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A question of honesty

A college application is a student’s opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking, language skills and the wit of self-promotion. Taken by itself, an essay can be prophetic or pathetic, but is nonetheless only a small part of the material reviewed by admissions officers. To think that some high school students refer to paper-writing outfits to prepare a first-rate application essay is sad, not only because it demonstrates a lack of integrity but also because it says these people think an essay is the test that will make and break their entire college career.

Duke University has included a question on their 2001 admission form asking applicants to describe the type of feedback and advice they received from others during essay preparation. Another question to ask is what they intended to accomplish with this?

Students who are directly asked what form of help they received with their so highly valued essays will hesitate before finding someone else to write words for them. Pulling a fast with an essay is one thing, but flatly lying is quite another. Also, maybe just the act of considering the implications of Duke’s new question will scare potential cheaters straight.

A possible danger with this request for honesty concerns its use as admission criteria. Would an overzealous Duke essay reader decide that a student’s description of the help an English teacher gave in editing constitutes a confession and deny admission to that unfortunate high school senior?

This application question’s use a deterrent against plagiarism, ghostwriting and dishonest editing practices is admirable. If even one student chooses caution and originality over the risk of being caught (and the guilt of a blatant lie), then this question has done some good. However, only if a student’s response to this decidedly dangerous question is free from penalty would it be acceptable.

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