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Will Application Essays Survive?

Boston—Application essays are perhaps the most romantic fixture of the admissions process. Although many colleges do not require them, some selective institutions ask students to write two or more. Such requirements allow applicants to reveal their true selves and help admissions officers see inside students’ heads and hearts. At least that’s long been the idea.

But has the personal statement outlived its usefulness? On Wednesday, several admissions officers and college counselors weighed that question here at the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions. In an era of application surges at super-selective colleges, one counselor predicted, application essays will soon become too much of a burden for some overworked admissions staffs.

Others expressed concerns about the impossibility of judging authenticity. Some applicants have college consultants who coach them through each sentence; some plagiarize, or borrow elements from books like 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get Into the College of Your Choice. And some essays are composed by someone else entirely (a colleague of mine once told me that she had written almost every word of her son’s personal statements).

Honest applicants who do their own work may still benefit from copious editing that blurs the boundaries of ownership. Martin Bonilla, director of college counseling at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif., described how some students solicit feedback from more than one teacher. “I tell kids to be careful who they show it to,” he said. “There are too many adults looking at these essays.”

That’s one reason why Jim Miller, dean of admission at Brown University, said his staff does not put as much stock in essays as it once did. “A spectacular essay can raise more questions than it answers,” Mr. Miller said. That’s especially true if an application lacks other evidence that the student is, in fact, a strong writer.

A handful of colleges now ask applicants to submit copies of essays that have been graded by high-school teachers, and some counselors predicted that this requirement would soon become more common. Mr. Bonilla has found that personal essays cause students more stress than any other part of the application. “If it’s not adding value,” he said, “then let’s drop it.”

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