Numbers can tell us a lot. They can unearth trends and pinpoint highs and lows and the messy middle. But how much can they reveal of a person?
The college admissions process is full of numbers, not the least of which are SAT scores and high school GPAs. But these days, says Jeannine Lalonde, associate dean of admission, GPA scores just don’t count for much in the final tally. (“Because you could have two students with identical GPAs with very different transcripts,” she says.)
No, today’s admissions decisions are a mix of science and art, of the objective and the subjective. As Lalonde explains, the vast majority of those who apply are all well qualified. “So what do you do,” she asks, “when 37,000 students are applying, and the majority of them are perfectly capable of coming here and doing a fine job in the classroom?
“That’s when you look at the subjective items to understand the big picture. ... This is where recommendations and essays and activities come into play. They really bring the data to life.”
Perhaps the most “life” is revealed in the students’ essays. Each applicant is required to write one essay for the common application and then choose from several other writing prompts to reveal a bit more about themselves.
“Most students don’t have a spectacular story” to write about, Lalonde says. “They’re not going to talk about traveling around the world or saving kids from the pool; they’re not climbing trees to save stranded kittens. They’re doing everyday things. What makes the essays interesting and compelling is that they’re telling something important to them and they’re explaining why it has made them who they are.”
Lalonde and her teammates are looking for that little something extra, to ensure that the class “is going to be interesting and eclectic and propel UVA forward in all different arenas.”
So consider the numbers that make up the incoming class (see “First Look at the First-Years”), but then enjoy meeting a few of its unique members who are telling you, in their admissions essays lightly edited here, what has made them who they are today.
Love Is Contagious
Sixteen Elshamis walk into an airport. This could be the start to a bad joke or a bad day.
In July 2010, 16 Elshamis did walk into an airport. They were all ready for their vacation to the Bahamas. Lathered in sunscreen and loaded with snacks for the flight, the 16 Elshamis pulled up to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Assorted aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins lagged behind, collecting items that fell out of their bags, their hands, and even their mouths. My Dad, leading the group as the self-proclaimed “family ambassador and tannest of the group,” approached the check-in-desk ready to get us on the flight to paradise.
“The last name is Elshami. E-L-S-H-A-M-I,” said my dad.
“Well, actually, Mr. Alshmi, there seems to be a problem. I’m ... I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“May I ask why?”
“Sir, stop resisting. Please. You have been flagged. Follow me or I will have to call security.”
What is going on? I thought. Why are they taking my dad? He hasn’t done anything wrong.
In this airport everything changed. I had never heard my last name in such a demeaning tone; it didn’t sound like mine anymore. My ten-year-old self suddenly realized that the world wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops, but that there was hate in every corner. I soon began to see this hate: the dirty looks as my family walked through the airport, the sheltering of children as a man with a turban walked by, the faces wiped clean of smiles as young girls in hijabs smiled at them. I saw hate in the world and, in turn, in myself.
I began to hate those who hated others; this feeling made me just as guilty. To combat hate with hate is to fight fire with fire. When someone gives a hateful look, to give it back simply fuels the bias. Hate must be fought with love, which I came to understand.
I learned that my father had fought his hate, his rage, his utter embarrassment, with love. He followed the young airline attendant peacefully. He answered the security man’s questions with a smile on his face. He used please and thank you as the airline staff released him and apologized thoroughly for their mistake.
A few years later, while my dad recounted this event, he saw my saddened eyes and told me that it was OK. He told me that not everyone loves the way I was taught to love, and that some people can’t see past the color of one’s skin or the origin of a last name. He told me that people may have preconceived notions about a person based on anything from their clothing to their accent and that the only way to change those notions is to prove them wrong: to be polite, understanding, and loving. And so I was.
To this day I still see hate in the world, but I now know how to deal with it. I hear racial jokes in the hallways and demeaning comments in the bathrooms, but instead of losing my temper I simply smile politely and ask that they not say that again. It is hard, but it tames the fire.
I wish everyone could be as happy as the 16 Elshamis flying to the Bahamas, with their abundance of snacks and sunscreen (enough to feed and lather a small army), but I now understand that they cannot. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t try and that our love can’t be contagious. I believe it can, simply because my father’s love was.
