Monday, December 5, 2005 2:02 PM PST
The essay component of the college application is the student’s chance to flesh herself out—to shake the admissions officer’s shoulders and convince him she is more than a combined GPA and SAT score. Are certain topics a tip-off as to who will get a fat envelope?
Marjorie A. Schiff, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, crunched some numbers and found that last year, 347 of the approximately 7,000 online applicants wrote about cloning or stem-cell research and 657 applicants talked about Jesus, the Bible or God. Both groups snagged the average number of acceptances—about 35 percent. Schiff’s analysis showed that “even a hackneyed topic doesn’t really influence your chances” and assuaged her fear that UVA’s officers could be biased against yet another cloning manifesto.
One topic did predict a greater-than-average chance of success: 67 percent of kids who wrestled with Vladimir Nabokov’s work were accepted, while only 18 percent of those who wrote about J.D. Salinger got in. Schiff isn’t surprised—familiarity with Nabokov indicates a deeper engagement with literature, whereas The Catcher in the Rye graces nearly every high school’s mandatory-reading list.
Essays are cultural weather vanes: This year, 87 students who applied to UVA wrote about literary hotcake The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. “Several of the admissions staffers were mad because they were reading the book and didn’t want the plot spoiled,” Schiff says. Could that explain why only 24 percent of The Da Vinci Code enthusiasts were admitted, whereas George Orwell’s classic 1984, which appeared in 127 applications, had a 39 percent success rate?
Admissions officers agree that whatever the topic, everything rests in the execution. They look for a thoughtful, revelatory essay that enhances the rest of a student’s application. Some applicants reveal too much, however. “I’ve read accounts of lost virginity, kleptomania, bulimia,” says Lloyd Peterson, a former gatekeeper at Yale University who is now vice president at College Coach in Newton, Massachusetts. “But the topics that really illuminated an applicant’s personality were the ones that dealt with setbacks—a divorce or a death—and showed resilience or depth. ‘What I Did on My Summer Vacation’ didn’t help an application in most cases,” Peterson warns.
Laura Sellers, formerly of Duke University’s admissions office and associate director of college counseling at Cary Academy in North Carolina, says that nonnarrative formats generally make her cringe, but she fondly remembers a poem written in the pattern of an American flag. And a standout among Duke hopefuls was a student who created a board game representing his life.
Some application questions safeguard against reader fatigue. The University of Pennsylvania asks aspiring students to “submit page 217 of your 300-page autobiography,” and thus gets varied futuristic tales. While variety is the goal, Daniel Evans, UPenn’s regional director of admissions, says applicants who attempt to stretch the bounds of creativity can fail. “One began, ‘Please read this essay to the following Broadway tune.…’ We have a sense of humor, but you probably shouldn’t go that route on your college application.”