Is that an authentic application essay, or the work of a ghostwriter?
Admission-committee members at the nation's selective undergraduate colleges have begun bending their brows to the first wave of hope-filled manila folders. In their determination to find the right students among those seeking early admission to the class of 2007, they are asking over and over: Who is this student? Will she or he thrive at our college?
No single piece of information contains the answer, nor should it. The sum of the elements, however, should provide a reasonable estimation of the student's potential for academic success at that institution.
Candidates' essays are often the distinguishing component because they identify qualities and capabilities that aren't recognizable in other parts of the application.
The lion's share of essays are impressively insightful and original. Often, students are articulate about their interests and aspirations. Some are also wonderfully - and intentionally - hilarious.
Every year, though, there are a handful of instances where inconsistencies in voice or syntax trigger a different kind of attention. As the writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College, I am sometimes called in by the admission committee to take a look at these essays.
We uncomfortably wonder who authored a particularly striking essay that bears little relationship to other writing in the applicant's folder. Is it truly the student who, invited to speak of herself or himself, has made a remarkable breakthrough? Or were the essays the work of a parent or some other (possibly mercenary) adult called in to pinch-hit as the application ghostwriter?
We wonder, as well, if students understand the definitions of originality, authenticity, and truthfulness and how these standards are applied in higher education.
Earlier this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Duke University had asked its applicants to indicate the quantity and quality of assistance they received while writing their essays. The candor of the response was remarkable, suggesting that students were unaware of the ways in which many had breached an academic code of ethics.
Selective schools are seeking ways to ensure that application materials are original. But how will this be possible when being "resourceful" is placed ahead of being responsible?
Finding an application writer-for-hire is as easy as picking up last winter's college issue of "Rolling Stone," with its profile of a 20-something Harvard graduate who boasts that he quickly made his first million dollars by editing and revising undergraduate applications. Moreover, according to CNN, a Rutgers' Management Education Center survey found that the practice of buying and/or plagiarizing work is engrained in many students well before they sit down to tackle college applications.
An essay is, in its own way, an exam. What would we make of a student who paid someone to take his or her medical boards?
The problem of appropriately defined boundaries of originality is far-reaching, as evidenced by recent charges of plagiarism and/or misrepresentation involving well-known scholars. Within the rigorous world of higher education, misrepresentation results not only in censure or suspension, but possibly expulsion from the academy itself. Within the purview of independent scholarship, estimable voices become suspect; prolific careers are thrown into disgrace.
Misrepresentation is no less troubling in the more circumscribed world of high school students and parents. It inaugurates a journey away from authentic learning at the very moment that students should be embracing the potential of higher education.
The pressure for admission to the "best" colleges is fierce. Most important, though, is identifying the schools in which a student will genuinely thrive. This can't work if important parts of students' identities are knowingly misrepresented by themselves or their parents.
The voice that matters in an applicant's essay belongs to the student. A college's strongest chances of finding this voice come when parents reinforce the value of their children speaking for themselves. Ghostwriting an application, on the other hand, sends a number of unsavory messages to the student. Included is the inference that the parents can and should reinvent their children, as if this is a chance to correct all the real or imagined disappointments of the past 17 or 18 years.
We need a moral contract between parents and their children when it comes to writing these essays. This is not to suggest that students not turn to their parents, teachers, and counselors for guidance in these matters, any more than one would suggest that historians not turn to the scholars whose valuable research precedes their own. But there is a world of difference between helping a student write a better application essay and writing it for them.
This is a time - like all times, for that matter - when only the writer's own true voice will do.
• Carol Zoref, a fiction writer and essayist, is the writing coordinator at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.