updated 8/22/2007 8:13:50 PM ET 2007-08-23T00:13:50

If there’s a sign of the times in college admissions, it may be this: Steven Roy Goodman, an independent college counselor, tells clients to make a small mistake somewhere in their application — on purpose.

“Sometimes it’s a typo,” he says. “I don’t want my students to sound like robots. It’s pretty easy to fall into that trap of trying to do everything perfectly and there’s no spark left.”

What Goodman is going for is “authenticity” — an increasingly hot selling point in college admissions as a new year rolls around.

In an age when applicants all seem to have volunteered, played sports and traveled abroad, colleges are wary of slick packaging. They’re drawn to high grades and test scores, of course, but also to humility and to students who really got something out of their experiences, not just those trying to impress colleges with their resume.

The trend seemingly should make life easier for students — by reducing the pressure to puff up their credentials. But that’s not always the case.

For some students, the challenge of presenting themselves as full, flawed people cuts against everything else they’ve been told about applying to college — to show off as much as possible.

At the other extreme, when a college signals what it’s looking for, students inevitably try to provide it. So you get some students trying to fake authenticity, to package themselves as unpackaged.

“There’s a little bit of an arms race going on,” says Goodman, who is based in Washington. “If I’m being more authentic than you are, you have to be more authentic next month to keep up with the Joneses.”

Officers seek connections
Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, “everybody’s imperfect.”

“Since that’s true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic.”

How do colleges find authenticity? They look for evidence of interests and passions across the application — in essays, interviews, recommendations and extracurricular activities.

“What we see are the connections,” said Christopher Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina. If a student claims working in student government has been a meaningful experience, it’s a more credible claim if recommenders have picked on that as well.

“That, in my mind, gives authenticity to an application, when you’re reading things more than once,” Gruber said.

Doubt a good essay topics?
But in the age of the hyper-achieving student, authenticity doesn’t always come easy. Some schools, such as MIT, now specifically ask students to write about disappointment or failure. Many can only come up with a predictable and transparent answer: perfectionism.

Will Dix, a counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, who also spent eight years in the Amherst College admissions office, struggles to persuade students that essays about doubt and uncertainty can be at least as interesting to admissions officers as those with a conclusion that’s sweeping but implausibly confident for a 17-year-old.

“No one expects you to solve the mystery of life,” Dix says. “I sometimes get in trouble with parents for advising that. They’ll say, ’(colleges) will think he doesn’t know anything.”’

Dix counters by paraphrasing Socrates via Donald Rumsfeld: “The first thing is to know what you don’t know.”

Essay topics provide challenges
Susan Weingartner, another former admissions officer and now college counseling director at Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School, surveys her juniors about shortcomings and weaknesses. The next year, those now-seniors often are unsure what to write about. She digs up their junior-year responses, where they often find their topic — like one student last year who ultimately wrote a moving essay about his experience being overweight.

Weingartner has noticed more students writing about being gay. Some pull it off, coming across as honest, humble and reflective about the challenges they’ve faced. But others raise alarm bells by appearing to be traumatized or just looking for sympathy.

The challenge for students is a tough one to get your mind around: If you’re authentic, you feel pressure to rise above the fakers. But try too hard to do that, then you just appear to be, well, inauthentic.

Dix summarizes the logical muddle the student is in: “As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it’s impossible to be authentic.”

Giving them what they want to hear
Goodman, the independent counselor who advises making a small mistake to look authentic, unapologetically tries to hit the right note of authenticity: be true enough to make the full application consistent and credible, but also give colleges what they want to hear. He compares it to a politician who has learned to give a stump speech that makes every audience feel like it’s new.

And he defends the tactic with a point that several admissions deans frankly acknowledge: Colleges are guilty of playing games with authenticity, too.

“They soften their image with pictures of kids under trees, smiling in front of the library, engaging with a professor in a small group discussion,” Goodman says. What’s the difference between a college trying to look good to students and the reverse?

David Lesesne, dean of admission at Sewanee, a small Tennessee liberal arts college, admits Goodman has a point.

“Students perhaps have become less authentic to themselves, trying to be what colleges want,” Lesesne said. But colleges have done the same. Schools “are looking to draw more applicants and students are looking to gain acceptance,” he said. “As those numbers grow I think that has caused both sides of the equation to lose a little focus on what should be most important: the match.”

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