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Essay question: What will win me college entry?

Patrick Chung, 17, has given himself three hours to find himself, define himself, distinguish himself; and like hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, he’s wondering if the whole torturous process makes a lick of sense.

It’s 9 p.m. on Nov. 29, and University of California freshman applications are due in 27 hours. But every high school senior knows that the computer system bogs down as last-minute filers log on. So Patrick is determined to crank out the last of the three required personal essays and hit “submit” before midnight.

As his mother paces quietly in the living room of the family’s Highland Park home, the Franklin High School senior stares at the bulky beige monitor in his bedroom, trying to ignore the IMs popping up from stressed-out friends at Glendale High, Eagle Rock High, Crescenta Valley High.

Patrick runs his fingers through his thick black hair. For a long time his fingerless gloves hover over the keyboard. Then they begin to fly: “During the winter vacation of my freshman year,” he types, “I attended the local homeless shelter.... “

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Fingers stop. The computer fan purrs. The swivel chair squeaks. Chung emits strange little noises.

I can’t tap into his brainwaves, but I know what’s there. It’s the season when a cacophony of life stories, distorted by ambition and angst, crescendos in the mind of every college hopeful. UC’s “personal statements,” with their vague writing prompts, can be particularly frustrating, students say.

At San Marino High School, most of the 31 seniors in an honors English class can recite by memory private universities’ prompts.

The class whoops when a student mentions one used by the University of Pennsylvania: “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.”

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Other schools use clever references to great paintings, Isaac Newton and “Rashomon” to stir student creativity.

The UC system offers three bland nudges, including: “How have you taken advantage of the educational opportunities you have had to prepare for college?”

“They seem a lot less personal than the private schools,” a San Marino student says.

The prompts, a UC spokesperson confirms, were written by committee.

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In 2001, folks in the UC system admitted to this newspaper that they did not read the essays. They do now, they say. At least twice.

At UC Berkeley, for example, 100 or so full- and part-time staffers go over the applications. Each essay is read by two people who grade it from 1 to 5, and if there’s too much discrepancy between their grades, a third reader takes a look.

Last year, about 84,000 high school seniors applied to the UC system, and although all eligible candidates received slots somewhere, the competition for coveted schools, including Berkeley and UCLA, is always tough.

So despite their skepticism, students drive themselves nuts fretting about how to get an edge, then reel under the complexity of ethical issues that the essay process sets roiling.

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It’s hard to buy a university spokesman’s contention, for instance, that readers are expected to remain colorblind as they pore over the essays. The instructions for that first UC prompt, after all, specifically encourage applicants to note if they’ve participated in minority-oriented academic development programs.

Given society’s inherent inequities and ways to game the system -- a college counseling industry thrives, and the Internet is clogged with online editing and writing services -- there are enough variables to short-circuit the university’s best efforts at fairness. Still, college counselors say that all too often a formulaic sameness sets in, as students grasp at conventional wisdom -- such as the notion a few years back that admissions officers are suckers for uplifting sob stories.

I was getting cynical about the ritual. Then Jan Guerrero, a private college counselor in La Canada Flintridge, told me about two students who had stood side by side in their high school choir. Both wrote about the experience. But their essays sounded as different as Placido Domingo and Lil’ Kim.

Of course.

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I’d been surprised at how many of the students I talked to were not only willing but eager to send me their essays.

I shouldn’t have been.

People want to be seen as individuals, and that only gets harder as kids are fed the paradoxical truism that to stand out in society, they must begin scrambling while in preschool to build the narrowly defined resume that will qualify them to jump through subsequent sets of academic hoops.

Sure, these students had to contort their words to fit bland prompts. And few extricated themselves from the desperate need to pose and please. But listen to snippets of these painstakingly crafted songs of self, and you can’t help but wish you were seated beside one of these kids in a UC classroom.

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“As much joy as I get from being a metaphorical slow cooker of culture, it’s also a source of great difficulty in my life.”

-- Andy Chow,

La Canada High

“ ‘Fast Tongue’ involves calling out a chore before anyone else has a chance to. The rules of Fast Tongue are: You cannot call a job before everyone has eaten dinner, and you have to say it while someone is around.”

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Jenelle Bossett,

Animo Inglewood High

“Nothing beats a grueling hike in four feet of snow while chanting, ‘sine cosine, sine cosine, the derivative of the sine is the cosine!’

-- Amol Koldhekar,

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San Marino High

Patrick Chung, by the way, rewrote that first sentence in his essay on helping the homeless and filed his application on time. I like the opening of his longer UC essay: “Others are known for their wealth and popularity. I am known for my hair.”

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To discuss this column or post your college admissions essays, visit latimes.com/schoolme. To reach Bob Sipchen, write to bob.sipchen@latimes.com.

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