—Jena Elshami, Alexandria, Virginia
The Book Thief
When I was young, I relied on books to provide security; I couldn’t help but feel connected to the characters or be excited by challenging expositions. Although I borrowed twenty books a week from the library, I never wanted to part with the novels that made me feel less alone. My family didn’t have the means to buy those books, so I found ways to own them anyway.
By age eleven, I needed aliases to borrow books from the library. I became Violet Baudelaire, Meg Murphy and even Ponyboy Curtis. The staff started to ask for identification after the sixth pseudonym that I gave to them.
I also “borrowed” books from friends in grade school. The Historian, Sprechen Sie Wienerisch? and Between Shades of Gray initially belonged to Mercedes, David and Logan, respectively. If I hadn’t read each work at least three times, I would feel sorry for taking them.
In the event that I was forced to return my favorite books, I confess to purposely ripping pages to force my parents to buy a replacement copy for the owner and leave the tattered one to me. My copies of Choke, Fahrenheit 451 and The Frozen Hell all have their back covers taped to the spine.
My mischievous pursuit of a personal library reached its denouement when I found the library on Richmond Street. Everything about the building felt illegitimate: Soot and dirt streaked across the chipping, exterior paint; a sketchy sign near the bright red door shied away from committing to hours of operation. Though I was nervous, I could see hundreds of books through the tiny shop window, so I did my best impression of a courageous protagonist and let my curiosity lead me forward.
I edged through the vestibule carefully to avoid toppling the stacks of books that the double-lined shelves couldn’t hold. Hallways cradled leather-bound volumes that were born from the eighteenth-century library of my dreams. As surprised as I was to see so many exalted books in one place, I was shocked that I could afford to buy them.
I sometimes uncovered annotations and forgotten bookmarks tucked away inside the preowned pages; it made me feel connected to the previous owners that I never knew. I tried to convince everyone I loved to visit the bookstore with me. Since my friends often didn’t take me up on my offer, I gifted them copies of my most beloved books.
I never wanted to steal anything because I wanted the owner, Greg, to have money to amass more books. Greg and I have an understanding: The circulation of thought and knowledge is more valuable than money could ever be and, once through with a book, it’s best to pass the story along with love.
—Kiersten Bond, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I Choose the Pear
I was named Lily by my father, who chose the name because he grew up in rural Bulgaria, where nature is revered and the land is fruitful and abundant. Every year on the Bulgarian version of Palm Sunday, I receive a bouquet of flowers, as does every man, woman or child who bears the name of a flower.
When my father immigrated to the United States, in his early twenties, he took a job in the concrete jungle and spent many days in windowless rooms dreaming of the vast expanses of the land in his native country.
My father insisted that some other Bulgarian customs were followed as well. When I was a year old, and newly ambulant, my grandmother baked a special round loaf of bread, and friends and family gathered round to watch as it was rolled before me along a white runner at the end of which lay tempting things for me to choose. It was said that the object the child would choose would dictate which path he or she would take in life. My brother before me had chosen a set of keys; this meant that he would grow to own property. My younger brother chose a screwdriver; this meant that he would grow to fix things, to solve problems. I chose a pear.
“What does that mean?” I asked my mom.
“Probably means that you were hungry!” she laughed.
A decade later, my father purchased barren land in Bulgaria with plans to plant thousands of walnut trees. The land had to be cleaned and sources of spring water had to be found in order to irrigate the parched soil, and rows and rows of sapling twigs had to be planted.
There is more work than there are laborers, so in the summer, my brothers and I are summoned to help him work the land. I sit atop my Kubota, an intricate grass cutting machine, its orange hues contrasting sharply against the verdant landscape, and feel its power shift beneath me. My connection to the land is a bond primitive, ancestral. In its cultivation, I appreciate the soil’s power to absorb, to feed, to heal, its force undiminished.
I imagine the day when these saplings will tower over me, bearing rich and abundant fruit, with dense leaves that shade from the hot summer sun, a shade so cool that my grandmother warns me not to nap under it or I will awake chilled.
For Wordsworth, it was the vision of daffodils “dancing in the breeze” that gave him respite from pensiveness. For me it is the vision of a neighboring field of sunflowers, an army of radiant golden-haloed faces turning ever so slightly to worship the sun.
I choose the sunflowers, and naturally, the pear.
—Lily Djebiyan, Demarest, New Jersey
Lessons From the Dinner Table
I am four years old, and I am told that I cannot leave the table until the tiny trees are gone from my plate. They look funny, so I don’t want to eat them. It is a waste of energy to whine or to throw a tantrum. As I consider making a run for it, my dad leans over to add butter and salt to the broccoli in front of me. He tells me to try it now. I eat the leaves off of the tiny trees. Not bad.
