Since the turn of the twentieth century, admission into America’s most elite colleges has always been a straightforward matter of selling out. The days when pure wit garnered fresh high school graduates passage into the academic aristocracy have faded like an aged daguerreotype. Our places of higher learning say they have spotted something past the hemispheres of the brain—fixated their eyes on a strange substance that cannot be sifted through the monotonic sieve of a Scantron. In fact, this thing, so amorphously defined, is referred to only by the shapeless sobriquet of Character, and over the years numerous apparatuses have been formulated to capture its diffuse shades: the personal statement, the interview process, the Jung 16-type personality test, the handwriting analysis. Every year new techniques aiming to draw out the applicant’s true character bud into practice. Most rely on the use of intimate essay prompts, asking applicants to respond wholeheartedly to questions one might expect to hear on _The Dating Game_. Some applications go as far as to ask about the applicant’s favorite word, quotation from a film, ice-cream flavor, and animal. Differences aside, every prompt believes itself to be a spyglass into a person’s soul. Yet in those hurried weeks spent filling out college applications, I kept thinking to myself that these questions matched, nearly line for line, the makeup of my childhood conversations:
_“Who is your hero and why?”_
“Spiderman. He can sling webs and defends us from the bad guys.”
_“What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?”_
“When my swimming trunks came off as I was getting out of the pool.”
_“What is your favorite animal?”_
In the fourth grade, I believed I shared a unique, soul-to-soul bond with a certain playmate because the two of us thought okapis were the coolest animals in the world. We were best friends back then because we appreciated the virtues of the same African ungulate. Things just are not so black and white anymore. And maybe college admissions offices realize this as well.
Perhaps the perennial shifting of the college application indicates the admission committees’ own lack of confidence in their measuring sticks. Many colleges now even offer applicants the option to create their own essay prompts, clearly in hopes that applicants might know better what to ask themselves. Still other schools, like the University of Chicago, take a more experimental approach, perhaps in hopes of catching the applicant off-guard by asking an array of the most Carrollian questions. The essential intention of all these essays seems to be to find out exactly what sort of person each candidate is—or seems to be. Although the motivations for such probing seem sound, the results are often uncertain. For the smartest candidates know what the personal essays have come to be all about and use this knowledge to their advantage. When a prompt asks for an applicant’s role model or his or her most hard-earned life lesson, the admissions officer on the other side does not really care about the obvious objective of the question. Exactly whom the applicant admires or what the applicant learned is a MacGuffin. A thousand candidates might write about how much they admire Barack Obama or about seeing the true value of diversity or the importance of family or teamwork or any other highly regarded value that might make the candidate seem like an admirable individual, but, in the end, college admissions is a filtering process in which the bland or poorly executed applications congeal into inseparable chunks and the unique, captivating candidates pass on through with a shimmer. Ultimately what has come to matter is the way the applicant crafts his self-presentation. The substance of Character has been distilled into the age-old Hollywood pillars of story and production. With a whole slew of services boasting names like The Ivy Coach, Ivy Insiders, and Ivy Success, there is now a whole industry centered on entertaining the admissions committees with the most astounding personal memoirs and profiles of the most fascinating and well-spoken individuals. The concept of individuality, once natural and spontaneous, has become institutionalized into a perverse art form.
Taking these recent trends in college applications into account, Tufts University’s latest admissions supplement, a short video essay of around a minute in length, does not seem revolutionary or unexpected at all, but rather the natural capstone of the modern college application. A Tufts admission officer states sincerely in his admissions blog, “I’m a huge fan of our supplement, and asking me to pick which essay prompts I like best is like asking me to pick which ice cream flavor at Tosca- nini’s is my favorite.” Lee Coffins, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Tufts, states he first came up with the idea of the video essay while on YouTube. “I thought, ‘If this kid applied to Tufts, I’d admit him in a minute, without anything else.’” Admissions officers are clearly jaded by the intimate rag of personal es- says, and are looking for something more engaging. To be fair, if I spent every day in Toscanini’s I’d be a little jaded of ice-cream as well. Yet, the distinction between impressive and entertaining can often be a fine line to draw, and the distinction between academic potential and impressiveness may be an even finer line to draw, especially when exactly what is taken to be impressive is something as loosely defined as Character, and the candidate knows just what antics a bored college admissions officer might find refreshingly entertaining. Admittedly, Tuft’s new “U-Tube” supplement blatantly confounds all these qualities.
A smattering of candidate videos shows many to be quite fun and lighthearted. One candidate combines her loves of “being a nerd and dancing” through performance of the Math Dances, products of her own invention. One dance imitates an x,y-scatterplot, another a sin and cosine wave, and yet another a pie chart. Her dances give the impression of an inside joke with herself, and her repressed jolts of laughter after each dance reveal that her slight embarrassment. She comes off as creative, unconventional, and spontaneous. Other videos show strong desire for admittance. One video is from a girl who recently had surgery on her jaw. She raps about her operation with rubber bands in her mouth preventing her from overextending her, apparently still aching, mandibles. This painful performance highlights her resilience. She seems to be grimacing through half her lines, but clearly she is determined to get into Tufts and this video not only shows her commitment, but also places her within the ranks of other broken-jaw rappers such as Kanye West. Still, the final question is whether these applicants would have recorded themselves in such compromising states if not for a chance to lighten the final judgments of an admissions officer. Probably not.
Yet many videos are essentially slideshows of action shots of candidates doing something that may be deemed interesting or impressive. Watching an action shot of one candidate posing in a West Point polo shirt at a summer camp with a bold-faced caption exclaiming “Leadership,” I could not help being reminded of the shameless self-promotion of the infamous Aleksey Vayner video résumé, “Impossible is Nothing,” which circulated virally across the Internet a couple of years ago. The video featured Vayner, an applicant to UBS AG, pumping big iron, ballroom dancing, and talking to the cameraman about the secrets to success. The video also featured spliced in footage of a skier—who was not Vayner—performing a perfect 360 ̊ and of a black-belt—who was also not Vayner—karate chopping a stack of seven bricks.
Sure, the Tufts video essays are less overblown and less conspicuous than the extremes of “Impossible is Nothing,” but the same underlying sentiments are still there. And I don’t blame them. In times when our elite educational institutions treat Character as a commodity, as a substance to be panned out like gold to gild their halls with, no enterprising students should be blamed for offering themselves up as shining caricatures.