College admission is not on the same life-or-death scale as the Detroit underwear bomber, but it sometimes seems like it. Most recently, The University of Chicago's admission dean, James Nondorf, set off a mini-firestorm in December when he e-mailed an applicant's response to the "Why Chicago?" essay question to students nationwide.
Many colleges and universities ask variations of the why question, wanting to know what has compelled a student to apply. Nondorf was apparently so impressed by what he labeled as a clever and creative response, he felt it merited promoting. However, rather than inspiring applicants, it generated an outcry ranging from bewilderment to indignation.
Lesson learned? It's easy to make waves in the wacky and whimsical world of college admission, though I'm sure this wasn't Nondorf's intention.
Let's start with this fact. The vast majority of admission essays are bland, boring, and devoid of personality. They sound more like legal documents than teenagers. That's because students write to impress rather than entertain admission officers. But it's not their fault. It's what they, their parents, their teachers, and their counselors believe is the style admission officers expect.
Like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain, college admission officers do a poor job of revealing the realities of the admission process, from the fact that financial, athletic, and legacy "hooks" can dramatically improve a student's odds, to simply explaining that the most effective essays are clear, energetic, and informal. Of course, this last point is difficult to support when the wording of essay topics themselves is so stiff.
Take one of Chicago's recent prompts as an example. "Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus's escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the basic awfulness of string cheese, to the Old Norse tradition that one's life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children's game of cat's cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon."
What do they expect from this question?
Stuffy topics make for uninspiring essays. So—when an essay breaks the traditional mold, admission officers briefly emerge from the application stacks and express some excitement, even if it is only mildly entertaining. I assume that was the case with Nondorf.
The student, whom he identified as Rohan, produced a comparatively creative and personable "Why Chicago?" response that counterbalanced the mountains of stale and banal "why" essays that predictably point to a college's stellar faculty, beautiful campus, inspirational tour guides, and city location.
Dean Nondorf's enthusiasm and the prolific response to his e-mail were generated in mutually exclusive vacuums of misunderstanding and misinformation. The dean, like many admission professionals, did not anticipate that students would be mystified rather than impressed by the sample essay; as a result, students remain uninformed about what admission officers really want.
The solution: Rather than simply promoting and marketing their colleges to generate record application numbers, admissions officers might spare some time to at least partially pull back the wizard's curtain and reveal the many cogs and wheels behind this process. If not that, at least they can explain how to write an effective college admission essay.
Bill Caskey is a former Brown University admission officer. He is now a college admission consultant in Rhode Island.