Tufts’ #YOLO application question misses the mark

Tufts University is using the phrase "YOLO" as the basis for one of its application essays. Above, Canadian rapper Drake, who popularized the phrase in his song "The Motto," performs at a music festival in September 2012.
(Charles Sykes / Invision / Associated Press)

“What does #YOLO (You Only Live Once) mean to you?” In 200 to 250 words. Go!

For my answer, I’ll defer to a definition from Urban Dictionary: “Carpe diem for stupid people.” And for its use in a sentence, I’ll again turn to that site:


Guy 1: “Hey i heard that you broke ur leg falling off the balcony at that party.”

Dumbass 1: “Ya but hey YOLO.”

When thousands of high school seniors fill out their applications to Tufts University in the fall, they’ll have to answer the YOLO question. The school, known for its unconventional application questions, has asked students to answer the following:

“The ancient Romans started it when they coined the phrase ‘carpe diem.’ Jonathan Larson proclaimed ‘No day but today!,’ and most recently, Drake explained ‘You Only Live Once’ (YOLO). Have you ever seized the day? Lived like there was no tomorrow? Or perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future. What does YOLO mean to you?”


It makes sense for a university to ask a question seemingly geared toward getting prospective students to ponder life. But using YOLO as the jumping-off point for such an endeavor seems to undermine the point.

YOLO, as it’s currently used in popular culture, hardly follows a line of tradition beginning with carpe diem. The poet Horace’s famous phrase is about seizing the day. YOLO is about justifying it.


According to Urban Dictionary (to give the terms equal treatment), carpe diem is used to encourage living life to its fullest, usually something that’s productive for yourself and society (see “Dead Poets’ Society”). YOLO is about rationalizing a poor decision, typically something that’s unproductive for yourself and/or society.

Tufts’ question speculates that “perhaps you plan to shout YOLO while jumping into something in the future.” I’ve only seen people shout YOLO while jumping off something (usually somewhere high) in the present.


YOLO is mostly used to channel apathy. “Why should I go to class? It’s always so boring.” #YOLO. “Why not drive drunk?” #YOLO. “Why not cheat on this test?” #YOLO.

Carpe diem, on the other hand, is used to channel activity. And despite flaws in Jonathan Larson’s hit musical “Rent,” “no day but today,” one of the show’s many mottos, is used to reinforce the HIV-positive characters’ attempts to live each day to its fullest.


In explaining the prompt, a university spokeswoman said that “the spirit of the question is actually quite serious as it asks students to consider a concept that people -- from Roman philosopher of antiquity Horace to contemporary Grammy Award-winning Canadian rapper Drake -- have been thinking about for thousands of years.”

A response like that leaves me asking: Has the university ever heard the lyrics to Drake’s song “The Motto”?


Grammy Award winning though he may be (and Canadian, so he has to be polite, eh?), I can’t even quote most of the lyrics in this post; they’re too inappropriate. And if that’s true, common sense suggests the song shouldn’t serve as inspiration for a college application essay.



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Twitter: @danielrothberg