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Column: College Rejection Delivers a Lesson in the Art of Faking Sincerity

So you were rejected from college and wrote to the Wall Street Journal about it? What could go wrong?

Well, the worst thing could happen: The Journal could publish it. And some people on the Internet could go picking through your writing complaining about your privilege, and other people could tell you that you were right.

That is what just happened to high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss, now famous for her complaint that “Colleges tell you, ‘Just be yourself.’ That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.” She goes on for several paragraphs in a now famous or infamous essay, at the end noting that she is aware this sounds like whining. But how aware?

Be Yourself is always lousy advice. So, for that matter, is Follow Your Dreams. Most advice is bad. Don’t shoot for the stars. The stars are distant and extremely hot, and by the time you reach them you will be long dead.

At Gawker, Caity Weaver quipped:

Suzy’s mistake, it seems, was interpreting the advice “Just be yourself” literally. Like perhaps someone told her, “Applying to colleges? Ah, just be yourself,” and she accepted this as an instruction to pursue no activities other than being herself.

Being yourself is not a talent. If you worked two full-time jobs all the way through high school and one of them was “being yourself” and the other was “trying your best,” you actually worked zero full-time jobs.

Yes, there are some deeper problems with Weiss’ casual dismissal of all forms of diversity and every resume item from extracurriculars to volunteer work. And it’s awkward to conflate SAT scores and double moms, as Weaver again points out.

But push aside high schoolers’ insensitivity for a moment to the real question.

The thing about college admissions is that past a certain point — objective measures such as SATs and APs don’t hurt — it is an imprecise magic. The only thing I know for sure is that you cannot get in by mailing a taxidermied squirrel to the Harvard admissions department. Someone tried this once, and it failed, because the squirrel fell apart, and the admissions officer I talked to described it as distinctly unimpressive.

You can do the things Suzy describes, in her somewhat dismissive manner — start charities, get summer jobs as Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics — and it still may not help.

To me, the most troubling part of the essay is one that she and everybody else in certain high schools are constantly being driven to make: the idea that you’re doing things with a cynical eye on that golden ticket. You aren’t learning To Learn. You aren’t volunteering To Volunteer. Well, sure you are, but you see the college counselors strolling the halls and you know What All This Is For. There will be a test later.

And even if you’re being sincere about it, no one around you is. This is, after all, high school, and you are the only real face in a hallway of cardboard cutouts. They are all cynical overachievers without rich interior lives. Kyle is only gay because he heard that was what Yale wanted. Of course, none of this is the case. But in high school, it is easy to forget that there are insides to other people.

And the admissions charade doesn’t help.

There’s a difference between living right on the hopes of getting into Paradise and living right because you believe it’s the right thing to do. And these days it’s impossible to tell. It’s all very medieval. We’re buying indulgences (Oh, what a coincidence that you and the shiny, recently donated cafeteria have the same last name!) and making pilgrimages (volunteer overseas, anyone?) and studying the Vital Texts (SAT prep, if your parents can afford it) and mortifying the flesh (another softball sprain?) — but the goal isn’t Heaven, it’s Princeton.

And this creates problems both for the ones who make it and the ones who don’t. The ones who make it think, “Great! It was merit after all! I made it in because I was uniquely, wonderfully sincere, as did all my excellent classmates, and that Suzy is just a bunch of sour grapes.” The ones who don’t think, “Huh, everything’s a lie.”

It’s hard to win high school.

It’s a grotesque Catch-22. Colleges reward sincerity. The best way to fake sincerity is to be sincere. But even when your original motive is the hope that you can help another human being, at some point you have to sit down and admit that, “Hey, this looks pretty good on my resume.” And that’s the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is exactly the kind of cynicism Suzy sees everywhere around her, whether it’s there or not.

Everyone cringes at her portrayal of applicants as cynical monsters because We Absolutely Weren’t. Are you crazy? Colleges punish cynicism. There’s a tip on the Harvard admissions Web site making certain you separate “perfunctory” participation in activities from its more-ardent cousin.

The twin incentives at the heart of high school leak over to poison the whole college exercise. You get all these intelligent, eager, dedicated kids into college and you say, “Wow! Look at all of you! Here, finally! Now let’s get down to some of that learning you must be so eager for!” and everyone stares blankly at you and says, “What’s my motivation? I’m already in college.” Instead, they wander around looking for other things to do with their time, things they missed out on in high school, like drinking and chanting deeply problematic misogynist slogans and generally causing a stir.

David Brooks recently had one of his Yale students basically write a column for him, and she described the unparalleled cynicism of this generation. Victoria Buhler noted, “Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.” Why wouldn’t you? Even the kids coasting along on their own perceived merit can’t shake the understanding that all this is a little random. Why Yale yes and, say, Princeton no?

All the most sincere moments of your life turned out to be just lines on a form. You were up until midnight writing 12 essays, variably titled things like “Why Brown Is The Only Place For Me” and “Why University of Chicago Is The One Place My Heart Yearns For.” If you aren’t a little cynical by the time it’s over, you’re extremely fortunate or not doing it right.

The trouble is that the overt advice people give you is still the same — Follow Your Dreams. Be Yourself. Merit Will Win Out. Volunteer Because It’s Right. And you believe all this. But that’s not really the advice they’re giving you, as Weiss is quick to note. Beneath that is the actual pragmatic advice: Get A Scheduler And Start Bashing Heads In and Volunteer, Because It’s Right And It Won’t Hurt On The App, Either.

Don’t blame the kids.

My favorite part of the whole shebang was when the Taylor Allderdice High School wikipedia briefly listed Suzy among its Distinguished Alumnae, noting:

On March 30, 2013, Suzy Lee Weiss, a member of the Class of 2013, published an opinion piece entitled “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” in The Wall Street Journal. The article, which critiqued the state of college admissions through a unique blend of satire and humor, became very popular and circulated around the internet.

That’s gone today.

The question is always whether it’s more dangerous to be rewarded or punished for what you did in high school. That’s the college admissions question. It’s the same question in the fanfare around this essay. I wish I knew the answer.

Alexandra Petri writes for The Washington Post.