Dear current and future high school students

Dear current and future high school students,

There will come a time, for most of you, when you apply to college. You’ll flip through the Fiske Guide, Google photos of campuses, and join Facebook groups full of other applicants just like you. You’ll make a list with three sections— reach, match, and safety— and a chart with deadlines, fees, and other requirements. You’ll send test scores and request letters of recommendation. You’ll be excited, your hopes will be high, and then you’ll have to do the actual work; you’ll have to complete the application.

You’ll be asked about your academics: What’s your GPA? Weighted? Unweighted? What’s your class rank? SAT score? ACT? How many AP classes did you take? What about Dual Enrollment? IB? How’d you do on the exams? Did you take the most challenging classes available to you? How about over the summer? Did you take classes over the summer? And you’ll be asked about your extracurricular activities: Which clubs were you in? Which sports did you play? Varsity or JV? Did you hold any leadership positions? Have any internships? Did you work? How many community service hours did you do? Did you win any awards? Do any interesting projects? Start anything new? Create an app? Open a business? Save the whales? And, at last, you’ll be asked “Why you? Why should we accept you?” and “Why here? Why do you want to come here?”

Your initial response to “Why you?” will probably be something along the lines of “I don’t know, I just want to go to college,” and then after a little bit of thinking and a few rough drafts you’ll come up with something a bit more elaborate because you have, after all, been around the block a few times. You’ll tell them how as president of your high school’s National Honor Society you had to be organized and diligent, and how on the varsity soccer team, of which you were a starter all four years, you always worked hard and led by example, and as editor-in-chief of the newspaper you were on call 24/7, set new journalistic standards, and expected nothing but the best from your staff. You’ll tell them how while doing all this and volunteering with underprivileged elementary school students on the weekends and babysitting your cousins after school and interning in an ecology research lab you still managed to keep your GPA up and have time to create a community garden. Oh, and you like to read for fun.

And that’s all great. It’ll work out just fine for you. You’ll be accepted to your safety schools and most of your match schools and maybe even one of your reach schools. After the whole nightmare of a headache that is financial aid, you’ll have one last big summer hoorah, pack your bags, say your goodbyes, and head off to college.

I know, because that’s what I did. (Well, except for the heading off to college part— that’s been postponed for a bit). And I’m here to tell you not to. Don’t do what I did. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear. Don’t reduce yourself to a response that could come from any of the other millions of high school seniors applying to college across the country and world. When they ask “Why you?” tell them. Tell them why you, not why your resume. To do that, though, you have to know yourself, and to know yourself you have to be honest and vulnerable with yourself.

Ask yourself what you care about. What do you like, and dislike? Ask yourself what you find interesting, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly why. Think about what upsets you— what shoots your blood pressure up and makes it impossible for you to bite your tongue to stop yourself from engaging in your favorite debate topic. Ask yourself what scares you. What’s difficult for you? What do you have to intentionally force yourself to do? What’s easy for you? What comes naturally? When are you most engaged and present? Think about your daydreams and fantasies. Think about when you’re happy. What are you doing? Who are you with? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What makes you you?

If you’ve given all these questions some good long thought and your answer is still quite close to “I don’t know,” like mine was, then perhaps consider adding a fourth section to your list, this one entitled “gap year.” You won’t find all the answers in this year, but you’ll have more time to think them over, and more time to think up new questions.

This may sound all fine and dandy, but you’re probably wondering if the college admissions lady sitting in an office with papers up to her neck gives two cents about your dreams and fears and interests. She does. She cares because she also has dreams and fears and interests, and if you’re honest and vulnerable, she’ll know, and she’ll care. And even if she doesn’t, it won’t be because of you, it’ll be because someone or something is telling her not to care, and that’s hopefully changing.

So here’s what I’m asking of you, current and future high school cool kids and punks and dweebs and pals: I’m asking you to take the college application process, and high school in general, as an opportunity to learn about yourself. Start paying attention to you, so when someone asks “Why you?” you can answer.

Best wishes from this former high school dweeb,