Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are you apathetic, or ravenous?

I was 16 years old when I was filling out my college applications. I ended up getting into a college and doing OK, but looking back at that time results in a lot of "I wish I knew then what I know now" types of feelings. But obviously I didn't know then what I know now; life is a learning experience, and 16 year olds (as well as 50 year olds) have a lot of learning to do.

But I can see how college applications could be intimidating. Take this essay question from the University of Pennsylvania:

A Penn education provides a liberal arts and sciences foundation across multiple disciplines with a practical emphasis in one of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Wharton School. Given the undergraduate school to which you are applying, please discuss how you will engage academically at Penn.

(Please answer in 300 words or less.)

OK, pretend that you're 16 years old. How well would you do at answering that question?

This question appeared in a University of Pennsylvania blog entry, along with some tips on how to answer it. The tips were written by Patrick Bredehoft, former Penn Admissions Officer and current Director of the Penn Alumni Interview Program. (Guess who was performing vanity searches one day.)

Bredehoft advised prospective students on how to answer that question, and as part of his advice he stated the following:

This is also the space where you should explain your projected academic interests. Why did you choose Electrical Engineering, Fine Arts, or Biological Basis of Behavior, a Penn-specific discipline, as your major?

Bredehoft then continued:

Checking the undecided box is also an appropriate answer. However, please note the difference between being ‘apathetically undecided’ and ‘ravenously undecided.’ If you are an undecided applicant, tell us about the depth of your different interests and the ways that you would like to become intellectually involved on campus across majors.

This distinction between various types of undecideds can also be found in politics. Take this example from a 1979 election:

The undecided voters are not indifferent. They are aggressively undecided, and working hard at following the campaigns so they can make up their minds.

There was a different feeling among undecideds in a 1986 election:

"I haven`t decided yet, and I may not even vote," said Thelma Leffridge while transferring buses in the Loop late last week. ``When you need them(politicians), they`re never at your service, but when they need you they really run you down."

This distinction between being "apathetic" and "ravenous" (or aggressive) is a valuable one regardless of age. Sometimes we don't know what we want to do, but it's better to be hampered in our decision by the wide variety of compelling choices, rather than to be hampered in our decision because we really don't care what happens.
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