College hopefuls get creative to a fault

Admissions gimmicks rarely work

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Staff / January 15, 2008

A Smith College applicant glued words to a Scrabble board trumpeting her attributes. A Tufts University hopeful designed a neon-green flower made of duct tape. And a teenager desperate to get into Harvard sent in a homemade chocolate replica of the school's Veritas shield.

As the competition for spots increases, anxious-to-impress applicants try to see how far they can go beyond the required essay and forms. Admissions offices at Tufts, MIT, Harvard, and other colleges across the country wind up with a shelfful of items each year, ranging from the adorable and clever to the risqué and absurd - think naked photos of an applicant riding a bicycle.

With application deadlines for many colleges drawing to a close, admissions officers advise restraint.

Gimmicks rarely make a positive difference in admissions decisions, and applicants who step over the line of good taste can jeopardize their chances. Chocolate college seals, life-sized mannequins of applicants, and even taxidermy may become lore in admissions offices, but also may end up in the trash.

"The ultimate question is, 'Does this help the student get in?' " said Debra Shaver, Smith College director of admission. "And the answer is no. It certainly entertains the staff, but it doesn't help the student get in."

In past years, Smith rejected the applicant who submitted pictures of herself nude on a bicycle; the admissions committee thought the enclosure was poor judgment, Shaver said.

But this fall, the college gave early acceptance to Scrabble fan Elizabeth Hillis of Round Hill, Va. Shaver called the Scrabble board cute, but emphasized that Hillis was accepted because of her grades, essay, and other attributes. The Scrabble board has a temporary home in Shaver's office, because the admissions staff kept knocking it over, sending letters flying.

Hillis, 18, a senior at Loudon Valley High School, heads several school clubs, plays viola, and is in the top 10 percent of her class. She said she enclosed the Scrabble game to help Smith remember her application essay, "Scrabbled: Life from Words, Words from Life." Scrabble, she said, taught her to be competitive. Among the words she arranged to describe herself: Smart, funny, vivacious, outgoing, geek, and optimistic.

"I just wanted to do something to show the fact that I'm really creative," Hillis said. "It's not important in the application process, but I thought it was just something that would be really interesting to do, and they might get a little laugh out of it."

They laughed at Smith. But admissions directors cautioned that attempts at humor can fail.

Putting a photo of yourself on the Time magazine cover as man or woman of the year? Overdone, said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid. Same goes for photos of applicants as babies wearing Crimson garb. Harvard's admissions staff have seen those type of photos and faux magazine covers several times before. Fitzsimmons' advice: "Don't do it."

As a joke around the admissions office, though, Harvard did for a while hang on to a full-sized mannequin dressed to resemble the applicant in field-hockey gear. The university quickly tossed a student's taxidermy; it reeked.

Two years ago, Tufts set itself up for some attempts at teenage ingenuity. A new optional essay question allows applicants to use an 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper to create something that shows their ability to be imaginative. The result: a flood of origami fortune tellers, those folded-up paper games that many children learn in elementary school.

Even Tufts applicants who skipped the optional essay were drawn to paper art: One made origami earrings, and another a paper elephant in honor of Jumbo, the school mascot.

"This is the year of origami," Susan Ardizzoni, the school's director of undergraduate admissions, quipped as she pulled out examples of the ancient Japanese art of paper-folding from boxes and shelves in the admissions building. "We think there's some guidebook telling them this is a good thing to do."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology encourages innovation in essay form, asking students to write about an invention. One applicant, as a visual aid to the creation mentioned in her essay, made a pillow and explained how students could slip it over their arm and rest their heads to catch up on sleep, perhaps in class, said Stu Schmill, interim director of admissions.

Interesting? Yes. Effect on her eventual acceptance: None.

At Duke University, Christoph Guttentag, the director of undergraduate admissions with 25 years in the field, sees fewer offbeat items than in the past. Guttentag hypothesized that applicants may be taking fewer risks, even on essays, because they fear appearing too different as competition increases for college slots.

"I don't regret that we're receiving fewer things," said Guttentag, who in a recent years received a cookie decorated like a clock, a nod to his penchant for collecting timepieces. "I regret that sense that an applicant has to come across as a perfectly polished product at the age of 17, because they're not."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at

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