Consultants charge up to $300 an hour to help prepare and polish it, and $60 for a quick appraisal. Prep schools offer a weekly class throughout the fall to conceive, draft, rewrite, revise and edit it. Parents ghostwrite it and get secretaries to type the final version, spell-checked and grammatically correct, on 24-pound bond paper. Students who write it without assistance experience what William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bated College, calls myopic paranoia: "I don't know why they are asking that question, but I know they are out to get me."
Why does the personal-essay portion of the application to college cause so much angst and expense? Because a lot is at stake. Since many institutions have eliminated the personal interview, the essay is now the one opportunity for students to exercise control and provide a glimpse of how they think and write, and to convey what is important to them. In the most competitive colleges, where there are more applicants with glorious grade-point averages and terrific test scores than there are spaces in the freshman class, selection committees often turn to the personal essay to indulge their subjective instincts in deciding who gets in, who doesn't and who must languish in higher education's torture chamber, the wait list.
To separate the sheep from the goats, a few institutions provide specific topics for applicants to address. In its list of possible essay subjects, Bennington college has asked aspiring students to design and describe "an experiment that attempts to determine whether toads can hear." In the tradition of the "school of improvisation and its offshoot, the Second City comedy troupe," the University of Chicago is currently looking for, among other possibilities, a television pilot set on a college campus. It is to include Enrico Fermi's personal trainer, a starving investment banker, Godot or an evil clown as a character, and must have as a prominent prop Cliff Notes on "Finnegans Wake," van Gogh's ear, a proton accelerator or Muddy Waters's guitar.
Better to "err on the side of intellectual pretension than on the side of pure silliness," the admissions staff advises in the directions to the applicant.
Perhaps anticipating that the courts will ban such assignments as cruel and unusual punishment, most colleges now invite applicants to write about a personal, local or international issue that is meaningful to them; a book that has changed their understanding of the world, other people or themselves; or anything else that interests them. Vague or open-ended questions, of course, provide their own kind of terror: "What topic will light up my application and impress the Inquisitionally inclined panel of experts?"
Like pornography, good essays are easier to recognize than define. In 10 years of serving on admissions committees at Cornell University, I almost never disagreed with my colleagues in evaluating essays. A good one catches the applicant in the act of thinking; it establishes and maintains a distinctive voice, personality and perspective. With these characteristics in mind, then, and in a modest attempt to put the consultants out of business, here is some advise about for the applicant on what you should write about and how you can make the personal essay enhance you application:
Glenn C. Altschuler is dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions and the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.