Assaying the essay

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Students apply themselves to the art of standing out in the admissions process, writing as if their futures depended on it

C ollege admissions is an art, not a science. As application numbers go up and the applicant pool gets stronger, as grades and rigorous curriculum choices and standardized testing scores all are going through the roof, the "subjective" parts of the application become increasingly important. We look not only for students who are involved in their communities, but also for those who have made an impact. We look not only for well-rounded students, but also for well-lopsided applicants who have demonstrated real prowess, potential, and focus in a particular area.

This year, the admissions staff at Duke read 14,580 "personal statements." Although we use six criteria to evaluate applicants, it is surprising how similar many of our hopefuls look. They've all taken hard classes and done well. Standardized testing is all in pretty much the same ballpark. Teachers all say they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even extracurriculars look pretty similar: captain of three varsity sports, president of student government, accomplished musician, and so forth. So, the personal statement becomes a way of making the applicant a person, explaining to us in a few double-spaced pages who these students are and why we would want to invite them to join our community.

As in every profession, admissions has its own jargon, its own conventions. We tend to think in shorthand and in categories. There's a certain inevitability when you ask seventeen-year-olds to write on "a matter of importance" that you will get many similar topics and essays. We understand this commonality of experience and understand, too, how heartfelt and tentative these attempts are, especially given how much our applicants think is riding on their work. They're trying to impress us; they think they should tell us what they think we want to hear. They try to sound smart and sophisticated and profound. Sometimes they succeed. Mostly, they are truly and painfully and wonderfully honest.

In terms of subject matter, there are a number of common genres. The catalogue of achievements. The meaningful activity. The community-service essay. The horrible tragedy, the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or dog. The "me" essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves; these are often the best. Even though we lump these together, we try never to forget that for each applicant, the personal statement is personal--and about something intensely important. We resist cynicism even in the face of incredible similarity because we know how powerful these experiences are.

As far as we're concerned, any topic for the essay is fair game. It's not so much what they write about, but how they write. The writing doesn't have to be perfect, though some of these applicants are amazing writers. There are often spelling errors, typos, and, sometimes, the last line of their application essay to Duke does read, "and that's why I really want to go to Stanford." One applicant this

year said she wanted to go to a private school like Duke, not one of the "big state pubic institutions." We notice these things, but we're really in the business of content, of looking for substance over style (though we do, of course, appreciate good style).

Can a good essay get an average student into a school like Duke? No, not really. In fact, many of our admitted students write fairly average essays. It's just one of the criteria we use in our evaluations. But when we read a good essay, we share it with our colleagues. We tell our friends about it. We get excited about the prospect of having the person, who shared his or her life, insight, or humor with us, come to Duke. College is fundamentally about getting to know other people and oneself. While we all learned a lot in our college courses and from our professors, college students ultimately learn from other students, in the dorms, in the dining halls, during late-night study breaks in the library. What a good essay can do is let us get to know a person whom we think other students would enjoy getting to know.

There's no such as the perfect college admissions essay, no formula for writing one's way into college, no winning topic. These are just some of our favorites.

--Rachel Toor
Office of Undergraduate Admissions

0n a melting Italian afternoon in July, our rental car steamed into town, its inside temperature 108, the wide-open windows offering no relief, the tree-lined road a mirage of cool. Watching the scenery pass by, I was jolted out of my stupor: Was that the Leaning Tower of Pisa? I blinked and straightened up for another look. Oh, what a sight! The leaning tower, which had shared a corner of my childhood with Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, was real. It was also really leaning. At that moment, my commitment to perfection began to crumble.

The building, a bell tower for Pisa Cathedral, was begun in 1174, but the soft soil beneath it began to sink after the third story was added. Construction was halted for a period of head-scratching, after which the stone cutters picked up their tools and the masons went back to work. Why did they carry on? They couldn't have foreseen that their tower would be leaning, or even still standing, eight centuries later. Perhaps they valued their faulty tower simply because it was their work, and so they kept building, stone by stone.

Well, the ground has been shifting under my feet lately, and I'm leaning a bit, too. I've been thinking about my life--examining its beauty and its imperfections, pausing to evaluate my passions and my resources, and reflecting on the work I've done and the work ahead.

In my family, I've felt the pain of my parents' divorce and my mother's serious illness. I've also experienced the sweetness of unconditional love, the healing of forgiveness and compassion, the joy of a great conversation, the soul-rocking pleasure of music, and the power of humor. At school, I've had great teachers to encourage my curiosity, to inspire me to think, and to haul me up short if I'm tempted to take the safe rather than the risky path. In my community, I've been angered by the growing economic imbalances that can squash the dreams of children, and I've found reason for hope by tutoring some of those children--by seeing how easy it is to hold out my hand and help someone bridge the gap.

