To Thine Self Be True, but Not Overly So

U-Va. students perform
U-Va. students perform "Voices of the Class," based on admissions essays from current freshmen. (By Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

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 well over 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. There's too much at stake. 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 English class.

Yes, computer spell checking still creates the odd correction gone awry that can crack up admissions essay readers. But they say many essays now are grammatically perfect, structurally sound and painfully earnest. Eighteen years of stress and expectations packed onto one or two laser-printed pages -- but not usually anything that would grab a reader from the first line.

That's where Nate Patten and fellow U-Va. 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. To get through them, 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 like mine."

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 rsum, 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 . . . and my 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 U-Va. 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 of 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."


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