College Admissions and the Imaginary Audience | Teen Ink

College Admissions and the Imaginary Audience MAG

July 11, 2021
By Anonymous

I have an unremarkable confession to make. I’m a rising senior, and I hate the college application process. Not because of the essay writing, or the supplementals, or the college browsing. No, I’ve hated it long before that and I suspect I’ll continue to dislike it afterwards. Why? Because it turns my life experience into a commodity to be marketed. For the past four years, partaking in an activity purely for the pleasure of it has been replaced by the frantic search for something, ANYTHING, that will look impressive and unique when neatly condensed into 150 characters on the Common App. The youthful joy
of discovering something new is marred by a ruthless evaluation asking whether I can be good enough, or find some way to stand out, so that application readers will notice me.

I’m told that “this is life,” that sometimes “you just gotta play the game.” And a lot of kids do that – extraordinarily well, in fact. Especially in the wealthy suburbs of Boston, where parents and kids have been zeroed in on the process for years. Kids find an activity, something that’s not too cliché but is visible enough to put on an application. They spend a few years on it, and voilà, a clear experience, ready to be gift-wrapped and sent off to the Ivy League.

But many others just don’t play the game that well. For me, I hop between different activities, picking them up and dropping them off when I lose interest, looking around for something that I can stick to. The self-assurance that I would find something in time for application season sustained me for a while, allowing me to move through high school with a minimal amount of anxiety. Enough to allow myself to get A minuses and the occasional B, while my friends were pulling straight As in APs and then marching off to a robotics competition somewhere.

And I know I should have just sucked it up. I should have endured a couple years of activities and pushed myself enough to earn a 4.0. But I didn’t and now I’m here, without enough of a margin to stave off rolling waves of anxiety. What do I say when adults and teachers ask me what I’m doing (a question that neatly omits the “for college”)? Do I make something up? Or do I tell them the truth, that I’m mostly just working at the local grocery store, occasionally volunteering, hanging out with friends, and reading?

Of course, they don’t care. They’ll forget, or put my answer aside, within a few seconds. But my brain, in its raging adolescence, feels that I am always being watched, judged, evaluated. This is actually a well-documented and widespread feeling in teenagers and young adults, known as the “imaginary audience.” We imagine that our life is a staged drama, and desperately hope that our acting can earn applause, or maybe just a nod of approval.

Maybe that’s why I really hate the process. Not because of some convoluted feelings of commodification, but rather because it is the imaginary audience brought into reality. While most of the time, no one is watching, during applications, my life is quite literally being evaluated by a committee of a dozen or so adults who get to decide whether I am good enough to gain admission to their fine institution.

Fortunately, I’m not always in a state of anxiety. I recently read a book called “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.” The essence of the author’s point is that what you do in college is what really matters, not where you go. I can calm a spike of anxiety by reading a few pages, and reminding myself that my self-worth is not reflected by the college I stick on the back of my car. But the anxiety is always there, lurking in the background, waiting to rise and crash onto shore.

The author's comments:

For those who dislike the college applications process and feel like they are not enough because of it.

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