned my responses to various prompts, some of my answers surprised me. I had forgotten that I had answered the prompt “What would you do with another hour in the day?” by saying that I would use a 25th hour to focus on comic relief and to value laughter with friends. I truly do wish I had more time for that. In one supplement I was asked to describe my home, which made me ponder the limitations of the place in which I’ve grown up. Would Martha’s Vineyard be home without the people I share it with? Would it be home without the relationship I have with my twin sister?

While I felt rushed and stressed at the time of writing these supplements, upon rereading them, I started to realize there was added value in the work I had done. Those long nights of thinking and revising drafts weren’t just about writing my way into college; the college application writing process gave me an opportunity to be reflective, and for the first time in my life, I had to articulate how I have grown into myself and how I envision my life in the future.

While the grumbles surrounding college application paperwork are undoubtedly warranted, I believe the value of taking time to reflect during the application process is overlooked. Even if one agrees self-reflection is important, acting upon this belief often is stalled amid a fast-paced lifestyle, or in the face of social media being the free-time filler of choice for many. Ironically, society’s stressful emphasis on the importance of the college admissions process may offer the high stakes necessary to force adolescents to take time to reflect. In essence, one’s individuality depends on the ability to make his or her own judgements, define his or her own morals, and distinguish his or her values from others. This cannot happen without taking the time to reflect on mistakes you have made, how situations have made you feel, what it is you wish to give and get out of the world.

While I believe we all should be reflective every day, without any external motivation or superficial impetus, many of us don’t bring this ideal to fruition often enough. So although the college application process will likely always be dreaded, and notorious for draining energy and happiness out of high school seniors, each essay prompt comes with an opportunity to step back and evaluate your life, to ask yourself necessary questions and seek answers through reflection. And maybe, when you learn what this forced reflection can offer, you will continue to reflect freely on your own. What would you do with your 25th hour of the day?