The Yale undergraduate admissions office is considering the addition of a question to its application that would help determine the amount of help students received in writing their application essays, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw said.
The move would follow a similar measure taken by Duke University two years ago amid increased attention to the strategizing that has become part of the college application process.
Duke now asks students to describe the help they received from various people in writing and editing their college essay, said Christoph Guttentag, the director of undergraduate admissions at Duke.
Duke decided to add the question to its application in order to put the essays in context, Guttentag said. He said he had heard countless anecdotes about the amount of help students were getting in writing their essays, but said there was no concrete information about the extent of this help.
“We understand the context of the secondary school, we have an idea of what the community is,” Guttentag said. “Same with letter of recommendation. We ask how long they’ve known the student, in what capacity –ÊThere was context all over the place, but there was no context for the essay, and that’s the ultimate thing we’re trying to do.”
Shaw said the hype surrounding the college application process has spread to nearly every aspect of the application. He said he regrets that even the personal essay is no longer regarded as solely the student’s domain.
“There’s been proliferation of a new industry in application preparation, including essay writing,” Shaw said. “There are online sites for essay writing — there are parents assisting, there are classes where you write your college essay.”
Shaw said he believes this kind of help compromises the integrity of a student’s application.
“Duke’s response is, ‘Look, that’s not what this is about,'” Shaw said. “It’s not about being a piece of your strategy. It’s about being yourself, it’s about being authentic.”
Brad Kahn ’04, whose college counselor looked over his essay before he sent it to Yale, said he doesn’t think the application should include a question about the help students receive on their essays.
“There are people who write their own essays and get a teacher to edit them, and I think that’s fine. There are people who take workshops to write a good essay, and I think that’s fine,” Kahn said “If you want to ask someone if they had someone else write their essay, I think that falls more under an honor code.”
The Yale application already includes a place for students to sign and attest that the material submitted is their own work and accurately reflects their background.
Both Shaw and Guttentag said their staffs have become experienced in recognizing inconsistencies between the quality of essays and what recommendations say about students’ writing abilities.
Lindsay Page ’05 said she thinks the amount of help students have received in putting together their essay is irrelevant to their applications.
“The whole college application process is complicated now so that seniors don’t really know what would be most beneficial using their own creativity and experience,” Page said. “In my English class, we had at the beginning of the year a unit specifically for college essays and we had to write a practice essay so we wouldn’t be completely in the dark.”
Guttentag said said he believes some degree of help on the essay is reasonable. He said he prefaced the question about essay help with a disclaimer saying “we recognize that all good writers seek feedback, advice or editing before sending off an essay” to make it clear that he does not expect students to “do it all on their own.”
But Shaw said he believes the essay is sacred territory that should be left to the student.
“I tend to be a real purist in this. I don’t think parents ought to meddle in this at all. I think it ought to be you,” Shaw said. “I don’t think high schools do any service by suggesting that this should be a writing process in a high school class.”