Flipping through the U.S. News & World Report college guide last month, I spotted an article by one of my classmates called "How I Won $90,000 in Grants." As a college senior currently paying a similar sum, I naturally read on with great interest.
The author of the article, whom I do not know personally, explains how he spent his senior year of high school applying for scholarships, entering three-dozen contests and winning 25 of them.
His secret? While he admits to good grades and other achievements, he believes that winning grants is really about strategy. As he explains, "I crafted a suite of essays on the perennial themes - my college plans, career goals, future contributions to society - and tweaked them to fit the criteria of each new contest." At the end of the article, he advises students that "the best way to master the game is to learn from people who have played it well."
I definitely admire my classmate's industry and perseverance. And I won't lie about it: I definitely wish I had won $90,000 in grants. But beyond sour grapes, something about this article made me a bit uneasy.
Organizations that sponsor scholarships think they are singling out people who best exemplify the qualities they seek. In reality, however, or at least as this student perceives it, they are singling out people who have "mastered the game."
Self-presentation is a skill with a value all its own. But when the chips we're playing with are things like our "college plans, career goals, and future contributions to society," the stakes of the game become pretty high. One of the best things about being young is that you don't need to have an identity yet. But one of the worst things about being young is that everyone keeps demanding that you define yourself NOW.
Because most of us at 18 have not yet decided who we really are, we are sometimes tempted to reduce our "college plans, career goals, and future contributions to society" from things that we hold sacred into "perennial themes" that we can adjust to what others think our goals should be.
As Groucho Marx once said, "The most important thing in life is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
I don't have a solution to the problem. But now that my classmates and I are beginning our senior year, it has reappeared as we trip over ourselves in a mad search for something to do next year, frantically applying for jobs, graduate schools, and, yes, grants.
Each of the institutions where we hope to work or study asks that we explain exactly why we want to be a part of that particular place, and once again the temptation to adjust our dreams appears. It even becomes possible to create an entire logic for a career path that makes perfect sense on paper but might not be perfect for the people we really are - or even to unintentionally convince ourselves that that path is the right one for us.
Now that I am no longer 18, I know I cannot predict precisely where I will be 10 years from now. But I have a better idea of what I care about and why, and I know that those decisions are mine to make. As I put my chips down on the table - my plans, my goals, my future contributions to society - I will be careful, but I will also be honest, because I know those chips are all I've got. It's the only way to master the game.
* Dara Horn is a senior studying literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.