Personal essays, from pathetic to poetic

Admissions officers share their favorite hits and misses in the annual parade of college applications.

Ask a high school senior the toughest part of a college application and the answer comes in a snap: the personal essay.

Writing "the essay," it seems, is an exquisite form of pre-collegiate torture to many aspiring undergraduates. How, for instance, to conquer the University of Pennsylvania's assignment: "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217"?

Or, perhaps, the stumper is from the University of Virginia - to write a short essay on your favorite word. The trick, if there is one, seems to be to revel in the challenge, as did this applicant (one of 16,000 Virginia hopefuls this year) whose offering was a well-tooled essay on "ineffable": Ineffable is "overheard not at the market or any place of business but in the mouths of poets, masters of language," he wrote. "Ineffable are the wild feelings and giddy thoughts of the first man to see the Grand Canyon.... Ineffable is the holy buzzing in the air of Assisi. It is a word reserved for direfully spiritual occasions when so much must be said and expressed that nothing can be with words."

Unfortunately, such gems are not the norm this month as admissions officers nationwide kick shoes off, grab mugs of hot chocolate, and dig into mountains of college applications - and the essays inside each one.

Grades and test scores may be the best predictors of student success in college. But essays lend insight into character and can sometimes tip the balance for - or against - admittance, admissions officers say. And the essay is apparently growing in importance.

New affirmative-action tool

Essay questions, for instance, are no longer optional at Florida State University and the University of Florida since Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an end to affirmative action in admissions. These and other schools where affirmative action has been eliminated may now be looking to the essay to help identify students who have overcome economic or other hardships.

But admissions officers in California, where affirmative action was outlawed several years ago, say colleagues in other states better grab a box of Kleenex. New essay questions designed to elicit personal experiences may be producing a boom in "hard-luck" or "sob" stories.

Several years ago, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles started receiving "a lot of essays regarding personal tragedies," says associate director of admissions Dale Marini.

Though the influx has abated, he estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the 7,000 essays - many more than before - deal with an accident or death of a family member or friend. Unsure what is causing it, Mr. Marini does not make any connection with the state's overruling of affirmative action.

But on the other side of the country at State University of New York at Binghamton, admissions officer Karen McCarthy also noticed "a substantial number of 'weepies' this year." Some evoke sympathy. Yet reactions to weepies are not necessarily positive. "Sincere ones tend to focus on how the student learned more about him/herself," she says. "Others are more of the 'poor pitiful me' variety."

Alan Kines, admissions director at Northeastern University in Boston, says his staff has seen "a big increase" in sob stories over the past two years. He blames a talk-show-laden "confessional culture."

At their best, though, applicant essays can stir admissions officers lulled by the soporific influence of hundreds of competent but unimaginative "McEssays," says P. Parke Muth, assistant dean of admissions at University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

A McEssay neither helps nor hurts a student's chances of getting admitted, he says. But scattered amid the mass of McEssays and nuggets of gold are the sadly sappy - and the just plain awful. "Some are so terrible we almost cry," says Loyola Marymount's Marini. "It's just a sad indicator how badly the written word has fallen." He declines to offer examples, however.

Not so Gwynne Lynch, who shared excerpts from a few of the applications that made the leap into her file of about 100 of the best and worst she has seen over the past few years.

"The student essay is definitely my favorite part of the application," says Ms. Lynch, a regional admissions director at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "I save both the very good and the very bad. I have some truly terrible essays and others that just blew my socks off."

Some start out well, she says, but take an unexpected tumble. Others are bad immediately. She recalls an earnest essay by a young man applying to the university's Wharton School of Business. Unfortunately he spoke of his intense drive to attend "the Wharton School of Bunnies."

Another one was by a student she dubs "Thesaurus Boy." His one-page essay on a "defining moment" in his life - a post-football game rally in which the goal posts were being tossed into a river by fans - began: "A cacophonous crash and a leviathan splash rocked my constitution." The words superlative, amalgamated, reconnoitered, and burgeoning all found their way on board, too.

"In many ways I admire these essays," she says. "What a gutsy thing to describe to a stranger."

But she has less pity for those she classifies as "your school" essays - generic missives that never mention the university's hometown of Philadelphia, the school's name, or any specifics. Those are "disasters" that "can't be overcome" by good test scores and fine grades, she says.

There's also the "unwise risk" essay. One example: an answer to the "page 217" question offered only: "Chapter Seven: The High School Years." It was not a hit.

Avoiding schmaltz

Lynch's all-time favorite essay was written by a woman on the question of which person, factual or fictional, the student would want to speak to over dinner.

Stumped, the young woman wrote of how she asked her family for suggestions. Her father recommended a Chinese poet. Her mother, Mark Twain. Her brother, a character from a novel. Then came debate over the dinner table. In the end, the writer chose her own family. Schmaltzy? Not this one, Lynch says. "It was wonderful. I could taste the bean soup. I could tell she came from a dynamite, fun, interesting family. And she could write all about it without being sappy."

Others, however, are too sticky with sentimentalism. Harold Wingood, dean of admissions at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., recalls one essay, ostensibly a parable about social mores, that was "so bad it was almost good." It begins: "Once upon a time there was on the Earth a village called Swabeedoo where there lived only little people. They were a very happy little people who always went about with smiles on their faces.... Oh, yes ... they were very happy indeed."

But Dean Wingood is upbeat about most essays his school sees. Even if not outstanding, many exude sincere, noble aspirations. "I am reminded how fundamentally good most kids are," he says. "We have a tendency to think of young people as troubled. But there are a lot of really good kids out there. You read what students are saying about themselves and it gives you a great deal of hope."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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