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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999 /1 Teves, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Stories out of skool -- AS IF THE HOLIDAYS weren't stressful enough for the average American family, winter break has become prime time in many households for high-school seniors to spend time filling out those dreaded college application forms.

It used to be a fairly simple matter. Colleges wanted to know what courses the applicant took in high school, and how well he or she she did in them.

Most schools wanted some information about the student's interests, what clubs he or she belonged to, and whether or not he or she volunteered in the community. And many colleges asked the senior to write a brief essay describing some significant event in his or her life, or why he or she had chosen to apply to College XYZ.

But times have changed, and for the next few weeks, millions of 17-year-olds will spend hours at the computer concocting elaborate responses to what have become bizarre inquiries by college admissions' offices into the imagination, intellect and character of prospective college students.

Take the University of Chicago, which a few years ago asked applicants to write an essay explaining "Elvis sightings" as part of "a wider conspiracy involving five of the following: the metric system, the Mall of America, the crash of the Hindenberg, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, lint, J.D. Salinger and wax fruit."

Now, it might be useful for the admissions office to know whether an applicant possessed broad enough general knowledge to have some familiarity with not only quantum physics and American literature, but aviation history and scientific measurement as well. But asking the applicant to relate his knowledge to recent "sightings" of a dead rock-star, a Minnesota shopping mall, and the fuzz off a piece of cloth would be more appropriate for admission to the nearest mental institution than one of the country's most prestigious universities.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the trend in weird essay questions began about 10 years ago. The University of Pennsylvania may have been the first offender in the late 1980s when it instructed applicants: "You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217." One of the oddest entries in the strange essay category, however, may be New York's Hamilton College: "If you were reduced to living on a flat plane, what would be your greatest problems? Opportunities?"

And the fad may be increasing as more and more colleges try new ways to tease out personal information about students and sift from among many similarly qualified applicants. The University of Virginia, for example, offers students a choice from among several topics. A student can choose to write on as amorphous a topic as his or her favorite word, or as specific a subject as what single event or experience has led her to believe that discrimination still exists. The University admits that it included the latter essay topic to signal the 'right' messages to minority students in wake of a recent decision to overhaul the university's affirmative-action policies.

Of course, by their very nature, many of the new essay questions have more to do with signaling the universities' values than with eliciting useful information about the applicant. Colleges want to be hip, cool, trendy, especially those schools that can be choosy in whom they admit or reject. The University of Chicago would rather be known as "da bomb" than the birthplace of the Great Books program.

Pity the poor aspiring Ivy Leaguer who has spent his evenings poring over his physics textbook rather than watching the latest episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Real World," or some other pop-cultural reference point for his college-application essay question. It isn't enough anymore to study hard and master the facts, now a 17-year-old who wants to get into a top school must be creative, innovative, emotive, chic, not to mention politically correct.

So, the next time your teenager tells you he's preparing for college when he heads to the mall or sits glued to the tube, he may just be telling the truth.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate