It's that time of year again: college decisions. Every spring, young academics choose which college or university will be the one — if they’ve been accepted by the admissions powers that be... On this week’s episode of Adult ISH, Dom French and Nyge Turner sit down with Emi Nietfeld, author of "Acceptance," to discuss the tumultuous process of mining personal trauma for college application essays, and navigating hope for acceptance. Together, they ask: where should young folks draw the line to protect their wellbeing, future and academic prospects?
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Georgia: Hi, this is Adult ISH Senior Producer Georgia Wright. Before we begin the show, I want to give a heads up that this episode includes mentions of difficult subjects such as eating disorders, self-harm, and abuse. Please take care as you listen.
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm Nyge Turner.
Dom: And, I'm Dominique French. Around this time of year, college applicants start to decide which, if any, school is the right one. But that all depends on someone else's decision to accept them.
Nyge: No pressure.
Nyge: And, keep in mind, these young people are typically not even old enough to drink, or rent a car, or even vote sometimes.
Dom: Even so, they're made to face these enormous questions: what school, and what life path.
Nyge: And also, when are they even supposed to make this choice? Between Home Ec and Gym?
Dom: If they're lucky! Like some people have to make this choice between doing a shift at the mall and taking care of their little sister, let alone after a long day of Home Ec and Gym.
Nyge: Sheesh. Yeah, that's real.
Dom: And, one of the biggest obstacles between applicants and acceptance is the dreaded essay.
Nyge: You made that sound very scary.
Dom:(laughter) For a lot of people it is! I mean, on the surface, you've got a small amount of words to convince someone that you're worthy of them giving you a lot of money to go to their school – or taking a lot of your money to let them go to your school. And, beneath the surface, young people are being asked to divulge their worst memories to prove their uniqueness and their resilience. I mean, honestly, I was shaking in my boots when it was just an essay without the additional risks and high stakes.
Nyge: Low key same. And, that sounds unfair and unhealthy.
Dom: I think so too. And, we're not the only ones out there. Emi Nietfeld recently released her memoir “Acceptance.” In the book, she details her experience portraying herself as the perfect trauma survivor in her college application essay, all in an effort to get into a top school, attain housing security, and access her dream future.
Nyge: Let's jump into that conversation.
Emi Nietfeld: When I was a teenager, both of my parents had pretty severe mental health issues, and so I was taken to the doctor. I had some mental health issues myself. I was medicated and eventually went to live in a facility for troubled teens. And, this is when I really became obsessed with the idea of college being a way out. And, so for the next four years, I was absolutely obsessed with standardized tests, with reading about different schools, and with the idea that I could get out of foster care and then get out of housing instability by getting into one of these top like, elite schools. And, eventually I did.
But, I learned that it was not everything that I expected it to be and that the trauma of my teenage years did not automatically go away when I got the acceptance letter. And, so I decided to write “Acceptance” in part because that experience of putting all of my hopes into this one dream and having it come true, was, was both hopeful and grueling. And, there were so many things that I wish I had known, and I wish I had read a book about people going through some of the same stuff that I was going through.
Dom: And, I have to say, even if those listening are not going through the application process, they’ve already been through it, it's not for them. Read the book. (laughter) Like it's so touching and so personal. And, I have to say, for me in particular, a lot of what you went through, I went through as well. I never experienced, you know, the foster care system. But, you do discuss the specific mental health issues that your mother went through. And that's something that my mother struggled with as well. And, seeing it in black and white on the page, like, that was the exact trauma that I mined in my Common App. So, it was — it was a hard read, but such an important one. And, I think everyone's been through a time in their life where they have had to take something really difficult and really personal and put it on a platter for someone to just sort of like parcel through. I'm so curious about what made you decide to go back to this very difficult time in your life and start to ask those questions about the ethics of asking young people to do this?
Emi Nietfeld: When I was 17, right after I submitted my applications, I actually started writing what became “Acceptance” — this book – because it was so grueling, as you mentioned, to try to package experiences that weren't even over. Like, when I was a senior in high school, I was attending a boarding school, luckily, but I was homeless during the break. And, I remember I was sleeping in my car and trying to write an essay about how I had overcome, like, so many things in my life. And, it just felt like — hypocrisy isn't the right word, but it felt so inauthentic. And, yet I knew that I had to be this, like, cheerful overcomer in order to even have a chance. And, I knew that, you know, it wasn't just me.
