A little Hamlet with your college application

Bear with me a moment while I talk about literary theory. I promise it's relevant to you.

In his 1921 essay "Hamlet and His Problems," T.S. Eliot uses the phrase "objective correlative." Eliot isn't the first to use the phrase, and certainly not the first to use the concept, but the term really stuck when Eliot used it and it's usually attributed to him. Eliot calls the play Hamlet an "artistic failure." (I don't advise you call Hamlet a failure, especially if your English teacher is within five miles.) The problem, says Eliot, is that Hamlet acts (or is) mad because his main emotion is confusion and disgust over his mother's guilt--but there are no outward signs of Gertrude's guilt

And that's where the objective correlative comes in. Objective, as in seen and verifiable. Correlative, as in the things seen and verified correlate to the emotion. The objective correlative, says Eliot, is "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." In other words, if a character expresses an emotion, there really ought to be objects or events that justify it. A character, even Hamlet, shouldn't get to say "I'm so angry about my mother's guilt" without there being some tangible evidence of his mother's guilt. Even if he keeps saying it over and over. In critical reading it's called the Objective Correlative; in creative writing the concept is known as "show, don't tell"; in rhetorical writing it's called logos, providing evidence for your claim.

What does this have to do with you? This has everything to do with your college applications. In the more expressive parts of your application--like the essay and interview--you get to make claims about yourself. Maybe you say that you're a leader, or that you're contemplative, or that you're focused. And that's great, you get to say those things. But please remember that the other, more objective parts of your application need to correlate. Like Eliot, the admissions counselors want to see objects, situations, and events that justify what you say. 

This doesn't mean you need to change what you say about yourself or what you think about yourself. If you see yourself as a leader, then be a leader. Find opportunities to lead and work on learning how to be a good leader. If you have to scale back your extracurriculars to focus on being a leader in just one, that's fine. What you're doing is shifting your resume from one that reads "I do a lot of stuff without focus because I think I have to" to one that reads "I take the time to practice leadership because I'm a leader." If you see yourself as contemplative and philosophical, fantastic. But don't let your transcript show that you passed an opportunity to take a philosophy or psychology class because it didn't sound cool to you.

You have to decide that your transcript or resume is going to be a reflection of your best qualities. If you don't think much about your best qualities but only fill up your schedule with things that you think will look good to colleges, then the only identity you display is "someone who does things just because they might look good." That's not good for college applications, but more importantly that's not good for you as a person.

Here's a more concrete example. This week I had my second meeting with a new coaching client. He's interested in being an FBI agent or a civil rights attorney, because he feels that duty and helping people is really important. I gave him two types of personality quizzes to take, and both profiles point to him being a caregiver and leader, someone interested in helping people and building consensus. It all lines up beautifully. But when I asked him for some concrete examples of helping people and being a natural leader, he had difficulty. His friends come to him for advice, often about mundane things. He takes control of group projects, sometimes even covering for group members who don't participate...but mostly because he doesn't want to jeopardize his own grade. Once, a few years ago, he publicly chewed out a guy who tried to sabotage one of his friends' projects. That's about all he could think of.

Do I think that my client is lying about who he really is? Do I think he's a failure? Not at all! He's very self-aware and on top of things. But I am going to advise him to think carefully about choosing his classes and activities next year to more strongly align with his personality and goals. And I'm going to advise him to think about his current activities differently: half way through high school he's already an essential leader on his school debate team, and he's attended two national leadership conferences. So I'm also going to ask him to explore why he didn't think to list those as obvious concrete examples. It may just be that we'd already talked about those things and so he didn't think he needed to say them again, but we may have a talk about the difference between exploring interests and cultivating interests. We'll see.

Like my client, you likely have a strong sense of identity, and you also have the objects, situations, and chain of events that make up your days. Working from both ends, make sure that they line up. Find activities and groups that match your strongest qualities, and make sure you understand how to link your personality to your strongest achievements when talking about yourself. 


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