Why I Would Reject — and Even Laugh at — My Own College Admissions Application

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Given that I don't see myself covering the White House or infiltrating any sort of enemy lines abroad, the closest I'll probably ever come to the seat of real power was the series of trips I made last spring to Ithaca, N.Y. to sit in on the admissions deliberations at Cornell University.

After briefly congratulating myself for penetrating one of the nation's last bastions of secrecy, I descended into shock. It wasn't that I was bowled over by the committee room — really just a cluster of windowless rooms in a basement — but that I suddenly realized my own admission to college was a total fluke. In adhering to the conventional wisdom dished out by parents, teachers and so many guidebooks, I made almost every misstep in the book. I had bought into every one of the myths about applying to college.

My high school college counselor was a strict adherent to the more is better application philosophy. This meant I not only sent each school on my list a bonus letter of recommendation, additional essay and academic paper — those were givens — but my mother unearthed our family tree from the attic so I could find out the precise relation of a great-great cousin of some remove who'd graduated from the school at the top of my list. I promptly listed him in the alumni section of the application.

At the advice of a teacher at my school, I had slides taken of some of my photographs, which had won a prize or two locally, labeled them "award winning" and tucked them into my application. I'm lucky my intended schools did not do what Cornell and many others do now — send extras like artwork and music composition tapes out to department heads for a proper appraisal. I later learned I'd vastly overestimated my photographic talents. After I, amazingly enough, was admitted to the college of my choice, I signed up for an introductory photography class first semester. Several weeks in, the professor took me aside and confided: "You're in way over your head."

I wasn't content supplying my dear admissions readers with supplemental materials and visual aids. I also ran with all of the advice I'd heard about painting yourself as well-rounded and quirky as possible. Asked my intended major, I wrote a passionate paragraph about my desire to study classics. Incidentally, this was not a completely manufactured passion. I had taken several years of Latin and made it through the Aeneid. But the minute I got to campus, I realized this had been a passing interest and never even glanced at the course offerings in Green and Latin.

And on the section of the application reserved for extracurricular activities, I recorded everything I'd ever participated in and what it meant to me. I neglected to realize that this over- abundance would have the same effect as a transparently padded resume. I was no doubt seen not as a must-have Renaissance student but as someone who'd embraced every club and pursuit superficially, without really investing in any one of them.

Having now witnessed the savaging of similarly ill-conceived applications, I have little trouble imagining the reception when my larger-than-life packet arrived: a roomful of rolling eyes and snickers. I can only hope it provided some comic relief. And I can only think of one explanation for my acceptance: I got my readers laughing so hard that they became senseless.