For a certain subset of high school seniors across the country, April 1 might as well be Christmas. It's the day when teens anxiously tear open envelopes containing their college admissions fates; the moment they look under the tree to find either presents or a lump of coal.
This year, those admissions decisions were more selective than ever. Elite universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford announced record-low acceptance rates, and even some public universities have rejected more applicants than in the past. The college admission process (to a certain type of school, at least) has never been more nail-bitingly stressful—the pressure to write the most unique essay, to cull the most impressive letters of recommendation, to submit the highest standardized testing scores, is enough to break a teenager's spirit. You can't submit a slipshod essay and expect to get into Harvard anymore. You have to stand out.
Of course, high school seniors don't always have the best judgment when it comes to standing out. The Boston Globe once wrote about a university admissions office that received a photo of one applicant riding a bicycle in the nude along with the standard application. We asked people who worked in college admissions offices—whether as admissions officers or student workers—about the strangest things they've seen. Their stories are collected below. We've kept all their names and universities anonymous, to protect their reputations.
"I used to counsel prospective applicants on the admissions process. I also sorted through applications for a small university. We used to see all sorts of weird, dumb things. One guy sent in his own sneaker along with a note that read, 'Hope this helps get my shoe in the door.' It didn't."
- Former admissions counselor for small, rural university
"During my undergraduate study, I worked in admissions at a small, private college in Connecticut. Most admissions essays were mind-numbingly bland and read like a shopping list. These usually spoke of their honor roll and how that 25 minutes they once spent volunteering in a soup kitchen changed their lives. However, a few times a week we got some really interesting topic choices. Inexplicably, about a dozen young female applicants wrote about losing their virginity. Some spoke about it vaguely, more closely tied to transition into womanhood; others were full of throbbing euphemism or way too many details. These essays almost exclusively went in the 'rejected' pile, as it is the absolute worst to have an interview with a young applicant when you have read her essay deeply detailing the shape of her labia and the face she makes when she orgasms for the first time."
- Student admissions worker in a small, private college in Connecticut
"Sometimes when students were denied, they'd submit an appeal for reconsideration. This is common for applicants who think an error may have been made, or who want to submit new information. Once, we had a student hand-deliver some of this new information to the main Office of Admissions at the University of Texas in Austin. He and his family drove from Houston on a school day and brought an entire binder full of all of the reasons the student loved the UT—his stuffed animals, family photos at football games, his burnt orange room, Longhorn birthday cakes, etc. It was, like, over 200 pages. You can imagine this made the rounds internally. His appeal for reconsideration was not successful."
- Former admissions officer for the University of Texas at Austin
"One kid sent in 15 letters of recommendation, one of which was from a Congressman. The kid's family was apparently rich and well-connected, and mistakenly believed that the letters alone would seal the deal. Sorry kiddo, that many letters will not cover up the fact that you had a 1.9 GPA and a DUI on your record."
- Former admissions officer for a small, private liberal arts school in the Southeast
"Inexplicably, about a dozen young female applicants wrote about losing their virginity."
"When I was a student volunteer in the admissions office, I gave tours, spoke to prospective students, sorted mail and received applications, did database entry, and so on. When students mailed extra stuff in—which was especially common if they were on the waitlist—it was my job to file it with the rest of their application packet. Once, someone sent in bunch of pressed flowers with the application. They were pressed and laminated in clear plastic. Somehow, they thought this would help them get off the waitlist. I guess it was their 'hobby,' not a death threat, but we could never be sure."
- Student volunteer in the admissions office at a small, private college in the Mid-Atlantic
"One time, a student mailed a cake to the office. That was cool. This was after they submitted a handwritten letter to me enclosed by an envelope made from a Google Map of their home address to Austin."
- Admissions officer for a large, public university in Texas
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.