THE BLOG
10/16/2014 05:08 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

Where did you spend the last 20 minutes? Were you aware of what you were doing? Or did the time pass by generic and unremarked? If you know, can you explain yourself? Were you there by choice? Obligation? Coercion? Circumstance?

I know where I was. I went running. I ran from my apartment, along the edge of my local golf course, and back. I left before dawn, under a mattress of clouds. I'm jet-lagged. My legs were brittle from air travel.

I passed deliverymen and a few other joggers. No one who'd recognize me. I listened to a podcast of This American Life.

Entitled "The Alibi", the episode narrates the re-investigation of a murder that took place in Baltimore in 1999. High schooler Adnan Syed, then 17, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The prosecution advanced astonishingly thin arguments. But the boy had a terrible lawyer (suspected of malpractice) and no alibi. At trial, only six weeks after his girlfriend died, Adnan said he couldn't remember where he was when the murder supposedly took place. It was, he said, "a completely normal day."

He's been in prison ever since.

A Simple Exercise

In her introduction, the reporter, Sarah Koenig, poses a provocative question. Of a few present-day high schoolers, she asks: What were you doing Friday evening six weeks ago?

Is there a simpler question than one that probes the very days and minutes lived within oneself, viewed through the camera of the eye and etched on to the hard drive of the mind? Don't be so sure. It turns out that the recollection of 20 random minutes can be scarcely easier than finding a needle in a haystack. One kid had no clue. Another had a faint notion.

Try it yourself: What did you do Friday night, six weeks ago?

Consult only yourself. Don't look at emails, text messages, browsing history, or calendars. Don't ask friends. Count back the weeks. Envision where you were. Try to remember if the night was distinctive. If it wasn't, imagine what you'd usually have done. Consider whether you might have done anything different.

Take your time. Go as deep as you can.

Some people might have gone to the movies. Others might have written operas. You might have been knitting, baking, or making out. Maybe you fell ill or argued politics. Maybe you danced on tabletops, took too many shots, went streaking in the park. Maybe you listened to Katy Perry on repeat.

Still others might have been home, reading a book, staring at the wall, looking at cat videos or porn, or texting friends. The possibilities are endless. Naturally, some memories will be more vivid than others.

The Art of Self-Interrogation

A college application carries not the slightest fraction of the gravity of a life sentence. Even so, whenever I speak to students about college essays, I implore them to interrogate themselves, not as suspects but as witnesses. Witnesses to their own lives.

Interrogation differs from reflection. Reflection has a dreamy quality to it, where memories drift in as if harnessed to clouds. Reflection relies on chance. Interrogation is forceful. It's deliberate. It exposes every fact, feeling, and idea that it can. It relies on the principle that even a shard of one's past can be life-changing.

What you were doing is one thing. Why you were doing it is another. The best question an interrogator can ask -- even if the interrogator is you -- is why? Why did you go to that movie? Why were you hanging out with that person? Why were you cooking that recipe or reading that book? Why were you in that lab, decoding the human genome?

I'm not asking students to justify their lives. I'm asking them to explain them. High schoolers shouldn't assume that their pursuits are instinctual or programmed. Even at 17, lives can be calculated and purposeful, grounded in reasons that teenagers can articulate, and relevant to the world around them.

Maybe you volunteered at the homeless shelter. Why? You abhor socioeconomic inequality. Maybe you read Critique of Pure Reason. Why? You're deciding whether to ally with continental philosophy or analytic philosophy. Maybe you were playing Call of Duty. Why? You dream of obliterating ISIS. Maybe you volunteered for detention. Why? Maybe you didn't have anything better to do.

We pass time in many ways for many reasons: fun, curiosity, peer pressure, pop trends, religious devotion, cultural tradition, financial necessity, political allegiance, and personal obligation, to name a few. Good readers assume nothing. They want to know the reasons that matter to you.

Pleading Your Case

Application essays are the sworn statements that follow the interrogations. They offer teenagers invaluable opportunities to take stock of their lives, collect their thoughts, and assign words to their habits, talents, convictions, and passions. Students can be their own character witnesses, analyze their own motives, and proclaim their greater goals.

In many cases, the writing process itself will help students recall those moments that capture a signature accomplishment or personality trait that had seemed ineffable. Sometimes, essays might even elicit tough realizations: maybe you hate the oboe but love EDM; maybe you want to study anthropology and not business; maybe you're proud of supporting the depressed friend but ambivalent about the A grade.

I'm a teacher, not a detective. I don't know where every interrogation is supposed to lead. I do know, though, that good, forceful lines of questioning will reveal fascinating stories, details, and insights -- and new questions waiting to be explored. These are the things that rightfully make readers believe that an applicant will be an earnest student, obliging roommate, and welcome dinner-table companion.

Great essays can be based on 20-minute encounters or on a lifetimes of personal development. Each student must find memories that matter. Amid tragedy, memories (or the absence thereof) can lead to the prison-house door. In many other instances -- especially in the next few months -- they can blaze far happier paths: libraries, lecture halls, labs and the singular liberation that comes only from education.