I remembered the time when I was applying and how much suffering writing the essays caused me. I am an awful writer and it is probably one of the activities I hate the most. I also remembered how cynical we could get in our quests to stand out from the pool of applicants at top schools. Everyone was on the look out to volunteer somewhere unusual, you know, anorexic transgender whales, syphilitic albino penguins, agender legless llamas, etc. Hungry and underprivileged kids were so passé, everyone has done them.
Stanford had and still has probably the most annoying essay question: "What matters most to you, and why?" (Stanford Essay A). That usually takes a lot of drafts, and the first ones usually are cringemakingly bad. The real answer usually is "Fuck you and shut the fuck up with your stupid questions! I am a super-competitive, uber-ambitious, hell-bent on success asshole of a high achiever and I am getting into that school of yours because I need it to fuck the world in the ass!" But it is generally accepted that this should not end up in your essay as directly as I put it.
I also remembered how hilarious Sandy Kreisberg's (one of the top MBA admission consultants in the US) answers on MBA admission forums were. Here is his take on how to work the standard white boy stuff in the much dreaded Stanford Essay A (What matters most to you, and why?):
Applicant: In Stanford Essay A, should one be steering clear of work as a 'golden' rule? Do you see successful applicants where examples are drawn from one's professional life for the most part of the essay, in order to support their story? Is it a 'sin' to demonstrate a keen passion for one's profession, assuming one can tie everything together to one's life influences etc.?
What are some of the common 'mantras' that you find across successul applicants at Stanford? Is one written off if there are chinks in the armor (such as low post-college extras)?
Sandy: One should steer clear of work mattering to you for work reasons, or coming up with bogus stuff like "my desire for excellence matters to me", and then dumping in some excellent work stories. A lot of Stanford accpets have what I call a "work-ish" example, e.g. they are very interested in minority recruitment, start-ups, have a transforming experinece working in different culture [one of many], have applied key things from non-work setting at work, e.g. women's issues, etc. "Keen Passion" for M&A, IB, MC, etc. per se, usually not successful.
Great mantras for Stanford A is, as they seem to tell you at forums and on website, not selling yourself, but more like analyzing motives, revealing yourself, etc. etc. They really got a soft spot for e.g. how your parents, even tho wonderful, disappointed you; anything to do with gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.; standard fare like death in family, dread diseases, handicaps, etc. Assuming you are not so fortunate to be gay, in a wheelchair, victim of race-hating mob, etc. going really deep about standard white boy stuff is also effective: you know, the football monster who has a passion for ballet, How Being College President Cured My Stutter [well, maybe file that with diseases];
HMMMMMM, how about:
Yes, of course, I am near concert level pianist, but my real fear is being expressive with such composers as 1 2 3 [that one would be good, actually, deeply analyze your piano skills, and admit, while holding back tears, that you are more a technician like --- and ---, then a deeply expressive channeler of music like so and so (sorry, my musical background a little lame, but you get the idea)--then blame it all on dad. Always a Stanford winner.
Dad was a pianist himself, and drove me to become a technical genius, but I also inherited his coldness, his ivory passion for form over substance ['ivory passion' great phrase] and his depression. It matters to me that I won the 4th International 'Chopsticks' festival at the Moscow Piano Institute, yes it does, but it matters much, much, much more that I was able to play Yankee Doodle to an audience of deaf children who were the victims of land mines in Kokoville, and bring tears to their eyes, not because of my playing [THEY WERE DEAF FOR GOD'S SAKE] but because I was crying myself, crying for my father, for his stunted and cold career, crying for myself, and my mother, who battled to try to make me feel and failed, and crying as well for a world where deaf, legless children are brought to piano concerts, and I was bawling so hard, those adorable deaf children, who had been keeping time with their stumps and arificial limbs [did I mention the concert was a FUNRAISER for ARTIFICIAL LIMBS ARE US], well, those children could SEE me cry, and they started crying, and that mattered MOST MOST TO ME. I had finally broken through to an audience as a musician, not by playing but by crying. And that breakthrough, to find my sick, maudlin, children loving, tear jerking triple hanky self, well that really matters, I'm telling you this mano- a- mano Derrick, I'm crying HUGE BIG tears even as I write this, and I'm sure your Dad was no angel either, so you can relate, oppps, sorry, gotta stop now, my keyboard is hissing from all my tears, and etc. etc.
I think something like that would really work, and remember, if in doubt, BLAME DAD.