College Confidential Chicago Essays

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1:18 p.m. | Updated See below for several comments that take issue with the position argued here, including from Sally Rubenstone of College Confidential and Stacey Cunitz of the Crefeld School in Philadelphia.

In a post this month — under the headline “Does ‘President,  Lady Gaga Fan Club’ Belong on a College Application?” — my colleague Rebecca R. Ruiz asked the question, “Are there certain hobbies, passions or accomplishments you’ve excluded from your college application, feeling they’re not worthy or relevant?” Picking up on a thread from the Web site College Confidential, the post explored the notion of “hidden extracurriculars” — one person cycled 1,000 miles, another read every Agatha Christie novel — and how to alert a college admissions office to such activities, if at all.

On Friday night, The Choice received a provocative response from Jon Reider. He is a former admissions officer at Stanford, longtime counselor at a private high school in San Francisco and a co-author of “Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College.” His counsel, boiled down to one word, is “restraint.”

“I can understand the desire to have a little fun with the application, and some colleges actually invite some playfulness on their application supplements, such as Tufts and the University of Chicago,” wrote Mr. Reider, an advisor for an online college counseling service, iAdmissions.com. “But they do it in a serious context, and they are mainly interested in how the student’s mind works when they let themselves use their imagination rather than in their being odd or quirky for its sake.”

At this point, I’m going to get out of my own way and let Mr. Reider have the floor. After you’ve read what he’s written, you can use the comment box below to keep this conversation going. Here is the remainder of Mr. Reider’s advice:

Yes, it is a challenge to try to stand out among the thousands of applicants with similar grades, scores and activities, and the random admission officer may crack a smile at the Lady Gaga fan club, or the Agatha Christie fascination. We all have our private odd interests, after all.

But then cool reason will intercede. The admission officer will look forward to the next morning in committee and how he will make a case for the Lady Gaga kid when each of his colleagues has a stack of solid files in front of them too. Self-protection will come into play, and Lady Gaga will go into the ‘might have been if we only had more room’ pile. Close, but no cigar.

This is how it works.

But there is a larger problem in this conversation that most of the contributors have not mentioned: the idea of gaming the system.

Again, this is common and comes in many forms, some borderline honest, and some clearly outrageous. This is the sad side of the college admissions scene today: the frenzy, the hunt for your own private hook, the gimmick, the need ultimately to win some prize called College X.

What is the price to a student’s self-respect (not the same as their self-esteem, which will be rewarded by admission) if they play the game this way?

Sure, they may never notice what they have done, but they have trivialized themselves. What kind of an introduction to the adventure of higher education is this? I respect students who keep the process in perspective and don’t lower themselves to this level.

I don’t honestly think it helps them to get cute, and I think it hurts them in another, more subtle way. It’s like fighting an election by defaming your opponent. It might work, but is it worth it? And is it good for the general welfare?

What do you think? Please let us know below.

To read an archive of advice in our occasional “Tip Sheet” posts, click here.

Any experience or job in your life can make a great essay! This student wrote about interacting with various characters at her job at a drive-thru window and how that helped form portals to other peoples’ worlds outside of her own.

The drive-thru monitor on the wall quietly clicks whenever a person pulls up to the menu screen. It’s so subtle I didn’t notice it my first two months working at Freddy’s, the retro fast-food restaurant looming over Fairfax’s clogged stretch of Route 50. But, after months of giving out greasy burgers, I have become attuned to it. Now, from the cacophony of kitchen clangs I can easily pick out that click which transports me from my world of fry oil into the lives of those waiting in the drive-thru.

*Click*
A languid male voice drifts into my ear. He orders tenders, with a side of cheese sauce. “How much cheese sauce is in a cup?” he frets, concerned over the associated 80 cent charge. The answer is two ounces, and he is right to worry. It’s a rip-off.
After I answer him, my headset goes quiet for a second. Finally, his voice crackles through.
“Do you sell cheese sauce by the gallon?”
*Click*
A man orders two steakburgers and two pints of custard.
Minutes later, he reaches my window. I lean out to take his credit card, only to meet the warm tongue of a wizened dog.
The man apologizes: “She just loves your restaurant.”
I look at the dog, her nose stretching out of the car and resting on the window ledge, then look at the order he had given me.
Once I hand him his food, the dog sniffs one of the pints.
“No!” he reprimands. “Only after you eat your dinner.”
He sets a burger between her paws, then speeds away.
*Click*
I can’t understand the order, but I know that whoever is speaking is from New Jersey. Tommy, pronounced “Tahmee”, apparently has high blood pressure. He orders fries.
“No!” the woman screeches. “No salt!”
They pull up to the window. The man, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, thrusts a crumpled wad of cash in my hand.
The women pushes him back. “Sorry!” she apologizes, “But we’re lost! Never been to Virginia before - we’re trying to find Lynchburg!”
It is 10:45 PM, and Lynchburg is three hours away. We give them an extra side of fries (no salt of course) and directions to a nearby hotel.

For these brief moments, I am part of their lives: in their cars, they are at home. They are surrounded by their trash and listening to their music, dancing with their friends and crying alone, oblivious to the stranger taking their order. On the surface, these people are wildly different; they range from babies clad in Dolphin’s jerseys (“Her first pre-game party!”) to grandmothers out for ladies’ night; college students looking for a cheese sauce fix to parents on a dieting kick (“Chicken sandwich on a lettuce wrap”). But, despite every contrasting characteristic, they all ended up in the same place: my drive-thru, my portal to their worlds.

*Click* It’s a family, squished into a little car. When I hand them their bags, they happily open them and devour the food. The mother asks me for extra napkins, forks, and knives.
“We just moved,” she explains. “And everything is still in boxes.”
I moved a lot as a child, so I know what they’re going through. I give them an entire pack of utensils.
As the car leaves, the kids in the backseat press their faces against the car window and wave. I wave back as the car slowly makes it way toward 50. New to the area, they have yet to adopt the hurried rush that comes with the proximity to DC.

Customers like these help me realize I am not just a passive traveller in this drive-thru - I do not just watch and observe. I laugh and I help and I talk with them, if only for a few moments. They tell me about their lives, and I mention stories from mine. Over my hundreds of hours behind the drive-thru window, thousands of different people have come through, sharing snippets of their diverse lives. All they have in common when they come in is the desire for greasy fast food. However, by the time they leave, they share something else: a nugget of my life.

The drive-thru portal takes me to disparate places; to Lynchburg, to the grocery store to buy cheese sauce, to a new home filled with opportunity and cardboard boxes. It transports me back to my room, where I hug my dog and feed her chicken and treats. It is a portal to the world, hidden in the corner of a fast-food kitchen.

With each click, that door opens. (764)

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