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She stopped there. They were all somber, of course. A few of them seemed actively engaged in some sort of internal catechism: Because Mom wants me to? Because Dad wants me to? Because it never occurred to any of us that I wouldn't? Because I just want to get in, and I'll worry about all this Deep Thoughts crap in my own damn time.

"Okay," said Portia. "I'm sure you have questions. I'm here to help. Is there something you'd like to know about the university? Or about admissions?"

It didn't take long. This was why she'd come, after all, not the promotional film or the save-us-all-the-trouble lecture or the cute story about the kid who'd never talked to a professor. They wanted in. They wanted the tricks, the secrets, the strategies. They wanted to maximize and package. They wanted to know what they should write their essays about, and if a 720 on the math SAT was good enough, and was it better to take six APs and get some 4's or three APs and get all 5's?

"Are the essays important?" said a girl with fearful eyes behind thick glass. "I mean, if you have good grades and good scores?"

"At Princeton, the essays are very important. I think perhaps more so than at other colleges. You should think carefully about them, and spend time on them."

"But," the girl said plaintively, "some people aren't that good writers. I mean, some people are good at other things."

"Oh, we understand that," Portia said. She nodded appreciatively at Roden, who was bringing her a chair. "We know that not everyone's equally gifted as a writer. We're not expecting every student to have the same fluency with language, and we know that people are intelligent in different ways. But as far as we're concerned, you've had about seventeen years to write your application essays." Predictably, the kids exchanged looks of horror. "Oh, you've been busy. Part of those seventeen years was probably spent, I don't know, spitting up and learning to ride a two-wheeler. You've been doing your homework and going to camp, or maybe working on your Facebook profile." There was a ripple of sheepish acknowledgment through the room. "But the fact is, you've had time to think about how you want to use these brief opportunities on the application, and that's how you should think of them: as opportunities. What are the most important things you need to tell us about yourself? How do you want to tell us those things? If you decide that you want to squander an essay declaring your undying devotion to the color blue, or your love for your childhood goldfish Fluffy, well, I'm going to wonder if you really have very much to say. On the other hand, there are so many things we want to know about you, and with the exception of your recommendations, this is just about the only way we're going to find out. We want to know what makes you tick, what gets you out of bed in the morning. If you love to play sports, we want to know why. If your favorite subject is math, we want to know why. If you can't stand biology, make a case for it. Tell us about it. We want to know about the people who have infl uenced you and the way you feel about our leaders and our national policies. We're interested in your thoughts on religion and even popular culture. Basically, we're interested in just about everything."

She turned to the fearful girl, who did not seem at all comforted. Portia sighed.

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