Creating a Self: The Facts of Fiction

The reasons many colleges give for requiring essays include getting to know more about the student, giving him or her a chance to explain something in the record, or providing a writing sample. Fair enough, but do they have to be “true?” More than one student has asked me, “Is it OK to write an essay that isn’t factually accurate as long as it’s good?” Answering questions like “What is your most significant experience?” or “What person, real or fictional, has had a major influence on your life and why?” or “Topic of your choice” tend to frazzle students attempting to impress the mysterious admission Inquisitors they imagine gathering in dank basements to determine their futures. They’re not talking about lying, exactly, but the bare-bones facts don’t quite do it, either.

As long as you aren’t claiming club presidencies or social service you haven’t really done, is there anything wrong with saying Thomas Jefferson is your most influential hero instead of Bono, your real hero? Is there a problem if you exaggerate an incident that “changed your life” even if it didn’t so much, really, or if the situation was more mundane than you present it? I brought this topic to my NACAC colleagues recently to get their impressions and received a dozen or so responses.

Most of us, including me, opt for “honesty” and “truth,” but those are slippery concepts when you’re really asking someone to essentially create a character in 500 words or less. Asking a student to include subjective narratives about relatives, experiences, or outlooks in an application introduces an element that, no matter how it turns out, I’d have to call “fiction,” with the “fact” being what lies beneath that essay.

Let’s distinguish between “fiction” and “falsehood,” and the purpose of the essay. One colleague wrote that “If the goal of an essay is for the student to provide insight about himself or herself, and if that insight is authentic, then maybe it doesn’t matter if the person didn’t exist or the experience never happened.” We teach novels and short stories even though they aren’t factually true because they reveal important “truths” about human existence. If it works for Hemingway and Oates and David Sedaris, why not for Sally or Billy in their applications? That whale wasn’t just a whale, was it?

Some said that it was important to hear the applicants’ authentic “voice” and that it wouldn’t come out in a “fictional” essay. But we hear and value authors’ “voices” constantly in fiction. Even when they’re not writing about themselves, they are by virtue of what they choose to observe and the stance they take toward it. I tell students that constantly–no matter what you choose to write about, you’re writing about yourself. (Many parents do not like to hear this: At his parents’ insistence one student substituted for an excellent and fascinating essay about his Jewish grandfather, who sold mattresses in Shanghai during WW II, a boring one that was all about himself.) We draw conclusions about Hemingway from his writing, why not about Billy?

Most of the colleagues I heard from said they expected students to be “truthful” and “honest” in their essays, but I think their reasons for doing so could as easily be answered by fiction if we are willing to look below the surface of the writing: “the essay helps us get to know the student better,” it “reveals something about themselves that the rest of the application doesn’t,” it is designed to “communicate the living breathing person to assist admissions deans in putting together a diverse class with varying personalities, interests, and accomplishments…,” “it reflects his genuine beliefs,” it “shows the college who you are–both in the voice of your writing and in the content. Therefore it is essential that the content be true” and so on.

Don’t all these responses describe the best fictions? Poe said that every short story should focus on creating one unified effect in the reader. Isn’t that what we’re asking our students to do? No one expects “The Tell-tale Heart” to be “true” but it sure is scary, because it taps into our basic fears. Shouldn’t we give our young authors the same respect we give those we expect to show us truths through “lies?”

One colleague compared non-factual essay writing to phony reporting, but there’s a difference–we expect reporters to give us the facts; to do otherwise gets you fired (unless you work for Fox News). Do we expect students to meet reportorial standards? I don’t think so. 

Conversely, we can blast the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” not because he had actually written fiction, but because he lied to us about what he had done. We read memoirs differently from novels, as one colleague noted, distinguishing “between fiction and deception….If you read a ‘real life account’ of an adventure that was later revealed to be made up, you’d feel cheated–even if you continue to acknowledge the skill of the writer.”

I think we may simultaneously place too much and too little responsibility on applicants and their essays. One colleague thought of the college essay “as less of a measure of writing talent and more of a glimpse inside the applicant’s soul (his judgment, his perspective, his sensitivities, and his sensibilities.” I’d still have to say that a fiction can do that maybe even better than “fact.” Expecting a look into an applicant’s “soul” may be way more than the exercise will bear. [I once read an application from a student whose essays were about his suicide attempt and his recovery. (Verified by a call to his counselor.) They were well written and the student was admissible, but his truthfulness sank him. That was a glimpse into a soul I’d rather not have had.]

If we want “just the facts” how can we rely on imaginative constructs like essays? If “it is essential that the content be true” what do we mean by “true?”

I believe that whatever a student writes about reveals something about him or herself, so the factual truth is less important than the arrangement of facts to arrive at a “truth” that points to something about the author. If a student writes a touching essay about a relative who may not exist, can’t I appreciate the author’s ability to express compassion and empathy? Is that any less “real” or “truthful” than if the relative were real? I know the student has the capacity to express those qualities, at least. (Yes, that person may be a cold-hearted bugger in real life, but it’s not the fictionalizing that makes him so.) And will I ever know the facts in any case? Probably not.

So if students “made up their feelings and included actions/results that never happened, they are lying about themselves?” I don’t think so: they’re creating a reality they know to be fictional. And maybe they have a clear understanding of what needs to be said.

Let’s be honest: Every college admission essay really is a creative writing assignment. We should not expect rock-hard reportorial fact from seventeen-year olds under pressure to “reveal” themselves; it’s not fair. We should broaden our sensibility to understand that what we receive is the “fact” and what we do with it is the result. If we read every essay as “literature” instead of reporting we might not only encourage better writing but also enjoy it more.  

One colleague put it best: “I think if the essay is a vehicle for illustrating some important value/realization/personal motto that the kid really believes in, it’s okay to stretch the truth or create a scene through which to convey the message.”

If we agree that some of the greatest truths can be found in fiction, why not give college applicants the same consideration?

Thanks to everyone who responded to my question on the NACAC listserv. Here are some other comments I received:

“We tell our students quite firmly that the college application essay is not a creative writing assignment!…It needs to be seen as an opportunity for the college to get to know the student more deeply than it could from a transcript and a set of test scores. How could that possibly happen if a student were to write about ‘truthy’ rather than truthful aspects of his/her life?”

“I think truthiness is where most essays fall. Does everyone have that one moment either while hiking the Grand Canyon or fishing with their grandpa where they learn some important life lesson before their 18th birthday? My life has never worked like that!”

“I have always called those fantasy essays…I simply tell my students that at some point they must clue their reader in that this is fiction.”

“The essay should all be true and real, just like when the student signs the application indicating the work is his/her own true and original work, it should also be real—otherwise what’s to stop them from adding activities and embellishing their apps in other ways?”

“Isn’t the answer relatively simple? The student must designate a fictional essay as such…”

“It would be nice if the point of the essay were more explicitly outlined on the application. If the point is to judge writing skills and creativity, I think the sky is the limit in terms of the truthiness of it all. But if the point is to learn more about the student’s life, and to gauge his thoughtfulness or self-awareness about his experiences up to now, then the actual truth is absolutely warranted.”

“The admission committee can glean information from an honest essay, regardless of topic, to help us put a student’s academic and leadership career into context…They may not be the most entertaining essays but if an essay offers insight that helps us make an informed decision it’s far more engaging. I can read good fiction on my own time.”