It's not even people who are trying to go to an Ivy League school, almost anybody in this country who needs help, like, we have to prove that we're worthy and we have to make our stories palatable and make ourselves seem like we're worthy of compassion, when we shouldn't be held up to those impossible standards. You know, we should be able to have basic things without needing to prove worthiness. And, I just, it had such a big psychological impact on me, and as, and on my sense of identity as an adolescent that I just thought, you know, there must be so many other people grappling with this, but nobody's talking about it.
Dom: When you were writing the book, especially now knowing it was not even on the heels of this application process but really they were so intertwined, did you ever feel like you were digging up this trauma and putting it on a platter for someone for the book in the same way you did for your application process?
Emi Nietfeld: That's a really good question. I do think in some ways going through the college application process prepared me to write a book. I went through this, this painful process of learning like, okay, I have private experiences and there's also a public way that I present myself. And, I think that's a healthy boundary that almost everybody develops. I just wished that I hadn't had to, to have that when I was still, you know, still a teenager and going through like all those questions of, like, “who am I really?” that are so essential to just growing up?
But, I do think that there was a pretty big distinction for me between the applications and this book where, you know, I'd had a number of traumatic things happen in my life, like, you know, assaults. I had an eating disorder. I struggled with self-harm. And, in the applications, it was really important to just present myself as this, like, pristine survivor who was only made stronger by bad things and never hurt or harmed. And, you know, some memoirs are like that, but “Acceptance” is very much not like that.
Like, I really had an editor and a team that encouraged me to be really honest and to tell, really, the full story behind, kind of, those human interest pieces that you might see on a newspaper or that resumé of like, “Oh, here's Emi. She went to Harvard.” It's like, let's, let's take a look at what actually went on. And, I hope that that's empowering for other people, right? Who don't — especially people who don't feel like good enough or deserving enough. Like, I struggle with this all the time. Seeing people who, like, founded a charity, or like, are this kind of perfect victim. And, I'm like, “Why am I not like them?” And, it's really important for me to be able to take a step back and be like, “Oh, there were all these things that nobody knew about my life.” And, people probably saw me and they felt the same way. You know, I'm a white, blond woman, and people gave me the benefit of the doubt because of that. But, then I still see other people who, who fit a certain stereotype. And, and I assume that their lives must just be perfect.
Nyge: Yeah, me and, me and Dom were talking about this before we even, like, really dove into this episode. And, I was like, my college acceptance situation was a lot different. I didn't want to go to college at all. The last, like, second, before my senior year was over, I went to a Black college expo, and I went and I got, like, accepted to a bunch of schools that day, like on spot. And, so I didn't have to really go through the college application process at all. And, Dom was like, “That's very different from my experience.” (Dom: That’s unrelatable!) But, even in, like, my professional career, I've had to apply for different things, different things to, like, advance my career, or anything like that, and not getting accepted for those things.
When you fill out that application, when you tell them all about your life, when you say all of your different struggles that you've gone through, all of the things that you've had to work through. And, yeah, you have to basically pitch yourself as this perfect survivor of all of these situations. And, they still say, “No.” Like, that does a lot of harm, because it's so personal. You know, you're not supposed to take it personal, but it's, ”It's my whole life.” And, you just told me that my whole life - like, you know, while sad, while moving, while whatever - not good enough. Like, we're looking for something a little deeper. And, that feeling really, really is, like, soul crushing. In that same vein, what is the importance of setting personal boundaries when you're pitching yourself to, for your instance, a school?
Emi Nietfeld: That's such a great question, and I wish that I had thought about this and been guided to think about this a little bit more when I was in high school. As an adult, it's easier for me to look back and think about how there really are different ways to tell the same story. And, I had really been told a certain story about my past that will probably resonate with a lot of people who were emotionally abused, or not in great family situations - where it's like - I believed my problems were my fault, and that anything other than full disclosure was somehow lying.
I was so used to just having to confess everything that I had done wrong that I thought, “Oh, that's what I have to do in these, in these college applications. Otherwise, I'm a liar and a cheater.” And, I really wish that I had had adults in my life who kind of gave me the grace of saying, like, “Actually, you don't need to share everything. This is not a confession.”
I do think that there can be a big tendency to push people into like, “Hey, write your essay about the worst thing that's ever happened to you.” And, I feel like that tendency is just going to get worse. Like - especially if affirmative action is struck down - I think there's going to be so much pressure for students who faced racism and discrimination to just, like, have to write about that on their essay, if they want schools to take it into account at all. And, I think that's going to be really, really devastating, because we all deserve to present ourselves as, like, full human beings who have, like, interests and hobbies. And, you know, we're not just the bad things that happened to us. And, so when I hear about students like, you know, who may have been homeless or their parents struggled with substance use, like, deciding, like, “No, I'm going to write my essay about being a lifeguard.” I'm like, “Yeah, go for it.”
