Whenever someone asks why I bother moonlighting by editing college essays when I have a great job in publishing, I reply that it pays 10 times as much money as freelance writing for about one-tenth the effort. It’s not a lie, per se. If you’re a professional editor in a big city with a solid upper middle class, there is a lot of money to be made in this line of work.
However, the money isn’t what motivates me. The real reason I edit admissions essays is that I’m addicted to applying to college.
“Addicted” might not be the right word. I don’t compulsively fill out applications -- but completing one gives me a dopamine hit analogous to, say, popping a really good zit.
Whenever I see the words “college admissions” in a newspaper or magazine, my eyes drift over to the phrase as if it had a corona. My heartbeat quickens. I feel beckoned to compete, to prove that even though schools are more selective than ever and tuition is higher than ever I can still get admitted and still get a merit scholarship and gold star for me.
It’s strange. It’s sick. I’m 27.
I mailed my own undergraduate admissions applications a decade ago -- exactly a decade ago, as of this week -- yet I can still tell you exactly what I got on the SAT. Actually, I can tell you the two scores I got on two sittings in order to combine my highest Math and Verbal results into “what I got on the SAT.”
I took the GREs for grad school in 2007. My score? Total blank. Can't remember for the life of me what I got. But as if it were yesterday, I can tell you what I got on my my SAT II: Writing, SAT II: US History, a bunch of other SAT IIs, and all my AP exams.
I can still tell you the terrible Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that began my personal statement. And I can still tell you Why I Want to Go to Columbia, more or less word for word ("...study in the shadow of Alexander Hamilton, my historical crush").
Long before high school -- in first grade, as a matter of fact -- I took tap lessons. For some reason, 21 years later, I still know my whole routine by heart: leap, shuffle, ball-change. Leap, shuffle, ball-change. Step CLAP CLAP step CLAP CLAP. Leap, shuffle, ball-change, and on and on in a loop. My parents and sister can remember the steps too. It's become a family touchstone.
So too is my college resume -- my tap-dance of bourgeois achievement -- a thing of nostalgia, a body memory. Who could forget the routine that brought me the blue ribbon, the Ivy League, on recital day? My parents were so proud. Other parents were a delicious combination of admiring and jealous. Step clap clap, step clap Columbia, and on and on in a loop.
Recently, my husband and I bought a house of our own, and my mother finally decided it was time to clear out my childhood bedroom. She brought over a big box of my academic files -- report cards and certificates from kindergarten through college, including an entire Xerox copy of my 2002 undergraduate admissions application.
Oh, boy, was my essay pretentious. I wrote of my "thirst" for knowledge, my desire to be "consumed" by learning. I am shitting you not when I say I wrote several lines of it in a random dialect from the South Pacific, just to establish that I was into that kind of thing. I announced my plans to learn Scots Gaelic and figure out the reason why Jack Kerouac compared God to Pooh Bear at the end of On the Road. (Jesus Christ, Anna, the answer is drugs. DRUGS.)
I didn’t learn Gaelic in college. Here’s a sampling of what I did learn: that it’s a huge, growth-stunting mistake to get in a monogamous relationship on day 1 of college and stay in it for 2 years; that being able to down 4 Mike’s Hard Lemonades in a sitting does not mean you have an awesome tolerance for alcohol; that I’m not as much of a city girl as I imagined; that I desperately want to do something bizarre and unusual with my life and I have no idea what or how. I don’t even know how to phrase what I want. I lack the vocabulary.
Adulthood is terrifying. So are creativity and risk and the idea of living a life that isn’t somehow based on performing for others. How soothing it is to pick up a college application and slip back into the familiar tap dance, the routine all of us from the suburbs know by heart: step, clap clap, step, clap clap.