|Which comic strip character does |
this U. of Chicago applicant resemble?
Robots or Aliens as Parents? Colleges Gauge Applicants’ Creativity
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
As legions of high school seniors polish their college applications, plowing through predictable essay topics about their lives and goals, they might also run across something like this: “Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”
A small but growing number of select colleges have turned to off-kilter questions like that one, part of this year’s application to the University of Chicago, or like this one, from Brandeis University: “You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?” ...
And even those are tame compared with some choices from the last few years, like “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” (Brandeis), or “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” (Chicago).
For the colleges, such questions set them apart, though the applications invariably give a choice of subjects, including some that are closer to traditional. And at a time when some elite colleges worry that high school students are more likely to be high achievers than independent thinkers, oddball essay questions offer a way to determine which of the A-student, high-test-score, multi-extracurricular applicants can also show a spark of originality.
A quirky essay subject can seem like a burden to students who, already stressed out by the application process, find that being diligent and brilliant is not enough — that colleges also want them to be whimsical and creative. Teenagers pepper social media with complaints about the questions, though they do not want to be interviewed, for fear of alienating their colleges of choice.
But others embrace the chance to express themselves, seeing it as a welcome relief from the ordinary applications.
“Usually, the essay prompts are boring,” said Sam Endicott [pictured], a high school senior from Edmond, Okla., who said he chose the University of Chicago’s topic on explaining a joke. “They don’t inspire a whole lot of creativity. I like the ones that allow more free rein to be a little different.”
One reason for colleges' quirky essay questions is to discriminate against Asians, who are viewed as often not contributing much to classroom discussion beyond "Will this be on the test?"
A college admission issue I've never seen investigated quantitatively is quantity and quality of class participation. How important is class participation and how do you predict it?
I suspect it matters to the morale of professors. But it's hard to quantify on USNWR ratings, so it can't be treated as really important.
The main tools for predicting class participation are likely recommendations and interviews.
I suspect recommendations work best for students who attend plugged in high schools. If you are at Groton, and the counselor writes that you are one of the three best students for class participation in the last decade at Groton, that turns heads at colleges. If you go to some average school, though, how much do effusive recommendations help?
Interviews are similar — they don't quantify on USNWR rankings, the sample sizes are tiny, and how much can you believe some interviewer's recommendation?
Also, one-on-one conversational ability is somewhat different from group discussion ability. I was always okay at the former, but was, not surprisingly, extremely good at group discussions.
What quantitative measures correlate with strong classroom participation? Off the top of my head, I'd guess: strong verbal logic and a large supply of information.
In 1981, an old teacher of mine who had always been overqualified (e.g., Harvard Ph.D.) for my high school and thus had moved on to L.A.'s top academic high school, now-called Harvard-Westlake, told me that Harvard-Westlake required Asian applicants to have much higher test scores and grades than other applicants because they were so passive in the classroom. He was all in favor of discriminating against Asians.
Perhaps that isn't fair, but has anybody measured this question?
It's important to note that anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard-Westlake wasn't some rudiment of the fading past, it was based on observations of a new flood of affluent Asian students in the 1970s. Harvard-Westlake (my high school's arch-enemy in debate) was just years ahead of the rest of the country.