Most of the essay topics on Duke University's application are the typical, window-on-your-soul-in-three-pages variety: What book has influenced you most? Describe a surprising intellectual experience. Name someone whom you admire but disagree with, and tell why.
This fall, Duke officials added an unusual question at the end: Is this writing your own?
For the first time, the Durham, N.C., school is asking its 14,000-plus applicants to specify whose advice was sought on the essay, how much help was given, and whether it made a meaningful difference.
Christoph Guttentag, Duke's director of undergraduate admissions, said those responses will put the essay in context: Showing it to be the fruits of one's own creativity, for instance, or the payoff of an applicant's $5,000 contract with a college composition consultant. The essay might also be a fraud, downloaded from one of many Internet sites - though Guttentag chuckles at the idea of an applicant admitting that.
"If anything, I'm hoping that if students are tempted to receive inappropriate help, the question would encourage them to do more of the work on their own, rather than lie about it," Guttentag said.
Duke's experiment with full disclosure is one sign of how selective colleges are putting more weight on the depth and integrity of the essay. More schools are requiring them: At some public campuses, they have been added to put flesh on a transcript, while at others, they now rival SAT scores in importance or serve as an alternative to affirmative action.
Essay fraud is an increasingly common concern at top schools, given how the Internet is rife with "Tell Us About Yourself" prototypes.
"There were lots [of applications] that came from some source other than the writer's own hand," said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard College's dean of admissions.
Besides Duke, Yale University is considering requiring applicants to sign a form attesting that the essay is their work. And a national association of admissions officers has begun warning parents and students about the pitfalls of using private consultants.
"There are more and more Internet services offering college counseling to anyone with a credit card," said Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Instead of fighting them, we're trying [to prepare] a consumer's guide that asks about their credentials and services."
Richard Shaw, Yale's dean of admissions, said he worries not only about the role of consultants, but also about the trend toward high school English classes that spend time on college essay writing.
"There's a whole cast of characters now involved in trying to create, to use the title of a book, the essay that works," Shaw said. Referring to the idea of having applicants sign off on their writing, he noted: "It makes sense to encourage students to present their own work, their own writing, without a lot of noise."
Yet as colleges put more weight on the essay, students and parents see it as the piece of the application they can control the most, unlike that disheartening "D" way back in freshman biology.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's are often the peak of the essay-writing season, with many families putting as much energy into finding an angle or polishing the prose as some put into shopping.
Admission to a top school almost guarantees an internship, a paycheck, or a seat in law or business school down the road.
But families, teachers, and the applicants are asking how far they should go in the pursuit of the polished essay. Consultants with test-prep companies and private firms don't guarantee admission, but they promise advantages. Michele Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College in New hampshire who now heads AisforAdmission.com and wrote a book with a similar name, helps craft and revise essays for $1,500, and completes a student's entire application for $4,500. She did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Sanford Kreisberg, head of the Cambridge Essay Service, said the admissions process is hardly corrupted by him charging up to $300 to brainstorm and polish essays. "We do the same thing here as an English teacher or an educated parent," he said.
Perhaps more: What Kreisberg offers, like many of his colleagues, is a supposed sensibility about which essay ideas and strategies are best, and which will catch a dean's eye.
"An essay can really make them like you, if you hit it right," he said. "People realize the essay's important, and they have more resources today, so they're willing to do whatever it takes."
It's hard to know how undergraduate colleges factor the essay. Most say there is no perfect essay - only a piece of writing that can illuminate a side of a student that the rest of the application may not. Colleges say they're looking for the whole person, and not simply relying on SAT scores, given that more educators, politicians, and minority groups are decrying overreliance on tests.
Officials at Princeton, Yale and other top schools say the right essay can tip the scale in favor of an acceptance envelope, but they could not quantify the weight.
"The irony is, the more focus we put on essays, and the more anxiety that focus prompts, the less likely it is that applicants will be able to relax and do the job that reflects who they are," said Steve LeMenager, acting dean of admission at Princeton.