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Holding College Chiefs to Their Words

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Holding College Chiefs to Their Words

Post by Orchidee on Wed May 06, 2009 9:56 pm


Reed College President Colin Diver suffered writer's block. Debora
Spar, president of Barnard College, wrote quickly but then toiled for
hours to cut an essay that was twice as long as it was supposed to be.
The assignment loomed over Wesleyan University President Michael Roth's
family vacation to Disney World.
The university presidents were struggling with a task that tortures
high-school seniors around the country every year: writing the college
admissions essay. In a particularly competitive year for college
admissions, The Wall Street Journal turned the tables on the presidents
of 10 top colleges and universities with an unusual assignment: answer
an essay question from their own school's application.Read the Essays

"applicants" were told not to exceed 500 words (though most did), and
to accept no help from public-relations people or speechwriters.
Friends and family could advise but not rewrite. The Journal selected
the question from each application so presidents wouldn't pick the easy
ones. They had about three weeks to write their essays.
The exercise showed just how challenging it is to write a college
essay that stands out from the pack, yet doesn't sound overly
self-promotional or phony. Even some presidents say they grappled with
the challenge and had second thoughts about the topics they chose.
Several shared tips about writing a good essay: Stop trying to come up
with the perfect topic, write about personally meaningful themes rather
than flashy ones, and don't force a subject to be dramatic when it
As Mr. Roth of Wesleyan, in Middletown, Conn., waited in line with
his daughter for rides at Disney World, he thought about his question
-- describe a person who's had a significant influence on you -- and
wondered whether the topic he'd chosen for his response was too
"It occurred to me, that must be the question our applicants ask
themselves," Mr. Roth says. "I can write this about my history teacher
or a public figure, what you'd expect, or should I write something more
meaningful to me, but riskier?"
In the end, Mr. Roth decided to take a risk, telling a story of his
brother who died at age five, before Mr. Roth was born. His older
brother's portrait hung in their childhood home.
"I was to heal the wounds caused by the death of that beautiful
little boy in the picture," he wrote. "Yet I was also to remain the
trace of those wounds."
Mr. Diver of Reed, in Portland, Ore., was asked to write about an
experience that demonstrated the importance of diversity to him. He
described a violent episode as a young man that eroded his liberal
self-image. Overhearing the mugging of a young black woman outside his
home in Boston's South End, Mr. Diver, who is white, grabbed a baseball
bat and hit the woman's attacker, who was Latino.
"Doubts welled up in my mind," Mr. Diver wrote. "Did I really
understand what it means to live in a diverse neighborhood? Or did I
just want cosmetic diversity as a backdrop for imposing my white,
professional-class ways?"
The incident, which occurred in 1975, is mentioned in "Common
Ground," a book by J. Anthony Lukas that told the story of three
families, including Mr. Diver's, in a rapidly gentrifying and racially
divided neighborhood.
Robert Oden, president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., was
asked to evaluate the impact of a significant experience, achievement,
risk or ethical dilemma that he had faced. He wrote about how life
should be approached as an adventure, and described running, panicked,
in the streets of Cairo when a trip to the pyramids, on the western
edge of the city, went awry. "Within a few short minutes, I was lost.
Utterly, hopelessly, lost and confused."
Eventually, he realized that he was safe, and concluded that around
the world, "people are people," and most are kind and quick to help
others.Reed College President Colin Diver

"Did I really understand what it means to live in
a diverse neighborhood? Or did I just want cosmetic diversity as a
backdrop for imposing my white, professional-class ways?"
Reed College President Colin Diver, who wrote about an experience that demonstrated the importance of diversity.

