Are College Admission Questions Asking Too Much From “Emerging Adults”?

I was reading The Atlantic the other day and came upon an old article that was freshly linked to via Twitter.  (I’ll take “Sentences That Didn’t Make Sense When I Was in High School” for 500, Alex!)  This article was about the college admission process – specifically, the questions being asked on applications.

These essay prompts get at some of life’s greatest questions. And as this year’s college application season begins, 17-year-old high-school students around the world are frantically trying to answer with the insight and intelligence that will guarantee them an acceptance letter. Some are searching for profound thoughts and meaningful experiences in their short lives. Other applicants are embellishing the mundane in an attempt to make it sound extraordinary. High school students first come into contact with college through the admissions process. And right now, the first message they receive is: “Pretend to be something you are not.”

It was at this point in the reader-author conversation that my brain rudely interrupted.  It went something like this:

What?  What are you talking about?  I can only assume that this article was written based on some fallacies:

Fallacy #1: Everyone is meant to go to college.

The idea that the question needs to be one that considers everyone is a fallacy because it’s an admission process.  By definition, there are certain levels of academic development and abstract thinking at which a student is considered ideal for admission.  These criteria can change between schools, but the basic gist is they’re asking these questions because the answer is one that will indicate whether they want you.  Whether or not these questions are actually in line with such things may be a different story, but if we assume that they are just from the pure fact that it’s stupid for it not to be considering it’s their question, then the point is so that someone having trouble with the question will fall under the criteria of “go somewhere else.”  If that’s not the case, then the question would indeed need to be retooled.

In other words, just because the question isn’t for everybody doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the question.  The whole point is to disqualify people until you’re left with the qualified ones.

Fallacy #2: Students are expected to answer these questions definitively.

Julia Ryan continues to blast the admission questions in this article by saying that “College is about the journey. So why are schools asking high school seniors to already be at the end of it?”  This implies that questions like “What makes you happy?” or “Describe a time when you overcame adversity.” or “What is the meaning of life?” are all asked with the expectation that students have definitive answers that will determine whether they are college-ready.  I’m not an admissions worker or anything, but my answer to this is to point out that this assumption is a fallacy.  College is about the journey, as Ryan says, but these questions all give important assessments on the following important points:

  1. How self-aware is this person?  Assuming that I’m talking about what’s in the best interest of the student and the school, I would want to know that the student can reflect on their own conduct and performance before admitting them into a place supposedly devoted to higher learning.  Peers are expected to be as much of a contributing factor to the learning environment as the teachers are.
  2. Where are they on their journey?  Rather than expecting a student to be done with a journey, as Ryan claims the askers of these questions are doing, the inquiries discussed here are actually there to determine whether there’s any journey taking place at all – and if so, how reflective is the applicant regarding this journey?
  3. How do they deal with having to answer questions they don’t know the answer to?  You know, the skill needed to get through all of college.  This is literally the entire purpose of something being about “the journey,” because being on the journey and not finishing it yet means that we don’t have all the answers.  There is very little to suggest that these questions about adversity and the meaning of life are expected to be answered with something definitive, at which point the bitter admissions worker will go “Wrong.” and throw the whole application in the trash.  These questions are asked because people don’t have the answers.

All of these are important things to consider when considering a student for admission.

Fallacy #3: College is a place for kids to become adults.

No, not really.

Oh yes, certainly there is growth that takes place in college, but you’re an adult, no matter how many bouncy houses they have at orientation.

I find the perpetuation of this myth that college is for kids to be not only misleading but also alarming, especially as I have seen colleges themselves take this attitude on.  Aforementioned bounce house notwithstanding, I found this blog entry about whether college students are adults, and found many passages familiar – and infuriating.

The fundamental problem is that the university no longer thinks of students as adults. Adolescence in American culture has been extended to people’s mid-twenties, and with this stunted maturity, comes the same perpetual message: nothing you do counts right now, so have at it. The students welcome this because it gives them permission to act out and to put off the hard decisions for another five to ten years. But this also means that there are no clear criteria for when adulthood is evoked. Schools only call students adults when they want to punish them or collect their bills, and the students only invoke their own adulthood when they want something they’re not allowed to have. “Adult” has become a term of self-interested manipulation instead of a moral category to be universally acknowledged and respected.


So if the main complaint Ryan is making toward these questions is that college is supposed to provide the answers to these questions and help these kids become adults, I think it’s important to decide before applying what you’re going to be.  I think that this excerpt also makes it clear that as far as colleges are concerned regarding the stakes for failure, you are an adult – even if schools only call students adults when it’s in their own interests to do so.

It is here where I shift the focus of this entry, because this is a blog and I don’t have to explain myself to you, even as I do so with this very sentence.

This culture of “emerging adults” is one that must cease, immediately, because it promotes and implies that reckless behavior is the expectation – and worse, implies a cushion of protection by the “innocent” connotation that comes with calling an adult an “emerging adult.”  Oh he’s just an “emerging adult,” so he can make mistakes.

Like Weinstein says though, that’s not the real truth is it?  You can’t tell the institution that you couldn’t pay tuition because you’re an emerging adult, and you’re still figuring out how to make a budget and stick with it.  You can’t tell them that you didn’t know plagiarism was against the law.  You can’t tell them that you were inexperienced with alcohol tolerance, and that it’s only being an emerging adult that led you to accidentally urinate on their new statue and steal the Q from McQuarrie Hall.  A university will remind you real quick during these situations that you ARE an adult.

So we shouldn’t pretend that college is for becoming an adult when we know college is for adult learners.  We shouldn’t attack college admission questions when all we can do is answer them as best as we know how to answer them.  Let’s stop lying about the stakes – and if a school asks a question that you feel bad answering, maybe it’s not your school… like a job interview!  The interview goes both ways.

Works Cited

  1. Weinstein, Jack Russell. “PQED: Are College Students Adults?.” PQED. N. p., 2015. Web. <>. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.
  2. Ryan, Julia. “Applying To College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group., 2013. Web. 3 Nov. 2017.