College admissions are a gamble by any account, and applicants want to stack the deck as much in their favor as possible.

Most of us are content with beefing up our already BS-laden resumes (FYI: every admissions officer in the country knows perfectly well what “founding a space club,” “going to Sumatra to rescue an indigenous tribe” or “being president of the student council” during your senior year really means). But desperate times call for desperate measures. With Yale’s admissions rate an absurdly low 9.9 percent, some students feel forced to stoop to equally absurd levels to get that coveted thick envelope. Yale Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw’s personal favorite: The student who sent in a full-size, hand crafted, perfectly finished kayak with his application.

“It was very impressive — but it’s not something I’d encourage other applicants to do,” he said. “Who has room in their office for a kayak?”

Other equally dogged students take metaphorical approaches: “I got a box full of helium balloons once,” Shaw said. “I think the idea was that I’d open the box, and the balloons would fly up as a sign of how excited this kid was to be applying to Yale.” Alas, by the time they reached New Haven, the balloons were too deflated to float.

And as for the kayak, Shaw said, three months of stubbed toes and arguments over who got to keep the vessel finally prompted the admissions staff to mail the whole thing back. Shaw’s tip for future applicants: “If it’s something near and dear to your heart, send us a slide.”

Another piece of advice, this one for budding Julia Child wannabes: Presuming that the admissions officers are fickle enough to be swayed by an appeal to their sweet tooth isn’t as original as you might think. “I don’t even know how many cakes and cupcakes we’ve gotten mailed to us,” he said. “Of course, by the time they get to our office, they’re completely stale and don’t taste that great anyway.”

But in the end, it is easy to criticize from this side of Phelps Gate. Now distanced from the anxiety of trying to convince this prestigious Ivy that you’re a perfect match for it, we find it hard to remember that we were all equally willing to do whatever might give us “that extra edge.” Because, really, how far is mailing out cookies or kayaks from spending all of your free time taking practice SATs or having your mom proofread your “defining moment” essay seven times?

And Shaw’s post-mortem on the applicant who spent $50 on postage to mail his kayak to 38 Hillhouse Ave.: “One had the impression that he might really want to go here.”


“Frankly, the kayak wasn’t something we took into account.” Oops.