Mr. Oden says he found it tough to write an essay that
didn't sound a little crazy in its attempt to be interesting. "I can
think of writing an essay that would be batty and daft and wild, and I
can think of writing a very conventional essay that would be neither,"
he says. He went with Cairo because it was a specific story, set in a
particular place, with details he remembered vividly.
With the assignment of picking a person who inspired him -- from
fiction, history or a creative work -- Grinnell College's Russell
Osgood chose history, writing about 18th-century Anglo-Irish political
figure Edmund Burke. Mr. Osgood, who announced this week that he will
step down in 2010, drew parallels between his experience as president
of Grinnell, in Grinnell, Iowa, and Mr. Burke's philosophy.
"...Burke, like David Hume, believed that change is best
accomplished by a gradual movement in structures and institutions
rather than by violent upheaval. When I arrived at Grinnell as a new
president in 1998, there was concern, even apprehension, about me and
the possibility of change," he wrote. In response to those concerns,
Mr. Osgood says he told people that any change he brought to the
college would occur "thoughtfully and after learning and listening." He
says he wanted to act in a way that was consistent with Burke's
Given the same question, Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin
College, in Oberlin, Ohio, says he briefly wondered if he should write
as if he were a high-school senior, but then concluded he'd write a
better essay if he looked back on his experiences from an adult
perspective. He described a trip he took a few years ago to South
Africa's Robben Island, where anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela
was imprisoned:
Courtesy Wesleyan University

Nelson Mandela's life can make one weep at the inhumanity and cruelty
he experienced. But it is also inspiring," Mr. Krislov wrote, adding
that he was especially impressed by a school Mr. Mandela and his
colleagues created while they were in prison. "I was deeply moved by
their faith even under horrific circumstances in education as the path
to social change and uplift."
One of the most challenging questions came from the University of
Pennsylvania application: Write page 217 of your 300-page
autobiography. President Amy Gutmann focused on her professional
accomplishments, including creating a vision for the school, dubbed
"the Penn Compact," when she became the university's president in 2004.
"No sooner had I begun writing my presidential inaugural address than
the political philosopher in me took over," she wrote. "Instead of
delivering the standard omnibus address that no one will remember, why
not propose a new social contract to put the ideals of higher education
into ever more effective practice?"
Some presidents, like many high-school students, wrote about their
extra-curricular activities. "What I love about bicycling is how close
I am to the countryside, moving slowly enough to see everything, and
able to stop when a spot beckons," wrote David Oxtoby, president of
Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Others took the opportunity to
focus on academic policy: "We need to adjust to the new economic
realities while maintaining our commitment to access and
affordability," wrote Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College in
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The question for University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer was
simply a quote by poet Rainer Maria Rilke translated from the German:
"At present you need to live the question." His interpretation: "Living
the question is not simple. It entails the intensity of argument and
engagement. It demands intellectual risk-taking and a preference for
analysis, inquiry and complexity over easy solutions or comfort."
Ms. Spar, president of Barnard College in New York, says the
application exercise reminded her how difficult it is for students to
write an original essay, especially when so many are answering the same
questions from the common application.
"In an ideal world, I'd rather go back to the system where colleges
ask more idiosyncratic questions, because really what you want to find
out is, why is this particular kid a good fit for this particular
school?" she says.
When she sat down to write, she rejected one of her first ideas,
which was to describe her running and swimming routine. "That struck me
that'd be a very, very boring and self-aggrandizing essay to write,"
she says.
So Ms. Spar, who once wrote a graduate-school application essay
about talking backwards, used a trick familiar to many survivors of the
college essay ordeal: She turned her question on its head. Asked to
describe an ordinary-seeming daily routine or tradition that held
special meaning for her, the working mother wrote instead about her
lack of routine. She described a typical chaotic day: she was juggling
preparations for a black-tie event with the needs of her three kids.
Meanwhile, her husband was stuck in a snowstorm in Buffalo, N.Y. and
the family cat was found with a "writhing" chipmunk inside the house.
"I pack my daughter's clothes for soccer practice and put her Hebrew
homework where she has at least a remote chance of encountering it. In
between, I check on the chipmunk, which is now expiring sadly on the
downstairs rug," Ms. Spar wrote, later adding: "The chipmunk has died.
And another day begins. Thankfully, I've never been much for routine."

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