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What Blocks Authenticity in College Applications: The Editor on Our Shoulders

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I’ve been listening a lot to Lauryn Hill’s 2002 album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0. It is a bracingly honest reconciliation of Hill’s journey through the fame “machine” and her struggle to find her voice, soulful and sometimes raspy, in family, faith, and love. If you are not aware of her story, Hill was an acclaimed international music star and actor at a young age, making a name for herself in the hip hop group The Fugees and in movies like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

In the late-nineties, on paper, she was on top. Her 1998 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album had been acclaimed as one of the top hip hop and R&B albums of all time and Hill was being offered roles in blockbuster movies like 2000's Charlie’s Angels (the role eventually went to Lucy Liu). But she walked away from it all. Hill stepped away from all public appearances and the entire music industry in 2000, after firing her whole management team, and turning down multiple music and movie roles.

A close friend told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I think Lauryn grew to despise who Lauryn Hill was. Not that she despised herself as a human being, but she despised the manufactured international-superstar magazine cover girl who wasn’t able to go out of the house looking a little tattered on a given day.”

On the MTV Unplugged album, Hill notes:

“I came to terms with the fact that I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and . . . it held me hostage, like I couldn’t be a real person, because you are too afraid of, you know, of what your public will say.”

We have talked a lot about how authenticity in college applications is a real X factor because it connects with the human beings reading your application. Telling your authentic story through your college application takes courage, and it doesn’t just happen on cue. It takes some practice well before you sit down and start writing essays and filling out applications.

This means you must come to terms with the editor on your shoulder. This editor is the singular voice that channels the opinions of the “public” Hill is talking about above. It is the voice inside our heads that corrects us, steers us, chides us based on our fears of what others will think. It is a powerful force that works on all of us, and only gets louder the older we get.

The voice says things like:

  1. “You are not that interesting, colleges are not interested in someone like you.”

  2. “There are so many other people who have done way more impressive things than you. You aren’t special.”

  3. “Colleges have no desire to hear about your weird quirks and interests.”

  4. This is the inner voice that lies to us so loudly that we have difficulty hearing our true voice.

But if we can turn down the volume through practice, we can truly hear the voice for what it is: lies.

None of these are true.

  1. You are not only interesting, but colleges would love to enroll a student like you. The key is finding the right college. The college that “gets” you is the one that deserves you.

  2. Even if there were people with more impressive accomplishments (on paper), you still have earned your story, and have interests and activities about which you care deeply. Your story is important and necessary to tell. This isn’t a competition, trust me.

  3. Colleges are absolutely fascinated by your quirks, and are dying to hear about them. (Have you ever met admissions people?! They’re quirky as hell!)

One way to deal with the editor is to give it a name and personality. If we are able to actually imagine a little person on our shoulder (like the Looney Tunes devils and angels from years ago), it somehow becomes not only easier to handle, but kind of a fun exercise to tell the voice to go shove it.

The name I have given my voice is “Stacy*” the name of a horrible, and almost cartoonishly abrasive, boss I had as a young professional. Her voice is shrill and nasally as she tries to tell me my ideas are worthless. It’s a daily pleasure to mentally tell Stacy, to politely, but firmly, go pound sand.

Lauryn Hill reminds me, “I have to be who I am. And all of us have a right to be who we are.”

Here’s to being who we are.

*I have changed the name here to protect the innocent or otherwise interminably grouchy.

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