An editors’ note is appended to this article here
If you are a college senior, professor or an alum, I’d like to ask you for a gift.
I’d like you to write a brief essay about your college experience — an evaluation of what went well, what didn’t and what you learned along the way. Feel free to write this as a short paper or divide your experience into categories — intellectual exploration, relationships, self-knowledge and life preparation — and grade yourself in each area.
In exchange for sending these to firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll send you a personal thank-you note and write a column synthesizing the results next semester.
This gift request is inspired by David Brooks’ column, The Life Report, which made the same request of people over age 70 for two main reasons.
First, our culture does not provide enough opportunities for self-appraisal. Sometimes we stumble across a moment to contemplate how we got here, how we’re doing and how we can do better, but there is no specific tradition prompting us to do so.
Second, a collection of personal essays would benefit young adults. “Young people are educated in many ways” Brooks writes, “but they are given relatively little help in understanding how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.” Additional perspectives would inform young adults as they begin to make important life decisions.
I ask for this gift — specified to your college experience — for the same two reasons.
College students, too, can learn from people who’ve navigated the University terrain before, whether by learning from their example or merely using their story as a means to reflect upon their own.
College students also have few opportunities for self-evaluation. Our grades tell us how well we understand certain parts of a subject, but they don’t tell us if we are developing lasting relationships, challenging our beliefs or becoming the person we want to become. These essays will encourage us to address our personal goals and evaluate our progress in achieving them.
Such introspection is fundamental: How can we evaluate how we’re doing if we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish? Rarely do we think about what it means for us to make the most out of our education. The thoughtful ones who do ask the tough questions, receive, at best, insufficient answers — “Get involved! Get connections! Get laid!” — and, at worst, potentially contradictory ones — “Do what you love, but be practical!”
What does it mean to make the most out of an education? There are a myriad of answers, of course, and these essays will illuminate many of them. While an answer to such a question can neither be complete nor universal — there are always unexpected opportunities that we can’t foresee and no one account can work for everyone — such introspection is still valuable, even if all it does is personalize the rubric to which you evaluate yourself and your projects.
So no, these essays won’t provide the exact blueprints to making the most out of an education, but they may indicate that most people believe in striving for some combination of A, B and C things, and they went about achieving them in D, E and F ways. There might not, though, be such an overlapping consensus.
At the very least, your essays will provide valuable source material to help us think about what we’re aiming to accomplish and how we’re doing.
If you’re an alum, I’m curious to read about how what you learned in college applies to what you’re doing now and perhaps how you feel you could have better prepared yourself. Briefly note to college seniors how you thought about post-graduation plans and how you might think about them differently today.
If you’re a professor, I’m curious to read how you think you could have gotten more inside of — and outside of — the classroom and how professors could have played more of a role in your undergraduate experience.
If you’re a college senior, I’m curious to hear what you think you did well and what you think you could have done better. It will be interesting to compare these answers with those by people who graduated many years ago. I’d also like to hear what your plans are for the remainder of college in light of what you’ve learned.
While we can benefit from simply reading these essays, perhaps academic research could accompany such informal analysis.
These essays could change our perceptions of college success. In addition to providing valuable perspective to the incoming freshmen, the departing senior and everyone in between, these essays will also benefit those curious about living well and life-long learning.
Those who will receive the most benefits from these essays, however, will be the people who write them.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at email@example.com.