I have always loved end-of-year round-ups. Growing up, I remember watching Barbara Walters’ specials of the 10 Most Fascinating People of the Year and listening to Casey Kasem count down the top songs (Who remembers “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles in 1986?).
This week, I’ve clicked on links to the New York Times most popular recipes of 2023 and agreed with Time Magazine’s declaration that Taylor Swift is the “Person of the Year” (more on T. Swift later).
In that spirit, I decided to have a go at my own 2023 round-up.
Here’s what the Class of 24 seniors wrote about this year in their application essays. (Twenty20 @vizionzbyv)
What this year’s college admissions essays show us about the lives of high school students
Everyone wants high school to be one word. Separating “highschool” has to be my most frequent edit. Presumably, students walk through the doors of buildings clearly labeled “High School” each day. Class of 2024, why?
The pandemic hit this class hard. My heart ached for the Class of 2020 with their canceled proms and online graduations, but in the years since, COVID’s impact on my students seemed, in general, to wane. Until this year. These seniors started high school online. As one student wrote, “Starting my first day of high school wearing a uniform polo shirt and sweatpants was not the “back-to-school” outfit I dreamed of, but when your teachers and classmates can only see your torso and above on Zoom, it doesn’t matter.” Others wrote about a similar sense of meaninglessness; when they should have been playing sports or hanging out with friends, they were in what another student called “a dark silent bedroom—the new pandemic classroom.” While students of all ages struggled with online learning, this group of students didn’t get to experience all the rituals that marked the close of middle school and all of the support that fosters a sense of belonging in high school (two words!)
Students found their way through. Many more than typical changed schools during or after ninth grade. Some went to therapy. Some took long walks along the lake. Others credited teachers, school counselors and books. Four identified Make Your Bed by Admiral William McRaven as the book that helped them. Atomic Habits and 48 Laws of Power inspired another student: “Through these books I learned that despite unfortunate circumstances, I had control over my life and it was up to me to make changes.”
Weightlifting is having a moment. In 18 years, I don’t recall ever working with a student who wrote about pumping iron. This year I had five. For them, the gym is a place that helps them manage ADHD symptoms, learn about growth mindset, and become more comfortable in male-dominated spaces. One student said, “While it may sound like an arduous hobby, weightlifting brings me joy. It allows me time to work on myself both physically and mentally. It also provides an outlet from the real world, a place I can go anytime I need to blow off steam in a productive manner.
Formula 1 Racing is having a moment. Until this application cycle, I knew nothingabout this sport, and now multiple students chose to proclaim their devotion.
Music matters a lot to my students. Whereas Harry Styles was popular last year, Taylor Swift received the most mentions from this class. My students admire her, start school clubs to share their love with fellow Swifties, and draw inspiration from specific songs. But other artists inspired my students too. An essay about “Burn, Burn, Burn” by Zach Bryan sparked an understanding of family legacy for one student, and Bob Marley’s “One Love” made another think about the importance (and complete lack) of love in today’s public discourse.
Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy prompted one of my students to think about what happens after we die; for another, the text is required reading to understand the modern world.
My students are enterprising, starting businesses, like selling shoes and trading cards; working in restaurants and coffee shops, high-end boutiques and summer camps; creating video games that are widely played and draw on real-world data.
This year’s students were more vulnerable than in past years, writing about topics that required impressive bravery. Some discussed their mental health journeys. Four talked about sharing their queer identities with their church youth groups with bravery and a mustard-seed size faith that they will receive love and acceptance in return. They are insisting on holding fast to their faiths and their identities, an act that will move mountains.
EM Forster said, “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” The process of writing a college essay allows students to know what they think about their pasts, their strengths, their milestone moments, and their ability to set the course for their futures. I was moved by essays where students realized something about themselves that changed their lives, and I believe that the act of writing about these moments solidifies them, making them more real and true.
Here are some of the realizations that changed everything
I don’t have to stay in this unhealthy relationship.
I don’t have to let the grief of losing a parent overwhelm me. My chronic health condition won’t ruin my life.
I can drive on the freeway.
I can live as the person I know I am rather than the person my peers or family expect me to be.
I can provide Easter dinner for 40 women and their children fleeing domestic violence.
I can become an EMT before junior year.
I can use these 10 free minutes to make friends with new people rather than waiting for them to address me.
I can get better at things by practicing.
I can wear this banana shirt out in public, and people will strike up a conversation with me rather than judging me.
It is my privilege to hear the stories of the graduating class
My students’ stories changed when they listened to loved ones, like a dad who said, “Mija, this is your opportunity to rewrite your story,” a wrestling coach who said, “I will care for you like my own son because I know how much work this sport demands,” a baby sister who created a special bond that inspired her older brother to become a caretaker.
This year, I became a Swiftie from my $19.89 movie theater seat. While the film was nothing like an actual concert, it did give me a Taylor’s eye view of the stadium. I marveled at her ability to command a stage in front of tens of thousands. In no world would I ever have the presence to not just perform but to enjoy it like she seemed to. Then it occurred to me that it’s not the same for her: she is in her element, doing what she was born to do.
One of my favorite songs is “Betty,” which my daughter can attest to my listening to on repeat. Asking his crush to forgive him for going out with another girl, the speaker of the song says, “I’m only 17. I don’t know anything, but I know I miss you.”
I get it. My students are poised on the edge of not knowing and knowing important stuff about who they are and what they love (maybe this explains the high school/highschool situation?).
I have the enormous privilege of helping them see what they say in order to know what they think, to help them identify what they know to be true and to make that more real through putting words to it.
Class of 2024, thank you for sharing your stories so bravely with me and with college admission committees. I loved getting to be a little part of your journey. When you are in your element, doing what you are born to do, glittery leotard or no, I will be cheering you on.
More Great Reading:
Director of Admission Shares the Truth About College Essays