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Motivation and College Application Essays: Why the Process Matters

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Aug 21, 2014 1:15:00 PM

In a New York times article, Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz once described a study of motivation at West Point. It turns out that intrinsic motivation (doing things for your own reasons) is much more powerful than instrumental motivation (doing things for external rewards).

Here’s the college admissions takeaway for parents as well as students: approaching college admissions as a reward system—you are applying to college “get into…” name the place—is much less likely to succeed than taking on the college process (and of course college) to achieve something bigger: to “learn” or “grow” or “make a difference in the world.” 

This study supports the core commitment of Story2: working with students to find stories that reveal their character and to shape them into honest and genuine college admission essays.

Wherever you go to college, whatever courses you take, and whomever you meet, what drives you as a human being? What gets you out of bed in the morning thinking, “I am making a difference today. It’s my purpose in life to do this work today.”

Purpose is not the same as passion. Being “passionate” is, in comparison with having purpose, very small stuff. “Passionate” happens inside you. Purpose takes passion and turns it into something permanent and meaningful for others. Are you “passionate” because “colleges are looking for students who are passionate?” Or are you engaged in life to make a difference?

You may not have thought about this. When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I hadn’t thought about it either. And, frankly, I wish to this day that I could have hung out with my friends and not been forced to find my purpose. But my adolescent complacency died the first week of February 1975 when my father asked his doctors to “turn off the chemo and make me stable.” He spent one long week at home.

When I came home from school and went into the living room to prop up his pillows and give him his medicines, he was waiting. He wanted to talk. “Here’s the thing I’ve learned from cancer,” he began, taking my breath away. “You need to live every day as if it’s your last and also your first. Live every day with purpose, Carol.” And then he drifted off to sleep.

Your purpose does not need to be some big, world-changing issue (but if you’re looking for that type of purpose, I strongly recommend High Noon, a brilliant book by the former head of the World Bank in Europe). Your purpose can be as simple as “I pick up trash when I see it on the ground” or “I don’t drink at parties so I can make sure others get home safely” or “I am honest with my friends.” To win the college game, you need to find your purpose for applying to college. “Why do you want to go to college?” Not a specific college, but college? What will you gain? What will you give? What will college allow you to do?

You may, like many students, feel like you could do so many different things—isn’t the point of college to explore them? Yes: college changes everything, and it may alter your purpose. But every student brings something to the table, whether or not they’ve located it within themselves. So, take on the college process to discover and share your unique purpose and it honestly won’t matter where you go to college, because your purpose is much bigger than which college you attend.  And when your purpose is palpable—when what you do matches what you say you believe—you are the kind of person colleges want: the kind of person our ailing planet needs for healing and building our shared future.

Your purpose comes through in your application essays, and that’s why they matter so much. But you can’t just say “my purpose is to pick up trash in my neighborhood.” You don’t have to write a fancy essay, but you do need to show your purpose in action—maybe how it evolved over time, or one day when your purpose shifted or was tested, or a time when you failed to keep your commitments to yourself and other people. All of those stories make great college application essays. Your purpose is why your essays matter—because it’s why you matter, every single day.

Topics:college admission

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