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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When Less Is More

Inside Higher Ed
September 23, 2009
For years now, applicants to highly competitive colleges have complained that they feel that they must do more and more to demonstrate why they should be admitted.

This year, following a pattern that had already taken hold among less competitive institutions (for different reasons), some institutions are asking a little less of applicants, at least when it comes to how much they have to write. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is replacing a longer essay (500 words) with several short questions of about 200 words. The University of Pennsylvania has decided to combine two essay questions about the student's fit into the institution into one, saving students maybe 200 words.

For book-writing academics, 200 words here or there may seem irrelevant. But the admissions officers behind the decisions say that they are asking for less out of the view that they may learn more about applicants by not overwhelming them with so many questions. They also said that it may be time for admissions deans to balance more carefully what they would like to know about applicants -- and the demands on applicants' time.

"At one level, within the admissions office, we constantly ask ourselves what information we would like to receive to get to know a student better.... But at another level, we need to try to put ourselves in the student's shoes, and think about how we can get the information in the most efficient manner, about being judicious with the number of questions," said Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at Penn.

Penn made the changes in its supplement to the Common Application, Furda noted, so applicants have already answered questions there before turning to Penn's university-specific questions. He also noted that Penn has an optional student autobiographical essay, so those who want to say more have the ability to do so. But he said it was important to consider the benefits of asking for less.

For instance, he said that he believes he may learn more about applicants from very short questions than from longer essays, which many admissions officers in recent years have feared are becoming opportunities for coaching if not ghost writing.

Going short with requirements "in some ways makes it less filtered for students," Furda said. "As you are approaching the longer essay, there is this sense of creating the masterpiece, as opposed to 'they are asking me a straightforward question, let me answer it.' "

At MIT, applicants are now given short prompts (such as describing how they have used their creativity) that might have once been the basis for longer essays.

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT, said that the reason for the switch is that those reviewing applicant files found they were learning more from shorter responses than longer ones. "We have for a long time had two shorter essays on the application, and from those we got very direct, clear answers to our questions," he said.

The MIT application instructions also stress that students should not view the short prompts as setting up writing exams. "Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice -- who you are, what drives you, what's important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be real -- this is your opportunity to connect with us," it says.

A column in The Tech, MIT's student paper, backed the change, but also noted some reservations. Ethan Solomon writes that he thought the longer essay gave him a chance to truly "tell a story about myself." But he also believes that the shorter questions are less stressful.

He notes the "significantly more relaxed tone of the short essays ('Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.… This isn’t a trick question.'). From an applicant’s perspective, these kinds of questions aren’t as worrisome and probably result in much less polished responses than a long, 'Common Application' style essay. They force the student to respond directly and, at least from my experience, tend to elicit more honesty -- which is great from an admissions perspective."

In fact, the Common Application doesn't push on length. Rob Killion, executive director, said that until three years ago, the essay was described as having a maximum length of 500 words, and that it was then changed to set a minimum of 250 words. "The intent wasn't to get longer essays, but rather to clarify a minimum, and drop a maximum that most kids ignored anyway," he said.

Of the 268 Common Application members that require supplements from applicants, more require short answer questions (152) than full essays (111).

Kevin Crockett, president and CEO of Noel-Levitz, a company that consults with colleges on admissions and enrollment issues, said he's not surprised by Penn's and MIT's changes, given that many colleges that are not competitive in admissions have already cut back or even eliminated essay requirements.

With colleges that admit most students, he said, many admissions offices found that they weren't using the essays at all, or were considering them only for a minority of applicants. These colleges find value, he said, in a streamlined application that doesn't ask for more than the admissions office needs and doesn't add to the burdens of applicants.

"What you don't want to do is put requirements on everybody that you'll use only in a minority of cases," he said. Crockett noted that if colleges cut back on essay length, and then find that they want more writing from a particular applicant, they can always ask.

Despite that trend, plenty of competitive colleges aren't shortening their essay requirements. Pomona College has optional essays that it encourages applicants to consider in its supplement to the Common Application.

Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona, said that the writing the college receives from the Common Application is "more polished" than the samples in response to the college's more informal questions, such as "Although it may appear to the contrary, we do know that people have a life beyond what they do to get into college. Tell us about an experience you've had outside of your formal classroom and extracurricular activities that was just plain fun and why."

Poch said that question "has proven to be a great 'reveal' because it clearly was written more informally and likely with some haste nearer the deadlines."

Pomona receives "periodic complaints from counselors that we are asking for too much work and should just stick to the Common App, but I still see the Common App as a common core and that each college may want something more particular to their community or mission," Poch said.

And he said there can be value in asking for more. "I'd personally rather ask for a bit more and get completed applications from those who were serious enough to follow through," he said.

— Scott Jaschik

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