Dom: That is one - revolutionary, I think. And, two - sort of leads me into my next question, which you touched on a little bit as far as the applicant's responsibility. What do you think the college actually needs to know?
Emi Nietfeld: This is a great question that I’ve thought so much about, and I wrote a piece that was in The New York Times called “I Edited Mental Illness Out of My College Applications. I'm Not Alone.” And, I really talk about my experience of trying to decide, hey, should I disclose to colleges that I was hospitalized, that I had these diagnoses that I was still dealing with, you know, an eating disorder and substance use? And, basically what I learned is that students really should not feel pressured to disclose anything. And, what people end up needing to say often depends a lot more on what kind of school you go to or what kind of resources you have. A lot more so than like, oh, this student is objectively, you know, sicker than another student. A more concrete example of that is, you know, at private schools, if students go through a mental health crisis, the school will often help protect them and kind of make it, you know, just be like, “Oh, it was a medical thing,” you know, as if it were like tubercu — NOT tuberculosis! Like, a concussion? Mononucleosis. Mono! I think that's better than TB. But, like, but if you're in, in foster care or something, like, you might have a crisis and then end up in the hospital and forced to transfer schools. I wish that every student had the support of a college counselor who could really help figure out, “Okay, looking at your transcripts, looking at everything, like, here's the things that would be helpful for you to disclose, and here are the things that are less helpful to do so.” And, unfortunately, it's a really complicated topic, but I just want every student to feel empowered to be like, ”This is my private business, and I do not have to share any more detail than, than I would want to share, like, with a kind stranger.”
Nyge: I actually have a question for, for both of you. Could there be repercussions to revealing too much about yourself in admission letters?
Emi Nietfeld: This is a great question, because I think as we're trying to remove stigma, especially on mental health, there's a big tendency to say, you know, whatever you want to share is great to share. And, I would never want to shame someone for sharing a lot. And, in my experience, I also was hurt by sharing more than I needed to. I applied early to Yale as my dream school, and my counselor encouraged me to just share, like, that I was hospitalized, and, kind of, all those details. And, I was rejected. And, we basically believed that it was because I had given that information and it was just TMI. And, so then I went and I cut everything out, and I got into Harvard and a bunch of other schools. So, in that case, I think, it really did. I think it really wasn't the best choice for me.
Dom: I think it's a lot of pressure to put on an individual, especially someone who is a minor, is a kid, to like, be the person who's, like, leading the charge of, like, changing stigma. Like doing away with, like, people's biases, because people do have bias. And, you can't, you can't plan for that except to plan that they will have them, because no matter how well-intentioned an admissions officer — I mean, first of all, we call them officers. Let's think about that for a sec. But, like, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how educated, no matter how liberal, what have you, they still exist in the same world that we exist in that is full of bias against people of color, disabled people, people who've been through foster care. Like, it's inescapable. But, yeah, I think it's a lot of pressure to put on an individual, whereas it can be a lot safer to withhold information that you just know, statistically, people can judge.
Emi Nietfeld: That's so smart. Like, when I was talking to college admissions officers, a lot of people were telling me they were like, “I just wouldn't disclose anything mental health related that I didn't have to” because, they were, like, “You know, I don't know who's going to be in the office. It's a huge range of people.” And, I think the younger generations are, are coming a long way. But, you literally have no idea who's going to be reading it.
Dom: Yeah, assume it's the oldest, most fuddiest-duddiest person you've ever come across in your life.
Emi Nietfeld: I didn't want to say that, but you can.
Dom: Oh, I'll do it.
Dom: So in a recent Teen Vogue article - which shoutouts to you for having an article in Teen Vogue, I think that's very cool - you wrote about QuestBridge. Which for those who don't know, is an organization geared toward high achieving, low income students. And, it's really focused on asking a wide variety of questions that give a really full picture of what a student has been through and is currently going through as they're applying to colleges. I was actually a part of QuestBridge, so when you dropped that, I was like, “Aye!” Can you talk a little bit about why you think programs like this are a better way to go about the application process?
Emi Nietfeld: Yeah. When I was applying, I went through the Common App and I felt like I had to explain all of the, like, unusual circumstances of my life in this one-page letter of extenuating circumstances. Which is a pretty ominous name. And, it was so clear that the questions that they were asking were really designed for a certain type of student from a certain type of family. You know, maybe your parents could be divorced, but assumes that you knew both parents and that, you know, the questions around stuff like immigration. They were very basic.
