SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, Corky Siegel, blues with a classical twist.
But first, the deadline for applications to colleges and universities is approaching, the first of January, for many. High school seniors across the country have spent the fall compiling SAT scores, ACT scores, references, transcripts and application fees. But firstly, no college application is complete without the dreaded essay. That essay, the one opportunity that applicants have to make themselves stand out from the crowd and it's often as carefully crafted as an international peace treaty or a car commercial. One group at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has been documenting, honoring, maybe having a bit of fun with the prose of perspective Cavaliers for about a decade. Every year, the Spectrum Theater organization reviews hundreds of actual admissions essays and turns them into a performance. Nate Patten is a fourth-year student at UVA. He directed this year's show. It's called "Voices of the Class of 2009." He joins us from Belmar, New Jersey.
Mr. Patten, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. NATE PATTEN (UVA Student): Thank you very much for having me.
SIMON: So these were actual college essays?
Mr. PATTEN: That's correct. At the end of last year, I skimmed through an enormous stack of essays that had been written by admitted first-year students to UVA, and from those I selected about 100 essays, which I distributed to the cast over the summer and then we came back in the fall and started working on "Voices of the Class."
SIMON: And you know who wrote these essays?
Mr. PATTEN: They had to remove the names and Social Security numbers from the essays before we got them.
SIMON: Has it ever happened that one of your performances somebody's been watching and goes `Oh, my gosh!,' the audience is laughing and doubling over with chuckles because it's so inane and the writer's in the audience?
Mr. PATTEN: Yes, there have been a couple of incidents where somebody from the audience actually came up to a cast member afterwards and said, `You were acting out my life up on stage.'
SIMON: We have some selections from some of the monologues here. I want to listen to one now. This is an excerpt from an essay now called Incremental. And it's read by one of your actors, Jonathan Green.
(Soundbite of essay reading)
Mr. JONATHAN GREEN: I have this habit. When I'm working on a problem set or reading a chapter in a textbook, I always have to track my progress to the nth degree. I'm 1/10th done, 1/6th done, 3/7ths. I work in fractions, in numerical comparisons. What I've done is measured by what I haven't done. And in the midst of the work it's hard to see the end of the work. It always seems like I've barely begun. I'm only 2/9ths through, 1/3rd through. I measure how long it's taken me to read 10 pages, and I extrapolate that out and realize how long I have to go. I can't remember a time I didn't do this. This monologue is already half over.
Mr. PATTEN: The line about--when he said, `This monologue is almost half over,' always got a huge laugh during the performances because I think the audience is really pleased at how, like, the monologue kind of reflected upon itself in the same way that the essay did.
SIMON: Going through so many essays, do you notice a recurrence of certain themes?
Mr. PATTEN: There was a huge recurrence of essays about what it's like to write a college essay so we--one of our skits in the show really poked fun at, you know, someone writing an essay, and it started off with `Here I sit at my computer not being sure what to write about.' And then, of course, they really write about nothing. You know, we definitely got some big laughs out of reading some of these. And also we were really impressed with a lot of them, too. A lot of them were very clever. One that I really, really liked a lot was a guy wrote about how he went to buy shoes because he was a track runner in high school and that the shoe salesman was making fun of his feet for being too big. And because of that he ended up trying swimming and he ended up becoming a championship swimmer in high school. So, you know, this shoe salesman ended up giving him life advice.
SIMON: But not all of them are there for comic purpose.
Mr. PATTEN: Oh, no. You know, one that stood out to me was a girl had written about how her younger brother had died of cancer when he was probably about three or four years old and it just really stuck with me because, I mean, the essay, really, you know, told a lot about her personality and like how much she had grown in a sense because of the tragic death of her brother.
SIMON: Mr. Patten, you're a fourth-year student.
Mr. PATTEN: Yeah.
SIMON: When you go through this exercise to put the play together, do you wind up concluding that freshman are as immature as you always thought they were or do they have reservoirs of wisdom that you'd underestimated?
Mr. PATTEN: Well, I think, you know, we all agreed after reading some of these that we realized how bad our essays were. In some ways, I looked at some of these and I said, you know, it sounds like these people are, you know, in high school writing these, but, you know, many of the essays we all read and I said, you know, this is--they were brilliant and, you know, it made us want to get to know some of these people.
SIMON: Mr. Patten, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. PATTEN: Well, thank you very much.
SIMON: Nate Patten, fourth-year student at University of Virginia, speaking with us from WRAT in Belmar, New Jersey. You can read more of some of the "Voices of the Class of 2009" monologues at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.