SEPARATING EQUILIBRIUM. University of Illinois puzzled by drop in undergraduate applications.

The U of I has followed the lead of the University of Michigan and other schools that have added essay questions to their applications. For the first time, applicants now are asked to write a 500-word "professional statement'' along with the 800-word personal statement that has long been part of the application.

"That could have the effect of reducing applications because a student who is applying to 10 different schools ... will decide not to apply,'' Marshall said, adding: "If those are the students we're losing, they weren't terribly committed to coming to Illinois anyway.''

I'm a bit uneasy about asking people whose experience is limited to high school, or sometimes high school with a stint in the work force or a hitch in the military, to write a brief "professional statement." College is supposed to be an opportunity to discover talents, not necessarily to validate one's adolescent ambitions, or those inculcated by one's parents. On the other hand, if the essay has the effect of discouraging applicants who haven't thought through why they want to attend college (no, the party scene and the opportunity to act foolish on MTV's Spring Break are not good reasons) there might be something to research further.

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