In my senior year of high school, the Common Application demanded that I craft an elevator pitch to sell my future. What values do you stand for? What will you bring to our school? Why should we take you and not the 40,000 other people applying here? At the time, I had no conscious reason behind anything I did; my motivations were often secrets even to myself. Nonetheless, the application essay required me to formulate a compelling narrative that packaged 17 chaotic years of my life into just a few tidy paragraphs.
So I crafted my essay around what I felt would be the easiest story for an admissions officer to understand: my ethnicity. The gist was that other people bullied me in middle school because I was Chinese, so I began repeating the same racist jokes in order to fit in. Once I entered high school, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and found out I could be popular by not only refusing to reinforce Asian stereotypes but by participating in extracurriculars that deliberately subverted them — such as the notoriously cool activity of debate. I concluded that I could do whatever I wanted in life, without my ethnicity defining me, and all was well.
Re-reading it five years later, I cringe.
My “Asian-ness” wasn’t really a concept that I was aware of until my middle school years, when classmates asked me if I could see with my eyes “barely open.” Suddenly, my entire identity was devalued into a single punchline.
I literally cannot remember this happening. I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of microaggressions over the years, but there was no singular moment of reckoning when I realized that I was not, as I had assumed for my entire life, white. My essay tutors had told me to “show and not tell,” because simply making reference to my feelings of not-belonging meant that they could be disputed. I was also advised to “amplify the stakes” — to supplant everyday, incremental change with dramatic, transformative moments. Hence my epiphany.
I very much made it clear that I was a “cool Asian” who made fun of his own heritage. I cracked jokes that I knew would receive laughter: my natural ease at math, my dexterity with chopsticks, and my affinity for computers.
As I crafted my essay, I was acutely aware that many other Asian American students would be applying to similarly selective universities. I felt that I had to differentiate myself by sharing my journey of growing comfortable with my identity through my use of humor, which I saw as a unique angle. Looking back, I have no idea why I chose these examples to demonstrate my forced attempt to assimilate. They obscure the more subtle ways in which I tried to alter my identity — my trying to rid myself of my spiky hair, the undercurrents of tension with my parents, and my tendency to gravitate toward the popular white kids.
Finally, I didn’t feel the need to make lowbrow jokes about my identity anymore and decided to put my comedic rhetorical skills to better use by exploring the art of public speaking. The transition wasn’t difficult at all.
While the limitations of a college essay allow for dramatic segues, the transition was, in reality, not that dramatic — but it was incredibly difficult. I struggled for years to convince myself that my opinions were worth verbalizing and that public speaking was worth my time. To this day, I’m still unlearning previously harmful behaviors and gaining a deeper understanding of my identity.
Instead of being uncomfortable with my identity as an Asian-American, I quickly realized that my other talents and aspirations could define me more than the color of my skin.
I hate that my essay somehow concluded with “yay, colorblindness!” Although my mentors throughout high school told me that their identity was inseparable from how others viewed them, my essay ignored this central tenet of their advice. The interests that I’d thought were subverting stereotypes actually came from my internalized racism; that is, I felt that I had to do the most “un-Asian” things to be comfortable in my own skin — and appeal to admissions officers.
I’ve never shown this essay to my immigrant parents.
I was determined to keep it a secret from them, perhaps out of fear of criticism, perhaps because I suspected they would post it all over WeChat. But five years later, I now know the primary reason why I hid it: shame. In an attempt to raise the stakes of my essay, I portrayed my struggles with identity — although real — as an all-encompassing aspect of my personhood. Similarly, the essay’s neat and satisfactory resolution demonstrated my growth to the fullest extent possible but hid the questions of belonging I continued to deal with on a daily basis. Reality lies somewhere between the poles of intense conflict and peaceful denouement.
Early last fall, I made the decision to request a copy of my admissions file. Among the curt shorthand markings and numerical ratings, one comment stood out to me: my personal essay was thoughtful, and above all, honest.
On some level, I was proud that my essay had fulfilled its original intent: someone whose job it was to debunk nonsensical narratives had allowed my story to filter through. I had been marked as “honest.” But this comment has grown ever more unsettling to me in the year since. College admissions for selective institutions have no longer become a competition of test grades or grade point averages, but a race to the bottom to demonstrate prodigious authenticity.
Candidates must argue that their lived experiences are unique. For students of marginalized backgrounds, the college admissions essay poses racial equity as a possible individual accomplishment to write about. The questions to answer become: What did you learn from your oppression, and how has that built character? Can you write about it eloquently?
The system that was initially designed to allow college applicants who have been historically overlooked to share their experiences has become a system that rewards self-marketing and hyperbole. And in my own quest to craft an honest narrative that would buy me admission, I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
— Magazine writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @byAZWang.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.