In 2001, an enterprising high school student sent an application to UC Santa Cruz. Her personal essay consisted of a drawn flower whose petals formed the word, "creativity." The center of the flower formed the phrase, "The Courage to Try."
Had this application been received at MIT or Cal Tech, I suspect the reviewers would have blinked a few times, and then dropped the document in the trash -- not because they are mean-spirited or ill-informed, but because such an applicant would be unlikely to conform to the ethos and character of their institutions. At Santa Cruz, however, they were tickled. The student earned admission, thrived and is today an enthusiastic alumna.
This story illustrates the powerful advantages of quality fit between college applicants and schools. For the student, a well-matched institution provides years of social and educational stimulation. For the school, happy, high performing students mean low attrition, more tuition and eventually an enthusiastic alumni body.
In spite of the advantages of a good match, high school students have been applying to ever-larger numbers of colleges each year. They often do so in a scattershot approach that appears to be more "Hail Mary" than the product of careful deliberation. Faced with their own pressures to increase enrollment, schools will simply try to "stuff the pipeline," and then focus on those students who meet the threshold for SAT/ACT scores and GPA.
In many respects, the needs of students and institutions appear to diverge. For students, after discounting for athletic, legacy and other specialty admissions, there can be vanishingly few spots remaining at their top choice colleges. Schools, on the other hand, are saddled with the thankless task of churning thorough more prospective students, locked in fierce competition with peer institutions around the country.
U.S. News and World Report rankings aside, there is, in fact, a way to align these apparently competing interests. Rather than focusing on raw numbers, colleges must focus far more tightly on getting the proper fit; that is, students who can not only perform well, but who will be happy and persist until graduation. From a fiscal standpoint, one such student is worth far more to a college than 10 geniuses who would find that campus intolerable.
Along with traditional application essays, in-person interviews have long been the forum of choice for students and schools to vet one another. Today, however, such interviews are considered more of a luxury than a requirement. In an effort to recapture a personalized and humanistic process, schools like Tufts and George Mason University are increasingly accepting video essays and statements in lieu of in-person interviews.
Of the 15,437 applicants to Tufts' 2014 graduating class, about 1,000 submitted video applications. Tufts -- and increasingly other institutions -- understand that the ability to present oneself well physically is as important as the ability to write effectively. This competency will be on display in every class, every job interview, and every subsequent business endeavor in which the student engages. Based upon the questions that are posed, video can showcase a wide range of talents in a relatively short time frame. In short, whether the school is interested in spontaneity, meticulous preparation, verbal acuity, humor, self-confidence, or even general English-language skills, video can help talented college officials determine the all-important element of "fit."
Whether students are nerdy, or stylish, poised, or awkward, what really matters in the end is if the individual will thrive at a given institution. The New York Times' Jane Karr gives a terrific example of this phenomenon in her discussion of New College of Florida applicant Joseph Whitesman. Whitesman sings off key and is entirely silly in his video -- yet the Chairwoman of Admissions, "loved that he wanted to serenade" her team. In other words, a good video submission reflects the individual applicant's strengths as they apply to a college's needs. If the applicant can win "American Idol" or if he should stick to singing in the shower is truly irrelevant.
The bottom line? We live in a technology-driven, interactive world. If students want to demonstrate their value and if universities want to admit better "fits," they are both well served by using this readily available technology.