How the Internet is killing the dreaded admissions essay

Images from Betty Quinn's video supplement to her application to Tufts University.

Five years ago, Tufts University was among the first higher-education institutions to accept short-form videos, perhaps shared with the school via YouTube, as an alternative or addition to a written application essay. Lee Coffin, the school’s dean of undergraduate admissions, recalls that there was some drop-jawed skepticism about the legitimacy of this option at the time: To some the notion sounded not only less than credible, but downright silly.

But in 2013, it seems clear that technology shifts are reshaping the parameters of venerable admissions rituals at many schools. George Mason, William and Mary, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland have all accepted video and multimedia materials; traditional essay-question prompts are changing to reflect the reality of Internet culture. The University of Virginia this year asks: “To tweet or not to tweet?” MIT recently heralded the opening of its current online application form with some snappy GIFs. And applicants to Tufts grappled with a question linking the ancient Roman notion of carpe diem with a more contemporary idea: “What does #YOLO mean to you?”

Of course, the intersection of Web culture and higher ed aspirations hasn’t always been pretty. The discovery of a Google doc collection of Columbia University application essays became fodder for Gawker snark. And arguably the most viral bit of college-admission content ever was an op-ed earlier this year from a high schooler complaining about (or lampooning) the gap between university and applicant expectations.

The whole notion of new media incursion into the staid realm of the application essay may sound a little fishy to you. But the reality is almost exactly the opposite of the knee-jerk stereotype.

The influence of technology on the application process is more subtle; nobody is getting into a school because of a good tweet. The University of Chicago uses its alumni and student email networks, for example, to crowdsource its famously clever essay prompts. And the vast majority of applicants even to new-media-friendly schools still opt for the traditional written essay. And that’s fine, says Tufts’ Coffin. The point isn’t to force potential students to play by a new set of rules, let alone provide them techno-shortcuts. The point is to acknowledge that there is more than one way to identify promising students.

Interestingly, Coffin says that at Tufts the decision to accept video or Web-based material had decidedly analog roots. Some years ago, Robert Sternberg, then the school’s dean of arts and sciences, pushed for new ways of exploring “conceptions of merit” among applicants — by including in the admissions process a challenge to “do something with an 8X11 piece of paper.” This experiment yielded compelling responses from art, architecture, and theater hopefuls that demonstrated “demonstrations of student merit that you don’t necessarily capture if you only let them write an essay,” Coffin recalls.

Building on that insight is what led to trying out videos and other Web-based material — not as a replacement to essays, but as an option. And as it happens, this more tech-forward approach played into broader trends.

“It seemed consistent with the way teachers are developing their curriculums in high school,” Coffin adds. “The pedagogy has shifted; it’s not just a chalkboard anymore.”

The mere willingness to accept new-media application material, assistant director of admissions Justin Pike suggests, bolsters Tufts’ image as a school that’s in tune with the Internet era: Even students who submit traditional essays often note their appreciation of the school’s recognition of new-media alternatives as perfectly legitimate.

And that was true even back in 2009, when Betty Quinn was among the earlier Tufts aspirants to supplement her application with an impressive stop-motion video — which racked up tens of thousands of views as a result of media coverage at the time. Turns out that while then-Virginia-resident Quinn was accepted, she ended up going to the University of Virginia.

But from what she told me recently, making that video for Tufts seems to have had a much more lasting effect than most essay-writing exercises do. At the time she was thinking of pursing a journalism or pre-med degree, and had never made a video. “Telling my story in a completely different media” was an eye-opener, she recalls, and ultimately she shifted her focus to the creative side of marketing, particularly film, animation, and interaction design; today she’s in grad school at Parsons. And people still randomly bring up her Tufts video.

“I loved the entire process,” she says now — and when you consider that she’s talking about the process of applying to college, that’s a pretty remarkable statement.

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