Can Your Essay About #YOLO Win You a Spot At This Prestigious University?


"What does #YOLO mean to you?" asks Tufts University on the mandatory writing supplement of the class of 2018 application. 

You may be wondering how this abbreviation for "you only live once," popularized by Drake's hit song "The Motto," has become the criteria for admitting students to one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

The college application essay question is certainly one of the greatest causes of angst and unease among high school seniors. Let your response show who you are, use it to your advantage to reveal what makes you unique beyond your GPA and resume, these applicants are told. So when these stressed applicants turn toward their Tufts supplements, you can be certain that the question will be met with a mixture of excitement and confusion. 

Some surely looked at this year's Tufts application as yet another example of the admissions office throwing a curve ball, asking for quirky, unconventional responses. According to the New York Times, in 2010 the university previously asked applicants to submit unique YouTube videos to be considered for admission. Another year, the supplement offered the prompt "'create something' out of a sheet of paper."

Are these applications creating a circus, as Tuft's Jumbo the Elephant mascot might suggest, or are the admissions officers onto something here?

There are lots of exceptionally bright high school seniors competing for a spot at a reknowned university like Tufts. The applications that Tufts has become known for, like creating a YouTube video, ask prospective students to show them something more than pure smarts — it is giving them free reign to do something creative, dynamic and out of the ordinary and it is offering them the tools to do so, beyond a standard essay question. Plus, Tufts is hardly the only college asking students to think outside of the box on their applications.

This year's question — to consider what #YOLO means — has been ridiculed. An article from Gawker said "this year, Tufts stopped having fun, and started getting serious ... ABOUT HAVING FUN."

The Boston Globe attempted to elucidate the hype behind the acronym: It is a phrase unique to the millennial generation, a revamped carpe diem. In many ways, it is a mantra that "defines youth" because "what is teenagehood if not the adventurous, often foolhardy, desire to test the limits of acceptable behavior?"

Many millennials use the phrase #YOLO as "a carefree tag to explain an impulsive choice." It has been used to justify skydiving, getting a new tattoo, experimenting with drugs, and everything in between. 


There is something more here. 

The #YOLO prompt, though at first glance trite and ludicrous, is actually quite creative and thought-provoking. For these applicants who are about to begin a new chapter in their lives, exiting the comforts of high school for a new era of independence and experimentation, the question captures the heart of what the plunge into college is all about. You do only live once, so what will you make of your one shot at living? 

The millennial generation is known for having a very particular conception of making the most out of life and for valuing satisfaction over stability. While our parents were more likely to accept the first job offer they received out of college, millennials tend to reject that first offer in pursuit of something that will bring them feelings of happiness and self-worth. It is an attitude criticized by many who have labeled the Y generation as self-entitled and insatiable. But to others, the millennials relentless quest for happiness is admirable. It is the acknowledgment that life is too short to settle. 

 The question is asking students to consider what they value, how they conceive of their own roles and what they want to achieve, not only in their four undergraduate years, but in their lives beyond graduation.  Furthermore, Tufts is asking applicants to use the language and ideas of their generation — a mentality captured by the phrase #YOLO — to shed light on their own unique values, aspirations and characters. While people are shaped by their environments, each person is far more than a cookie-cutter mold. Tufts is not asking what #YOLO means in general or to the generation, but to each applicant as an individual. 

So, for all you Tufts applicants, it's time to break out the pencils and turn the thinking caps on. #YOLO just got a whole lot more complicated.