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College blogs tell it like it is

Schools ask students to give applicants a real account of campus life

MIT sophomore Lulu Liu, who keeps a blog for the school's admissions office, cooked dinner in a dormitory kitchen in Cambridge. (JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)

She stopped showing up for most of her classes, pulled frequent all-nighters, and overslept exams. Worse, writes MIT sophomore Lulu Liu on her blog, she skipped meals, growing skinny and sick.

Yet she still earned A's and B's.

"If it pleases you to lock yourself in your room -- except to sneak out late at night in a trench coat to turn in your problem sets -- . . . you'll find good company here," Liu wrote.

Liu writes about her college experiences in as much excruciating detail as she wishes -- for $10 an hour, courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's admissions office. Uncensored blogs by Liu, nine other students, and four admissions and financial aid officers are the first thing that visitors to the admissions website see.

Eager to forge stronger connections with prospective students and parents, MIT and other universities in the last two years have been starting blogs and recruiting undergraduate bloggers. Blogging has become one of the hottest trends in college admissions.

The message from student bloggers isn't always pretty, yet college officials say the blogs are worth the risk. High school students can get unvarnished views of any colleges from Facebook, MySpace, or unsanctioned student blogs. They may be more inclined to trust a school they think is willing to show them real campus life, officials say. Plus, the technology gives colleges another tool to help applicants make the best decision, especially if they cannot afford to fly in for an overnight stay.

In contrast to Liu's, some of these blogs come off as cloyingly cheerful, like a college brochure in modern disguise. "I have always been really impressed with the spirit of volunteerism at our school," raves a Dartmouth senior.

Still, even the blogs that come off as promotional are often filled with talk of too much work, not enough sleep, and frightening weather. "So, you know it's cold in Ithaca when your whole body gets so chapped and dried out that you need to apply liberal amounts of PURE VASELINE to your body twice a day just to keep your skin from cracking," writes Cornell senior Ben Crovella .

"We all have these glossy brochures, and most of them are trying to be as much like Harvard as possible," said Matt McGann , an admissions officer and blogger at MIT. "We see blogs as a way we can say, 'This is what a university really is.' There's some good and some bad. There is no perfect university, so we want to show a little bit of what makes MIT interesting and unique."

One-quarter of all college admissions offices offer blogs written by students or admissions personnel, according to a forthcoming study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Blogs by school officials are more common, but the undergrad uate blogs appear to be catching up. Cornell, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins have undergraduates blogging for prospective students, as do smaller local schools like Olin College of Engineering, Hampshire, and Providence College. MIT, one of the pioneers of the practice, recruited its first student bloggers in 2004.

Most schools choose their bloggers carefully. Some are campus tour guides, some come recommended by faculty.

MIT prefers to hire students who already have their own blogs. Cornell pays $50 a month, while Johns Hopkins and Olin College enlist volunteers.

Several college officials said that some of their counterparts at other schools review blog entries before they are posted, yet all of those interviewed said their students post uncensored, as long as they abide by general guidelines. Most schools ask students not to swear or talk about underage drinking and drug use.

"If you are comfortable saying it in front of your mother, it's probably OK," said Cornell's Lisa Cameron-Norfleet of her advice to the student bloggers. "We do have bad weather, and college students do drink . . . If it's not an authentic story, they'll see right through it."

Daniel Creasy , Johns Hopkins' s senior assistant director of admissions, is a little stricter with his bloggers. It's all right for them to post something negative, he says, as long as they show "the other side of the story." He once asked a young woman to remove a reference to stealing medical supplies because she hadn't made it clear that she was joking, he said.

Maybe 1 in 10 comments he receives is a complaint about the "propaganda," Creasy said, but the rest are appreciative that the blogs undermine the myth that "fun comes to die" at Johns Hopkins. He said the blogs are one of several factors that have helped the university boost applications by 31 percent over two years.

Hampshire College in Amherst is known for being nontraditional, and third-year student Katharine Duckett lives up to that reputation with her blog under the name Katharine Hott McAwesome .

In one entry, she brings up actress Naomi Watts , writing, "but this is not the blog for hot, deluded lesbian fantasies. (If you want that blog, though, just let me know and I'll get you the link. . .)." She writes that Watts is having a baby with actor Liev Schreiber , a Hampshire graduate. "And what does this mean for you, bright-eyed, eager prospective student? FACT: If you come to Hampshire, you will someday impregnate a movie star. Seriously, it's in the Admissions literature."

"If the stuff on my blog makes you uncomfortable, it should make you think a little about what you will be encountering at Hampshire," Duckett said in an interview.

At MIT, the admissions website gets 15,000 page views a day.

A survey of all students admitted last year found that the blogs were among the top three most useful things in helping them decide whether to apply or to accept an offer. MIT applicants should know that the academic challenges are great, but they should also know that contrary to stereotype, MIT students can have a lot of fun, McGann said.

One MIT blogger posted pictures of herself in a short skirt and halter top she made out of duct tape for a party with an "Anything But Clothes" theme, and another linked to a YouTube video depicting two students who rigged their dorm room with strobe lights and techno music so that it turned into an instant rave when they pressed the "party button."

Liu's entry about her troubles ended on a more upbeat note: She wrote that she'd broken her self-destructive pattern by changing her major from aeronautics and astronautics to physics, finding classes she liked enough to show up for, sleeping more, and cooking for herself.

"Being pushed to your limits, and figuring out where your limits are, is part of the MIT experience," she said in an interview. "I felt like I had an obligation as a representative of MIT to share that. We don't want students to be shocked by what they experience here."

Karin Fisher , a high school senior in Northern California who is almost certain to enroll at MIT, said she's been hooked on the admissions blogs since junior year. (The other colleges she considered didn't have admissions blogs.)

"Before I started reading them, MIT was just this thing," she said. "Then I saw these real people, people I would be friends with. It makes you feel included, and it made me like the school a whole lot more."

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