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In 2001, the illustrious Elle Woods dazzled Harvard Law School's admissions office as she strutted across the television screen in nothing but a very tasteful bikini. Clearly, her magnetic visual appeal would more than make up for an otherwise empty portfolio. Her artfully sculpted hair and brilliantly pink apparel would be certain indicators of her success as a future lawyer.

Prospective college women everywhere were eager to imitate Elle's seductive expertise and used Legally Blonde as a guidebook to university admissions. Surely, a glittery video montage or even one solo photograph would be the key to acceptance at the most venerated schools across America.

A ridiculous idea, perhaps, but not so far from the truth when applying to Penn. At the end of our application Form 1B, question No. 8 reads: "(Optional) It is always gratifying for us to be able to match an application with the face of someone [whom] we may have met. . To this end, please attach a recent photograph."

Optional or not, there is absolutely no reason why Penn should ever request an applicant's photo. And our admissions committee provides little defense for its senseless choice.

They want it out of the rare chance you look familiar? Right.

Due to his travel plans and early decision responsibilities, Lee Stetson, dean of admissions, declined to comment.

"Information marked 'optional' on the forms listed below greatly assists our efforts to recruit a diverse student body," the introduction to the application reads. "The information marked 'optional' is voluntary, and providing or omitting an answer will not affect our decisions."

Penn admissions should have been more careful publishing these two sentences - unfortunately, flagrant contradictions undercut their credibility. Information cannot help diversify a population without having an effect on the decision-making process, and the reverse is true as well.

The two sentences could not be more inconsistent!

Of course, no student is required to provide a picture, yet applicants are wary to skip even optional questions, which could imply that they have something to hide.

"I really don't feel comfortable submitting my picture," said Sajid Rove, a high school senior from Woodbridge, N.J., who was visiting Penn. However, "it seems like they do want it, so to be on the safe side, I would submit a photo because I really want to get into the University."

A picture fabricates familiarity as it attempts to connect the reviewer to an applicant - kind of like a muted Web cam. Nothing about the interaction is genuine.

As human beings, the admissions officers cannot pretend to ignore what is right in front of them. Intentionally or not, superficial judgments have to factor into their decisions. At such a prestigious institution, we should not be discriminating among applicants based upon physical appearances - we can't help the features we were born with.

There's also no reason to believe that applicants will necessarily include genuine photos of themselves - after all, Queen Latifah's photo was stapled to my application when I applied to Penn four years ago.

On a more serious note, however, Penn admissions may truly be using the photos to preserve racial diversity. However, this idea could actually just be a euphemism for quota maintenance. Of course, we will never know what goes on behind the scenes, but perhaps the photos are used for ethnicity verification.

Frustratingly, Penn stands quite alone in its tactless request. With the exception of Brown University and a few others, most top-tier schools do not even suggest photo submissions.

"I am unable to imagine why physical appearance should have any impact on an admissions decision, so we do not ask," said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College. "Psychologically, it is hard to believe that seeing a photo plays no role in the decision process. Why ask if it plays no role?"

Michael Gaynor, the director of university admission at Villanova University, also sees no reason to request photos from candidates.

"We evaluate their applications based on a holistic review of their academic credentials, ability to succeed in the classroom and in terms of what they will contribute to our campus community - not the way they appear," Gaynor said.

Villanova and Swarthmore are certainly thriving without an onslaught of high-school portraits. Penn needs to eliminate a retrograde practice that only harbors discontent and anxiety among applicants.

And clearly, Penn's photo requests aren't working well - Villanova students are still much better looking.

Sharon Udasin is a College senior from East Brunswick, N.J. Her e-mail address is Shed a Little Light appears on Mondays.

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