And, I recently had this experience as a mentor, where I mentor somebody who, I saw her QuestBridge application. And, I've known her for two years and I've read, like, so many personal essays and poems and stories that she's written. But, there were so many things about her life that I actually had no idea about until I read her QuestBridge application. And, it was totally different because it was designed to meet a different type of student where they are. And, so those questions around like, you know, “What is your immigration status like? Were there obstacles during COVID that, like, especially impacted your application?” It just went into a lot of detail and places that the Common App does not go. And, that as a college applicant, like, 17-year-old, I would not have thought that this matters. But, it actually gives so much context to see, like, oh, you know, this person spends 40-hours-a-week taking care of a sibling or, like, this person has had a job since they were 12 to help support their family. All that stuff makes such a big difference. And, I think by just getting that out of the way in the standard application, it, A - normalizes that students have this variety of different experiences at home. And, B - it gives more space in the essays to, to be who you actually are.
Dom: Yeah, I did both QuestBridge and the Common App. I did the Common App for one school. So, it's like a lot of trauma for, like, just NYU, right? So, I really got to experience both things.
Emi Nietfeld: I wish that I could go back and tell myself, like, “You are not your college application. This is not supposed to be even showing them who you really are. It's just one version of yourself and you'll have a million other versions throughout your life.” Yeah, I wish I hadn't taken that part so seriously. Like, it really is a game. Like at certain schools, right, it's a game. And, just given permission to myself. Like, I'm just, I'm just playing it. Like, I did not make these rules. This is not a good system, but it's the one that I'm, that I'm navigating.
Dom: This has been beautiful and wonderful. Thank you so much. Is there anything that you want to plug or anything else that you want to add?
Emi Nietfeld: Can I add one thing that's been on my mind a lot lately? So, I think about this every year as April draws near and people are going to get their acceptances and rejections. I had all of my hopes tied up in getting into Harvard, or Penn, or Yale, or another Ivy League school that was going to give me a full scholarship. And, so I was really, really shocked when I got in. And, then I became extremely depressed. There's all this research that shows that post achievement depression is a real thing.
Like, when we have a goal, it gives us all these chemicals and then - even if we achieved the goal,like get the outcome that we want - that dopamine stops, and it's like a chemical-physical thing that happens. And, it's also just, like, an emotional thing that I was not prepared for. And, I hope that we can spread awareness that, that it's pretty common for that to happen to people. But, it doesn't mean that you know, you did anything wrong, or that there's anything wrong with you, or that you're not going to love, like, the way that things turn out. Because, also you're supposed to be grateful. It's like, you know, you got into Harvard, your life is going to change. And, I was grateful. But, also your life doesn't change right away. You don't even know what it's going to do for you. You don't know if it's going to be great or it's going to suck. Like, all that stuff, it just takes time. It takes a lot of time. And, that time feels like forever, when you've already been, like, waiting to hear back, like biting your fingernails for four months.
Dom: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Nyge: Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Emi Nietfeld: Yay! Thank you so much for having me.
Dom: You can keep up with Emi on EmiNietfeld.com. That's e-m-i-n-i-e-t-f-e-l-d dot com and you can find her book “Acceptance” at bookshop.org or wherever books are sold.
Dom: This episode brought up a lot of stuff for me. I experienced a lot of feelings of deep anxiety and perfectionism, and I remember thinking that I wish I had a book like Emmy's when I was applying to college. But this conversation gave me a reframing that I feel very lucky to have had at this particular moment in time, because it made me feel less alone. What about you?
Nyge: I personally didn't expect to really have as much of a connection to this episode, but I was proven so wrong. I constantly feel like I struggle with knowing how much of myself and my story is worth giving to people to seem worthy of something. It's difficult and something I didn't even know that I had to learn how to balance until recently. So I'm still like learning how to navigate. But this episode definitely proves that the work needs to be done.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French and by me, your boy, Nygel Turner.
Dom: Our engineer is James Riley.
Nyge: YR’s director of podcasting is Sam Choo.
Dom: YR’s senior director of podcasting and partnerships is Rebecca Martin. Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza, and David Lawrence. Music Direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Nyge: Art Direction by Brigido Bautista and Marjerrie Masicat. Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr.
Dom: Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX and Independent listeners support a collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm and if you have reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five Stars is much appreciated. Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @YRAdultish.