P.S. Dad tweaked paragraph three

It's not a foolproof way of getting the real Ms. Jones to please stand up. But admissions officers at Duke University are attempting to stay a step ahead in the personal-essays game.

Within the pressure cooker world of college applications, teens and the adults who "help" them with their essays may be prone to hyperbole or overly polished presentation. So Duke officials decided to come right out and ask in the 2002 application about such aid: "We recognize that all good writers seek feedback, advice, or editing before sending off an essay.... [P]lease tell us whose advice you sought for help, the advice he/she provided, and whether you incorporated his/her suggestions."

It may prove to be as much of an anthropological exercise as an admissions tool. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the frank responses from applicants map out a range of adult influence that comes into play. Not all applicants, of course, will fess up if they take advantage of the flurry of essay-consulting services available. But many students said they in fact resisted adults' attempts to get them to take less risk, or to shift the essay's tone to the point that it was in someone else's voice.

Parents and teachers may not always be able to tell when their desire to help is getting in the way. But a colleague of mine mentioned a high-school English teacher who's quite disciplined about giving feedback on application essays. A student can ask three questions about the essay's strengths and weaknesses. The one question he won't answer: Do you like it?

He and Duke seem to be preaching the same message: Adult opinions can be useful, but ultimately the work, and the satisfaction with the result, must be a student's own.

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