I am nine years old, laughing too hard to swallow the milk in my mouth and knowing it can’t sit there forever. I run from the dining room to the kitchen and spit into the sink. I return to find them all still laughing around the table—my mom, dad, sister and brother. But we’re not always laughing.
Some nights I suffer from the awkward silences that fall between my brother and sister yelling at one another. I can’t possibly take a side. I don’t want either of them to hate me. Instead I wait until after we leave the table to hunt them down. It’s easier to talk to them one at a time. I do my best to make one understand the other as they unintentionally teach me about conflict. I’m learning what not to say and how not to say it, and I’m learning that there are at least two sides to every argument.
I am eleven years old, a middle schooler now, and I’m walking through the front door at dinner time. As expected, my family is sitting around the table. I look closer to see my mother in tears. My confusion grows as I notice my brother and sister laughing at her. Finally my mom explains, “I worked really hard on this dinner and they’re not eating it!” My brother adds, still laughing, “That’s because it’s so bad.” There is a pause, then Mom admits, “It is really bad. We’re eating it anyway!” This time she’s laughing with us.
I am now seventeen years old. Both of my siblings have gone off to college. Just my parents and I are sitting at the dinner table. It’s quieter now, and I think about how next year only my mom and dad will be sitting together. I have learned a great deal about life from this very seat. Sometimes, you have to take your vegetables with a grain of salt ... and butter. Sometimes, all it takes to resolve a problem is being there and willing to listen. And sometimes, we all have to do things that we don’t want to do, simply because it means a lot to someone we care about.
—Janie Edwards, Rock Hill, South Carolina
Numbering My Days
Numbers. I love numbers. I love the chase. When I was a toddler, I would find myself obsessively counting Thomas the Tank Engine trains: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But since then I have learned other ways to count. What if I were to count 1, ½, ¼ … all the way down to 0? Wait a second, this never gets to 0; it goes on forever, never ends, never stops, not even if I had started counting in Ancient Rome or the beginning of the Universe.
What does it mean to add? According to most, adding is merely combining two smaller groups into one, but what about infinite numbers? Could I still add? What does that even mean? What if I were to add 1+½+¼+... where each term is exactly half the number previous? What does it mean to add numbers that go on forever?
Last year, I approached my calculus teacher, Mr. Vlarde, after school with a question that had been bothering me. As I scribbled lines after lines of Greek symbols while my friend impatiently waited for me, Mr. Vlarde looked on with a face of both confusion and excitement. When I had finished, Mr. Vlarde grinned almost devilishly and stated, “I don’t know. Figure it out.” I realized I had no one to turn to but myself. My mission: I must answer this question.
I worked for a good six months on the one math problem. Over and over again, I had an idea pop into my head that I would furiously scribble down in a frenzy only to hit a logical dead end. After several frenetic months, I had it. What I wrote was new, unseen, unknown, and mine. Forever, I could affix my name to this little mathematical nothing that was more than a something to me. I was the one who came, saw, and conquered. This was my flag thrust into the moon’s surface.
—Seth Hoisington, Chesterfield, Virginia
Where Is the Real Me?
My alarm goes off at 6:00 am, and I roll over to press snooze one more time; I am exhausted. In three hours, seventy kids will be at my house for my tenth year running Sunshine Day Camp. Tonight I will have a major epiphany, but right now, I'm clueless about how my life is getting ready to change.
At 7:00 a.m., I head outside where I hang banners, organize craft supplies, and prepare for day three of camp. During the next hour, the counselors’ cars are parked down my street. By 9:00 a.m., we’re opening car doors for campers. Add 200 water balloons, 100 popsicles, and little giggles, and it’s camp time!
An hour after camp ends, I am at school decorating my three bulletin boards for “Curriculum Night.” This year I am head of the Yearbook, National Honor Society, and Senior Class. Then, I race to the gym with craft supplies spilling out of my arms and my varsity volleyball bag flung over my shoulder. I toss my supplies on the bleachers and run onto the court. After practice, I rush to Walmart to get plastic bins for the salad project I am leading at Chick-fil-A.
As I lay in bed that night, ready to repeat it all the next day, I think to myself, “I’m not OK. Who have I become?”
