Why limit yourself to an essay?

College applications include some unusual extras as students try to stand out

Can making 500 origami cranes really help a student get into a selective college? That's what one applicant to Wellesley College in Massachusetts sent in - along with the more standard fare of test scores, GPA, and essays. The intricate objects, she indicated, were all she could manage of the 1,000 cranes legend says would grant her wish to attend Wellesley.

It's become almost a truism that near-perfect academic records and stellar SAT scores are no longer enough to gain a spot in the most competitive colleges. So as college-application season kicks into overdrive, high-schoolers across the country are pondering their strategies to stand out from the crowd. And increasingly, applications look more like designer portfolios than staid files of scores, essays, and recommendations.

Admissions officers offer up stories of receiving hand-tied fishing flies, pottery, and baked goods as add-ons to an application. CDs and poetry are also popular.

Aside from the obvious storage challenges they impose, such extras are often welcome, these officers say. One-of-a-kind submissions can help admissions committees differentiate among thousands of excellent academic records.

The woman who sent the origami cranes did get her wish - but officers caution against getting carried away. As with the rest of the application, substance is most likely to win out in the end. Students might want to resist the temptation, say, to send along a life jacket as a plea to get off the waiting list, as one student did. (He got in, but not because of the gimmick, an official stressed.)

But these add-ons sometimes carry real weight. Elizabeth Hennigan, now a college freshman, worried last year that her application alone wouldn't convey her talents - and that colleges might discount the caliber of academics at her less-traditional high school. So she sent in a video of a play she had written and produced, a copy of a book she had written, illustrated, printed, and bound herself, and several additional pieces of writing.

Those extras, she thinks, made the difference. "Wellesley was the only place I sent all those things," she says, "the only place I went above and beyond, and it's the only place I got into."

Steve Thomas, a director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, acknowledges the pressure applicants feel - much of it generated by the schools. "When I talk to students," he says, "I tell them: You need to distinguish yourself."

A week ago, he interviewed a girl in Los Angeles who works as an auctioneer. In the middle of the interview, she stood up and gave her fast-talking spiel. "She'll be remembered," Mr. Thomas says, though he adds that it does not guarantee an acceptance.

Again and again, admissions officers emphasize that any extras should be outstanding. "Every year we see more music tapes," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for Harvard College. "It can be helpful if it's ... national quality. If it's not excellent, it may raise questions about the candidate's judgment."

Different submissions get different treatments. Like many institutions, Harvard sends artistic and academic supplements to the respective departments for review. Other creations prove harder to categorize. "One year we got a lot of pies," Ms. Lewis remembers. "I don't think the case was being made in every case that 'I'm a great piemaker' - the chief thing was to get our attention."

Did it work? Lewis mentions a young baker on the wait list who sent numerous delicacies. "I don't think, after the third yeast bread, that he was helping himself," Lewis says. He was ultimately rejected.

And admissions officers often say it's still the written work that helps them best judge an applicant. "An essay can help as very few other things can help," Lewis says. "A good essay helps you understand every other thing in the folder."

Janet Lavin Rabelye, dean of admissions at Wellesley, notes that the more-packaged applications, often produced through collaboration among high-schoolers, parents, and pricey consultants, are sometimes off-putting. "It can be too glossy. What we're looking for is substance," she says.

Evidence that a student made the most of the opportunities available counts for a lot. "We try to adust our selection criteria accordingly," says Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. "We give the benefit of the doubt to people who come from less-advantaged areas."

When advising seniors stressed by the media hype of college rejections and convinced that this decision will make or break their careers, admissions officers say to relax - and remember that the process should ideally be about self-discovery and authenticity. "If [students] can somehow understand themselves through the process, it becomes an easier assignment," Thomas says. "They rarely pick a school that's bad for them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.