I was brainstorming with a student this weekend about her college admissions essay, and found myself asking this doozy of a question: “What kind of person do you think you are?”
As polite as this kid is, she couldn’t help but squint and look at me as if I had two heads. I recoiled slightly and realized I sounded exactly like a stupid, stodgy adult. In fact, I could practically hear her response, which was (and rightly should have been): “Lady, if I knew that, I sure wouldn’t be spending my Sunday afternoon with you.”
But it got me thinking. What is it about self-introspection that makes it so tough? What is one’s character, exactly? And how can you ever really know if you actually know yourself?
For me, I think I’ve always kind of hoped that I’ll know what stuff I either am or am not made of if I am faced with calamity. Like, if a man fell into a hole in front of me and were clinging to the rooty sides of it, just minutes away from falling into an abyss, would I be the person to pull him out?
Or would I be the person to tell him to hang on so I could get help?
Would I be smart enough to think about where I could find a length of rope and, thereby, tether him to a tree so we’d have more time to think about excavation?
Would I pick the wrong tree?
I have to tell you, I’m still not sure. If I had to guess, I think I would be the person to try to help pull him out, but would either fall in myself or slip and let go. Either that, or I’d run to find help and I’d run my friggin’ fastest, all right, but it wouldn’t be enough and he’d be gonezo upon my return.
It’s like my husband William says: If he’d fought in a World War, he’d of been the soldier to die pretty much right away. Like, no running or darting even. Just picked off immediately. I guess that’s why we’re married, because I’m pretty sure I would have been that soldier, too. No transporting to the hospital via uncomfortable stretcher for this girl, just pretty much dead in the dirt so close to the beginning of the battle that they can’t even retrace their steps that far back to try to pluck me up for a proper burial.
Of course, that doesn’t have to do with character, that just has to do with bad luck.
But, seriously, barring battles and unfortunately located holes, how can one know what they’re made of?
About a year ago, me, William and Gabrielle took Meyers-Briggs personality tests. William’s outcome named him the Executive or the Enforcer or something. It so accurately described him, right down to workplace habits (mantra: shortcuts are irresponsible) and parenting style (mantra: hard work, tradition, respect), that Gabrielle and I were floored. Gabrielle’s personality likewise typified her very well.
But mine? As Gabrielle and William read the results to me, we were all a little confused. Some of it kind of applied, some of it didn’t at all.
I took the damn test twice and got the same result. Then I started wondering if maybe I wasn’t answering the questions right. Was everyone getting pegged but me? Did I just not have a personality?
I guess if there is one thing I know for sure about my make-up, it’s that I have an impressively low amount of self-confidence.
Meanwhile, I’m 41. The college application process requires that 17-year-olds spend a good amount of time soul searching to answer questions about the exact moment they experienced personal growth. Or a part of their identity that is so meaningful to them that their application would be incomplete without addressing it.
This, actually, might be a good thing. In fact, that might be my problem entirely. My college apps involved choosing between one of two schools in Winnipeg (I visited neither) and me choosing the one with smaller class sizes because that seemed like a good idea. Turns out, even this was the wrong choice: I quickly discovered I would much rather blend in a 100-person lab than wriggle under the stare of a 10-person workshop.
Maybe if I’d had to actually invest some thought in myself before I made any big decisions, I would be much further ahead in the game.
So, as I look at my students undergoing college apps torture, I feel honored to help them, and also envious of their process (though I sure won’t tell them that). Maybe this generation will come away having a much more solid idea of what makes them, them. And wouldn’t that be a fine gift.
Tara Kaprowy is the founder of swayessay.com, which helps students edit their college admissions essays.