I reflect back on elementary school, when I was a shy girl in my own world of calm. I was the pleaser, and the one my 5th-grade teacher would brag she could put in any wild group and I would use soft, kind words to lead.
Now seventeen, I struggle to find that little girl. I am a high school senior who loves to do it all: plan prom, design senior T-shirts, and lead the pep rally over the loudspeaker. I know why I changed. It’s that addictive feeling I get when I tackle important projects. It’s feedback from others that fills me with pride and motivates me to take on more. My core, however, is still that little girl, who needs quiet time to be by myself and regroup.
Later that night as I lie in bed, exhausted, I know this pace can’t continue. I must learn that saying “yes” isn’t always the best answer; I need to prioritize the events in my life and save time for myself, a quiet, thoughtful person living a hyperachieving existence.
The next morning I was determined to make changes in my life. I quit volleyball after six years of playing, with the support of my incredible coach. I sat with the team during our first game, in jeans and a spirit T-shirt. We lost in two sets, but I had a personal victory that school can’t teach. “Yes” comes with tremendous responsibility, and sometimes “no” means being true to myself.
—Kate Lowenstein, Duluth, Georgia
The Two-Minute Rule
A lot can happen in two minutes.
In the last two minutes of a Friday math lesson, my teacher tries to capture the attention of her waning audience. “For circles, the Cartesian equation is easie. ...” Seeing that half of her class is out the door, she shouts, “Don’t forget the Parametrics test on Monday!”
When the bell actually rings, I start loading my backpack. “So, Ms. Crabtree, how’s Oden?” I ask about her son.
“He’s good,” she smiles. “Yesterday, he told me that if he won the lottery, he would move to Texas, get married, and eat some dog food.” For two minutes, we share a gift: laughing about the fantastic logic of a ten-year-old with an imaginary windfall.
More meaningfully, the two minutes I spend talking with my teachers at the end of each class gives me about six extra hours to connect personally with each of them over the course of a school year. Consequently, I have been trusted to dog-sit Mr. Hettleman’s spaniel, advocate for LGBT rights before the school board with Ms. Jaime, and recommend Marin’s best vegan burgers to Mr. Simon. The common thread behind these connections? They all stem from my desire to linger, in the interest of trust and curiosity.
When I approach my day with the intention of engaging fully, I am building habits, relationships, and ideally, a legacy. There is no shortcut to creating these intangibles. Indeed, the process expands my patience and solidifies my intentions, making it all the more worthwhile.
Thus, I swear by a rule of building small, everyday interactions into more meaningful ones. For four years now, I have been building during the passing periods, the lunches, and the stray moments of each day.
Every Thursday at lunch, my best friend and I read a scientific study and email the authors our questions. Sending these emails, the electronic embodiment of the two-minute rule, is an unassuming exercise. Yet, after hundreds of emails, this practice has landed us invaluable lab tours, a meeting with a Nobel Laureate, and invitations to execute our original research at both Stanford and the California Academy of Sciences. I have come to understand that fortune doesn’t just favor the bold—it more often favors the persistent and thoughtful.
The two-minute rule boils down to ephemeral moments having great collective value that stems from the beauty of each small part. And this rule applies in a variety of situations, not just academics. Each day, two minutes after second period ends, I bump into Andrew. In the hallway, most of my peers have their heads down and earbuds in, but not Andrew and me. We seize these few minutes to explore our shared passion: puns.
“Hey, Isabella, how does Moses make tea?”
I look at him and raise one eyebrow; Andrew doesn’t miss a beat.
Chuckling en route to class earned me a great friend in a hall of headphones. I know that these seemingly inconsequential moments mesh over time into something extraordinary. In two minutes, I can forge trust with a teacher, celebrate the complex with a scientist, or laugh with a friend.
Alternatively, in the same two minutes, I could do nothing. Disconnection and indifference might then give way to insincerity and silence. The distinction is whether I choose to build with my time, or just let it pass.
I am not one to let it pass.
—Isabella Liu, Atlanta, Georgia, and San Anselmo, California
May I Have This Dance?
The tango music is sexy, urgent. I am breathing hard. Concentrating, I bend my knees and press my hips toward Marie, a graceful creature. My right arm encircles her back. My left arm is outstretched alongside hers, our palms barely touching. I press her backward across the floor in a sensual, provocative glide. She retreats in perfect sync with me, staring seductively into my eyes. I am almost seventeen. She is sixty-seven.
