CLEARWATER — Milan Patel is a high school senior who plays guitar for the terminally ill. He teaches cancer patients how to meditate. His grades and test scores are staggering. He fences and snowboards, skis and reads great works of literature — for fun. If he told you that he glows in the dark, you might believe him.
But when the Palm Harbor University High School student sat down to write a short essay for admission to the University of Florida's exclusive honors program, Milan drew on none of this gold. Instead he wrote a poem about soiling himself.
It begins: "The first day of kindergarten, I knew so few / I was but a young boy, so fragile and true / Little did I know in my pants I would poo."
The full poem is 13 lines and was in the hands of the University of Florida Honors Program before last weekend's deadline. It landed on a Washington Post blog, stirring online debate over the merits of wacky college essays — and whether this one would work.
"It kind of just came to me," says the Clearwater teen, who estimates he spent "maybe 15 minutes" on the task of telling UF about his ruined underwear.
Creative as he may have been, 17-year-old Milan, who is in the International Baccalaureate program, was simply answering UF's essay prompt: "Describe your most embarrassing moment in the form of a poem."
Three years ago, the honors program joined the ranks of a few other selective universities that ask prospective students to write on unusual topics.
University of Florida officials say the offbeat prompts help them learn more about students and ensure a diverse group of thinkers in the honors program.
But some question the tactic. On top of overloaded resumes and eye-popping test scores, they ask: Should you have to be funny to get into college, too?
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The University of Florida Honors Program is an exclusive community at the state's flagship school. To get in, first you have to be admitted to the university itself, a hurdle Milan has vaulted. Then, your grades, test scores, extracurriculars and two essays are reviewed by a committee of staff and students. About half the applicants get in.
The longer essay is fairly standard, asking students what kind of charity or business they would like to open and how they'd get it going. Some answer in entertaining ways. Rafael Vaello, a football player at Tampa's Jesuit High School, dreamed up a men's nail salon he'd call "Tough as Nails."
But standard questions usually beget standard answers. So in 2010, program director Kevin Knudson added another essay.
Last year's applicants could either "tell the story of Chester C. Cluckington, the first chicken to cross the road"; decide whether Napoleon or Attila the Hun was the better tree climber; or answer, simply, "Are we alone?"
In opting for the poem this year, Milan turned down "Which historical figure would you want to go out with on a Friday night?" and "Tell the story of how Peanut Butter met Jelly."
Gabriel Otheguy, another Jesuit High senior, spun a West Side Pantry-esque tale of forbidden love. "Countless times he felt her sweet stare upon him from across the shelf," he wrote. "But she was a sweet, and he a salt. What could he do?"
With such unusual prompts, "You're going to learn something,'' Knudson said. "We're asking them to think."
And UF is asking for something more.
"I'll be honest, if something makes me laugh, I tend to score it a little higher," Knudson says.
What if you're not funny?
UF senior and Hillsborough High School graduate Blake Tomlin belongs to the last honors class before the unusual essay prompts were introduced, and says he's thankful for that.
"You spend all of high school working to look good with academics and extracurriculars and then they put you on the spot," Blake says. "They ask you to be a comedian. Not everyone's funny and not everyone has to be."
Michele Hernandez, a Vermont-based consultant who coaches students to help them get into UF honors as well as the Ivy League, says Knudson's staff is asking for little more than a stunt.
"They're not going to find anything out about you," she says.
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But the quirky streak that characterizes the essays also shows up on campus.
Earlier this year, a group of UF honors students ate sundaes on a Sunday while watching a movie about dreams within dreams, Inception. Another time they filled panty hose with flour and had a mock snowball fight.
"They're not your typical bookworms," says Leslie Gaynor, a sophomore and graduate of Freedom High School in Tampa. "They're way beyond that."
Whether rewarding humor is fair game or not, as high school students apply to more and more colleges, analysts say specialized essay prompts will become more popular to help sift through the applicant pool. The University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania are well-known for such essays.
The UF honors program's offbeat essay is worth half as much as the longer, more typical essay. In most cases, it won't be the deciding admissions factor.
Yet it does matter. A personality-packed poem can compensate for a resume lacking volunteer hours or club presidencies, Knudson says. The program wants well-rounded students, and humor can make a student seem round.
Milan also wrote an essay about meditation and fencing, but despite his wealth of extracurriculars, says he was glad for the chance to write the odder essay. "I hope it conveys that I'm more easygoing than a typical honors applicant," he says.
The University of Florida has promised its honors decisions by April 1. Until then, Milan has the waiting game, some new notoriety, and the sticking memory of a kindergarten teacher asking him, "Does this happen often?"
Lisa Gartner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.