Magazine

Perspective

The admissions dating game

It’s an age-old question: Will colleges love me or love me not?

Illustration by Christoph Hitz

Every day I make choices. Some are minor (what do I wear to school?), some are major (do I want to go to a private school?), and some seem minor but really aren’t (do I study for that test or go to the movies with my friends?). For me, the hardest part of making all these decisions is that there is no way of knowing whether I made the right or wrong ones. For most of my 17 years that has been OK, but judgment time has finally arrived: I’m waiting to hear back from colleges.

Over the past few months, I’ve developed a crush on six schools and sent off my applications. Now, as I write these words, faceless people in admissions offices are debating the various merits of my life. It’s been an uncomfortable experience, like being set up on an unending series of blind dates, except each one begins with someone poring over my high school transcript.

No group has more power over college-bound high school seniors than admissions officers. They’re the people who, with essentially a single word, can either validate our lives or force us to question everything about how we have lived them. So, just as in dating, the question for the student becomes: How do I get these people to like me? We can try to impress them with things like SAT scores and grades, of course, but those are heartless numbers and letters. What I need is to offer them a window into my soul so revealing that they understand why I got that B minus in Spanish and then choose to look past that. And I have exactly 500 words to make my case.

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If writing a college essay seems easy, consider that this is really (as we’re told countless times) our only opportunity to show our personalities. Yet, there are conflicting guidelines that go with it. You can’t brag, but you also can’t be too humble. You need to sell yourself without making it obvious that you are selling yourself. Space is limited, so you don’t want to go into too much detail, but you also can’t rely on cliches to get your story across. Above all, we’re told by teachers and guidance counselors, you have to be “unique.” Whatever that means.

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If you want to win buzzword bingo at a college meeting, just put “unique” on all 24 spots, and you’ll likely have won before it’s even time to ask questions. No word is more frustrating and less informative. Because, really, how different can you possibly be?

Lately, colleges have been trying to help applicants talk about themselves by asking questions that sound suspiciously like first-date small talk. Columbia University asked applicants to write about their favorite movies; Brandeis wants to know what kind of costume you’d wear for a year and why. The University of Chicago, in contrast, plays mind games with the edict “Don’t write about reverse psychology.”

The stakes are high. Harvard, like other top schools, can receive some 35,000 applications –  this year, mine was one of them. As I searched through years of activities to highlight in my essay, I imagined a bored admissions officer dismissing each of my prosaic pursuits. I play two sports? “Seen it.” I interned at Harvard? “So did my friend’s son.” I play two (or three, depending on your feelings about the ukulele) instruments? “Who doesn’t?” In the end, I wrote about how a concussion changed my life. I did my best, and all I can do is wait.

I know I may lose out to the girl from China who spent her summer feeding starving kids in Darfur, or maybe the 4.0 grade-point average 2,400 SAT music prodigy who’s been writing symphonies since he was 6. If that happens, I’ll feel terrible; yet, if I get in, someone else will feel that way. This is why even though I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, I know I could never be an admissions officer. They have to make tough choices – to say yes to some and no to everyone else. There is no admissions equivalent of friends with benefits.

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If I don’t get in, I’ll tell myself that admissions officers can’t really know who will succeed and who will burn out. (That’s why Harvard rejected John Kerry and Warren Buffett but accepted Ted Kaczynski.) Still, while I’ve never been quite sure what that girl in math class thought of me, it will be obvious come April what all these colleges think of me.