It's a dark month for high school
seniors. College admissions deadlines lurk just after the holidays, and
the essay could be the one chance students have to show something more
memorable than test scores and band camp something to make them stand
out from the pile.
George Washington University gets about 20,000 applications a year; the
University of Maryland gets a few thousand more. Parke Muth, director of
international admission at the University of Virginia, estimates he has
read more than 60,000 essays over the years. "That's why I'm nearly
blind," he said.
Muth said he doesn't see many
laughably bad essays anymore. College admissions are more competitive
than ever. Most applicants get coached by parents, counselors and
teachers; many spend the fall semester planning and rewriting essays in
Yes, computer spell-checking still creates the odd correction gone awry
that can crack up admissions essay readers. But they say many essays are
grammatically perfect, structurally sound and painfully earnest. But not
usually anything that would grab a reader from the first line.
That's where Nate Patten and fellow University of Virginia students come
in. Each year, they sift through tons of essays from incoming freshmen
to put on sketches for the public to show the kaleidoscope of students
on campus. "Voices of the Class" gives a funny, illuminating and
occasionally sad picture of each fall's freshmen and some inspiration
for all the high school seniors trying to bang out essays.
Patten got a stack of admissions essays more than a foot high to read
for the play he was directing this fall. He'd pick one up, read the
first line and unless it grabbed him toss it aside immediately.
"It was really painful," said fellow cast member Scottie Caldwell. "I
would read an essay and think, 'This is terrible!' And
it was exactly
After all that reading, the cast members sounded like experts on what
works: The best essays read like vivid, entertaining dramas led by a
compelling main character. More script than résumé, and not a
complicated life story just a sketch.
Cast members reading through essays laughed about the repetition. Lots
of sob stories, lots of big, obscure words, lots of "Here I sit, musing
about how difficult it is to write my essay."
They wrote a scene for the play with a girl at a laptop moaning, "All of
my college applications are due tomorrow, and I haven't written my
essay. I haven't got a role model
I haven't been depressed
family is obscenely functional." Then she brightens up. "I've got it!
It's perfect: I'll write an essay about my essay. No one has ever
thought of this. It's self-conscious, yet communal."
One Virginia question asks applicants to look out their front window and
describe the view and what they would change. "That gives you a whole
lot of socially conscious, 'Damn the Man' kind of essays," said senior
Walt McGough. "One kid wrote about the state of youth in America it
read like a 50-year-old man wrote it."
They went back to read their own essays and shuddered. "Mine were much
worse," McGough said. "I wrote about running the light board for a high
school performance and how everything went wrong and what it meant for
me to triumph over adversity." He laughed. "If not that phrase, then
something really, really close."
Now his advice is succinct: Be true to yourself. Take some risks.
His first year at Virginia., he heard a story: The Harvard
admissions-essay question asked, "What is the bravest thing you've ever
done?" and one guy wrote well, a two-word phrase that is best
described, in a family newspaper, as both vulgar and hostile.
"I would let that guy in with honors," McGough said wistfully. "I would
love to think that happened; it gives me hope for the future."
For the record, the Harvard application has never asked that question.
Also for the record, more than one admissions officer specifically
mentioned being offended by overly graphic use of cuss words. Once,
Virginia got a response to "What is your favorite word and why?"
featuring the same four-letter word.
"He took a risk," Muth said. And, with the finality of a Virginia
education lost forever, "that risk was not successful."
The essay didn't fail because of the word, Muth said, but because it was
chosen just for shock value. The essay was lousy.
So the corollary advice: Take a chance, but a calculated one. It's good
to stand out, but not in a way that makes admissions-staff members
Someone once sent the University of Maryland a worn flip-flop along with
the application, said Shannon Gundy, associate director of undergraduate
admissions. She doesn't remember the essay, just the attachment, which
grossed her out.
"My least favorite," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George
Mason University, "is the one cut out into a puzzle. It says, 'Your
school is where I fit in.' Every couple years, someone sends that."
One of Muth's favorite essays was about driving really fast, listening
to Radiohead. "She wasn't afraid to say, 'This is who I am
. I'm not
trying to impress you with how much community service I'm doing. But I'm
smart.' " It was the writing that carried it, Muth said, poetic and
"Be true to yourself" is good advice, he said to a point. It's not the
best recommendation for ditzes, stoners, sullen teens. He took on a high
school senior voice and lilted, " 'Does he like, like you or just
like, like you like you?'
"You don't want to be true to that," he said. "You want to be false to
As Virginia cast members read essays, some caught and held them: One
about a 4-year-old brother with a brain tumor, making the family laugh
and cry when he darted from the hospital elevator saying, "I'm busting
out of here!"
One about waking up in the night to the strains of a religious song and
creeping downstairs to the basement, sleepy and confused, to find his
father high on cocaine, singing and beating his little brother to the
cadences of the hymn.
There was one that began: I have always had really big feet.
"Some of these essays are just amazing," Patten said. "Some are very,
very funny. Some are so sad, I could cry reading them." In the end, he
was disappointed that the admissions office took the names off the
essays used in the play. "I thought, this sounds like such a cool person
that I would love to get to know better."