I found Marie in the Yellow Pages. She was once a professional dancer and now teaches ballroom dancing in her retirement. I am hoping she can help me. In my high school musical, Little Shop of Horrors, I have been cast as Mr. Mushnik, the greedy, middle-aged owner of a florist shop on New York’s Skid Row. In a hilarious scene, Mushnik dances the tango with his employee, Seymour, attempting to entice him into a questionable business arrangement. It’s a great scene. But I cannot tango.
I am a math and science guy from rural Pennsylvania. I am not a great dancer. (Our director once interrupted rehearsal and announced to the cast, “I am the only one who gets to make fun of Jake’s dancing.”) Yet somehow, I must dance a convincing tango with a small, awkward man, dominating him and dragging him around the stage. At the same time, I must sing a fast-paced song, holding the high notes in a ringing vibrato, mimicking the sound of a cantor in a Lower East Side synagogue. I must be deceptive and unscrupulous, yet devilishly playful and likable, even charismatic. And, the audience must laugh.
Marie is teaching me that dance is a lot about mechanics. “Sink down into your hips,” she tells me. I sink down, and I feel more confident. “Don’t just extend your arm,” she says. “Throw your hand out like you’re shooting lightning.” I try it, and she’s right. It sizzles. We snap our heads to face each other, and our eyes meet like magnets. “Spin me in, hold me in your arms, and look into my eyes for two beats. Then spin me back out. Think Antonio Banderas.” I visualize Banderas with a rose between his teeth. Suddenly, I feel clever and captivating. This is working!
On opening night, before a sell-out crowd, I am exhilarated. I have become Mushnik. I twist and turn, hands on my hips, prancing and shimmying and enchanting the bewildered Seymour. I hold him in my arms as we dance the tango, cheek to cheek. Although I am a conniving rascal, the audience is with me, egging me on. They giggle, then laugh out loud, then howl. I see people coming to their feet. I can no longer suppress my smile. They feel they’re a part of the story, and they want me to know it.
I have learned many physical and intellectual skills, but theater transcends all others. Theater has taught me that whether I seek to educate, persuade, comfort, or inspire, the thing that most helps me to reach people is my ability to establish an emotional connection. Finding a story that resonates with the audience brings us together. Sharing that story is the essence of communication.
—Jake Olsson, Easton, Pennsylvania
Every Place I’ve Never Been
I grew up in a little Indian grocery shop, and I know I’ve spent more than half of my life listening to customers bargain in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Tamil, awkwardly smiling as they said, “I see you’re helping your parents out, huh?” trying to explain the difference between cumin and coriander to someone new, and choosing what Bollywood song to play next. I remember the kids whose parents owned the Greek restaurant next door, and how we’d walk three doors over to get the world’s best ice cream from the small Japanese store, then to the Mexican store for chips.
Although I always felt my heart was full, my world still felt much too small. The world was waiting and I was stuck in that small shop, with no way to go anywhere else. I couldn’t go to Greece or Pakistan or Japan or Mexico or even India. I had to picture it. I had to ask all the shop owners questions until I was satisfied that the image in my head was as close as I’ll get from Virginia Beach. And I had to make up some other worlds in my mind to go to when this one couldn’t fit all my “what if’s” in it anymore.
When Maria, the owner of the Greek cafe, drove us kids to the Avon store once, the rain had just started. She rolled her window down to put out her cigarette, and I watched from the passenger seat, waiting for her to close it. Instead, she let her hand stretch just slightly outside and felt the rain touch her palms. I looked at my own window, thinking of how badly I wanted that but also how many times my mom had told me my hand would get cut off if I stuck it out the window.
She looked at my expression and laughed while she rolled down my window and said, “Just don’t hold it out too far, sugar.” We stayed like that for a while, silently; her smile was soft and mine excited. With her eyes still looking straight ahead and that smile still making her features look the softest they’ve ever been, she said, “I didn’t get to feel the rain when I was in Greece. Not like this.”
I still think about her when it rains. I think about how much something like feeling rain on skin could matter to someone, and how we’d never know that if we’ve been feeling it all our life. I think about how many little things we haven’t felt yet that could make us smile the way she smiled at the sky that day. I miss everything I haven’t felt yet. I miss all the feelings every place I’ve never been to can give me.
—Sagarika Shiehn, Virginia Beach, Virginia