For those of you who are also obsessed with Hamilton, you know that it’s kind of like having a middle school crush, where you find a way to insert that person into every conversation whether it fits or not. I already do that with college admissions, so it wasn’t much of a challenge to find a way to knit these two things together.
I’ve basically been listening to nothing but the soundtrack for the last four months, and part of what makes it so special is how layered and ripe for deeper analysis it is. The show follows the life of Alexander Hamilton from his youth in Revolutionary War-era New York City to his death. The story is narrated by Aaron Burr, the man who would eventually kill Hamilton in a duel. Hamilton and Burr are held up side-by-side as they live shockingly parallel lives, making plain their fundamental differences.
Hamilton declares throughout the show, “I am not throwing away my shot!” when he’s named George Washington’s aide-de-camp at age 19, when he almost single-handedly writes The Federalist Papers, and when he lays the foundation for our country’s financial system as Secretary of the Treasury. At every point, Hamilton is driven by his fervent belief in America’s independence, in the strength of a central federal government, in the value of speaking your mind. Burr on the other hand is more cautious. He repeats his philosophy of “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Hamilton charges ahead, influenced only by what he feels is right and fair, while Burr sits back, surveys the field, and strategizes.
I make a similar distinction to students and parents about intellectual curiosity and love of learning in the college process. Some students take AP classes and join activities and read challenging books because they love it, because they want to know more, because they’re curious. Like Hamilton, they dive headfirst into the things that matter to them, and trust that colleges will see and value their genuine enthusiasm.
Other students approach high school more like Aaron Burr, as though it is a game that can be won rather than just the next academic and professional step. Aaron Burr was intelligent, accomplished, and ambitious, but his goal was winning, not making a meaningful impact. There is no special combination of classes, activities, and summer programs that equals admission to a highly selective college. Students who get accepted to these schools do so by demonstrating and articulating their curiosity in and out of the classroom.
Ultimately, Alexander Hamilton is the one gracing our $10 bill, and we remember him as one of the greatest political minds in history. The only thing most people know about Aaron Burr is that he shot Hamilton. Be a Hamilton, not a Burr.