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January 8, 2010

Sharing of essay brings praise, complaints

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid James Nondorf hoped to “lighten the mood” of applicants this December, distributing an application essay by an Early Action candidate who’d already been accepted to prospective students. Many applicants and parents, however, were not amused.

Some said Nondorf’s e-mail put added pressure on applicants to change their essays at the last minute, while some complained the visceral confessions in the essay, written as a sexually-charged love letter to the University, were simply too ostentatious.

“Dear University of Chicago, It fills me up with that gooey sap you feel late at night when I think about things that are really special to me about you,” the essay, which was submitted by a student identified only as Rohan, began. “Tell me, was I just one in a line of many? Was I just another supple ‘applicant’ to you, looking for a place to live, looking for someone to teach me the ways of the world?”

Users of College Confidential, a Web site that hosts admissions advice forums, have posted over 200 comments to a thread discussing Nondorf’s e-mail, which has also drawn the attention of The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. Most debated the merit of the essay itself, but some criticized Nondorf, who is in his first year as admissions director, for his decision to circulate the essay. Publicizing a current, successful essay, they argued, forces those who wrote similar essays to start from scratch, and those who wrote more sober essays to amp up the quirkiness.

“My essay is very similar. Now it’ll look like I ripped off this one,” user plumdum229 wrote. “I have no choice now but to change it completely, right?”

“It discredits a lot of people who were going to do something similar for their essay,” user Rumjhum wrote in response to a thread entitled, “Why dean, why?!”

Others found the content of the essay inappropriate, and expressed frustration that Nondorf seemed to endorse its personal, explicit form.

“I think the ‘Essay’ is too provocative,” user Greenery wrote. “I feel uncomfortable...like it should have been kept private.”

Still more were worried that their own essays, which were similar, would be rejected for copycatting. Nondorf addressed the concern in a statement released by the University.

“There is nothing wrong with sending similar essays,” he said. “This is just one example of a student response to the prompt.”

Despite the criticism, many College Confidential users praised the essay and dismissed complaints that distributing the essay was inappropriate. “The feedback to our office about Rohan’s essay has been overwhelmingly positive. Our current students loved it, and we thought it reflected the sort of clever, creative spirit that tends to thrive at UChicago,” Nondorf said.

Nondorf declined to comment further.

However, in response to the negative feedback, the Prospective Students Advisory Committee (PSAC), which works with the admissions office, posted a comment in the College Confidential thread on behalf of Nondorf admitting that, “We sent out the essay to lighten the mood, but it seems that it might have backfired a bit.” Nondorf expressed a “sincere apology if it did not hit the mark.”

Rohan, whom Nondorf said in his original letter to applicants would matriculate, concluded his essay with a direct plea to the University.

“Whenever I’m around you, I just get that tingle deep inside me that tells me you’re the one,” he wrote. “I wish we could be together, I still think in my heart of hearts we were meant to be, but you have to meet me halfway, dear. I’m on one knee here with tears welling up in my eyes, the fireworks are timed and ready to light up the night sky for you, just say ‘I accept...you.’”