Duke questions applicants on admission essay help

by Carl Burnett | 5/15/02 5:00am

Duke University, for the last two years, has been asking applicants the unique question: "How much help did you receive on your college application essays?" Neither Dartmouth nor many other institutions have added this question to their applications.

Christoph Guttentag, director of admissions at Duke, said the purpose of the question is not to weed out plagiarism, but to provide a context for the essays.

"Some students write their essays as part of a class. Some come from non-English-speaking families," he said. "In the past, we had been assuming we knew something about the context in which the essays were written."

Dartmouth Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said he doesn't see the value of including such a question on Dartmouth's application.

"I think Duke's sort of overreacting," he said. "I honestly think that most students do their own work. I'm either optimistic or naive enough to think that."

Furstenberg noted that Dartmouth applicants must sign a statement verifying that the work submitted is their own.

There are occasional cases where essays are "not so much plagiarized as greatly exaggerated," Furstenberg said. Often in these cases, a remarkably well-written essay will contrast with a student's poor English grades and verbal SAT scores, which "would cause you to question the essays," he said.

Furstenberg stressed the value the College's admissions office places on the originality of applicants' essays.

"I advise students to make sure the essays are in your voice so there's this genuineness and candor," he said. "Too much editing can make it bland."

Dartmouth student Charlotte Orr '05 gave a similar assessment.

"It should be a reflection of someone's personality," she said. Orr said she received advice from her high school guidance counselor about the length and subject of her essays. She said she also had an English teacher read her completed essays to check for grammatical errors.

Duke's Guttentag also said he thought too much editing can dilute an essay's originality but stressed that the question is not designed to discourage students from seeking outside help.

"Essays that are overpolished end up feeling less real. The voice of the individual just doesn't come through as clearly," he said.

Another Dartmouth student, Jurrien Swarts '98, said no one helped him with any part of the admissions essay process, but that he had no qualms about the ethicality of doing so.

"The point is learning to write how you're expected to in this society," he said. "If the system says write an essay, you can ask anyone you want. ... Whatever you can do to get in, do it."

Some students, such as Erin Bingham '05, said that it was possible for students to receive too much help from outside sources.

"I think if it turns into someone else's ideas, that's not good," Erin Bingham '05 said. "But getting help with the syntax and structure of your essay is fine," she said. "Any way you can help make something sound better is OK."

Furstenberg said that at Dartmouth, admissions officers read the essays before looking at test scores and transcripts.

"The student really has a shot at speaking on their own behalf" through the essay, he said. "We really don't treat it as a writing sample, but a thinking sample."

Guttentag, on the other hand, said that at Duke, the application essay is judged to show "a person's ability to write, to express herself."

Besides providing a context in which the admissions staff can judge an essay, Duke's additional question can become an entity of its own, Guttentag said.

"What we didn't expect is that the answers to the question are sometimes more interesting, illuminating, revealing than the essays themselves," he said.

Duke's question reads: "We recognize that all good writers seek feedback, advice or editing before sending off an essay. When you have completed your essay, please tell us whose advice you sought for help, the advice he/she provided and whether you incorporated his/her suggestions."