In my seventeen years, I've struggled with shyness and control-freak tendencies. What's a perfectionist to do? I jumped into mosh pits, joined speech teams, acted in plays and musicals, helped out other kids with their homework, learned to be a good listener, covered one of my bedroom walls with words, hung sparkly things from my ceiling, and let laundry and books pile up until I had to tunnel my way out. I'm more relaxed these days, although I still have trouble ordering pizza over the phone.

Ordering spaghetti in Piazza Navona--that one I can do. Two of the best gifts life has given me are my grandparents, who live in Scotland, and who have taken me traveling with my brother and sister. Let me tell you: Auntie Mame has nothing on Granny Jo and Franpa. We've waltzed in Salzburg, vogued with the Three Graces at the Louvre, and listened to the silence at Culloden and Bastogne. These travels, more than any history book, have taught me how wonderfully creative--and how insanely destructive--humans can be. The Earth has been my teacher, too: I've had lessons in gratitude and humility as I breathed the thin air atop the Zugspitze, splashed through a burn in a Scottish glen, or smelled the rain as it washed the sky above Amsterdam.

The next stop on my journey will be college, and this year of transition has its own beauties and imperfections. I'm taking six killer classes, wrestling with huge choices, and wondering how sad it will be to leave home. On the other hand, I'm finding my groove in calculus, enjoying my family and friends more than ever, and feeling the thrill of possibility. There's so much to learn, to feel, and to do; my work has barely begun. So I'll keep building, just as the people of Pisa did. If a few cracks appear, I'll try not to worry, because you never know what might add to the depth and beauty of a life. My tools are ready. Hand me the next stone.

--Erin Sager '02
Seattle, Washington

M y car and I are a lot alike. I drive a l986 Buick Century. My family won this car in the summer of 1986 at the St. Jude's Church raffle. I must be a privileged teenager because I have a car at my disposal whenever I want it. Nice try. True enough, my car would fall under a loose definition of transportation, but it is also true that no one else in my family is willing to drive it for fear that it won't make it out of the driveway. This l986 is purple and maroon, with a hint of gold (the rust). Every time I slam the trunk shut, the back end loses a small portion of its structure. The left radio speaker is broken. The roof leaks every time it rains. The power steering rarely works and I cannot unlock the driver's-side door. The Buick accelerates from zero to sixty in--well, to tell the truth, it never gets up to sixty. If it did, my estimation would be about ten minutes. The defrost system is broken. When I turn on the heat it smells like a dead animal. And the fuel gauge is dysfunctional.

You are probably wondering, "How did this pile of junk pass inspection?" Good question. I'm guessing that Divine Intervention had a role.

If you want to know who I am, take one look at the character of this beat-up, worn-down piece of junk. I'm not perfect; no one is. But like the Buick, I'm built to last. I don't worry about the small stuff. I appreciate everything I have and cherish all that I accomplish. Most importantly, I'm honest. Just like the Buick, I come in the package you see. I am proud of who I am and for what I stand. In a sense, the Buick and I reflect each other. My car may not be the best piece of machinery on the road, but it sure does get the job done. So do I.

--Timothy Van Voris '02
Erie, Pennsylvania

So, just exactly who am I? I am a hard worker who could also win medals for my amazing ability at procrastination. I favor compassion over righteousness, and am addicted to Instant Messenger. I love James Taylor and the Dave Matthews Band, especially when Dave sings, "You wear nothing but you wear it so well." I want the best education I can get and want to continue learning throughout life. I wish I could understand people better, know what makes them laugh, cry, love, and hate. I am Pete Sampras' biggest fan. I would rather be seen as faithful than Christian. I love deeply and honestly and I hate jealousy, although I have been jealous a time or two. I crave Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream like some heroin addicts crave their next hit. I wish I'd been eighteen in l969. I love to dream big, to talk, and to sleep. Most importantly, I want to go to college.

What situations have influenced me? First, I have never met my father. I don't know the color of his eyes, the smell of his cologne, or the reflections in his laughter. I once felt part of me was missing along with the missing knowledge of this man. However, I realize now that the person I am is complete and has been shaped by other people in my life who have treated me better than I could have ever deserved.

Also, I am poor. Although most people would rather die than not have money, being poor has taught me the value of a dollar. I know what it is like when the rent can not be paid or the electricity has been cut off. I also know what it is like to depend on the kindness of family, even to the point where one's pride is trampled upon and eventually pushed aside.

My life has been harder than many of my peers', but I have been given so many blessings. I value my intellect and personality. I value my faults. My only hope is for opportunity.

--Jennifer Koontz '04
Mooresville, North Carolina

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