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 resume, 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."
Now his advice is succinct: Be true to yourself. Take some risks.
His first year at U-Va., 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, U-Va. 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 U-Va. education lost forever, "that risk was not successful."
The essay didn't fail because of the word itself, 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 recoil.
Someone once sent the University of Maryland a worn flip-flop along with the application, said Shannon R. 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 beautiful.
"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 that."
As U-Va. cast members read through the essays, some caught and held them with glimpses of real life: 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."