College Application 2.0: The Video Essay

High school seniors are hoping to impress colleges by sending videos of themselves at work and at play. The mini-movies range from slick creative productions to amateur-hour card tricks. Although many say there's no stopping the YouTube generation from making and submitting their "video essays," others worry the application process is becoming more like American Idol.

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It's that time of year again when college admissions officials hunker down and slog through reams of college essays, transcripts and teacher recommendations. This year, many students tried to spice up their applications with mini homemade videos.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, they hope that their short movies will take their applications a long way.

TOVIA SMITH: If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then you've got to figure a video would be worth way more than your average college essay.

RACHEL: Hi, Tufts. My name is Rachel and this is a glimpse into my life.

SMITH: Tufts University, which is known for its quirky application questions, invited videos this year to give kids another way to express themselves. They ended up bombarded by more than 1,000.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm a zealous girl with a lot of personality.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm your average teenager in many ways.

SMITH: They are as earnest as they are unforgettable.

Unidentified Woman #2: I have been a dedicated member of the Star Twirlers Baton Twirling Team for five years.

Unidentified Man #2: I can cross one eye, do the wave with my eyebrows and even wiggle my ears.

SMITH: Other impressive onscreen feats include a guy who literally runs up the side of a garage, one who muses aloud in five languages, and...

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, Tufts. I wrote a song for you guys.

SMITH: A range of musical talent.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) At Tufts University (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Hey, why don't you let me in today? I say, why don't...

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) So, now, please don't take too long to accept me.

SMITH: Some of the performances come in on DVD. But most students just post their videos on YouTube and send Tufts the link, so admissions officials are not the only ones watching.

Unidentified Woman #4: This is a kid who I thought was really good.

Unidentified Woman #5: Which one?

SMITH: Online and on campus, fans like current Tufts student Kate Declerk(ph) have made some of the freshmen wannabes into stars. For example, math dance girl, who does a kind of bar graph ballet.

Unidentified Woman #6: I'm here to show you how I combine two of my favorite things: Being a nerd and dancing.

SMITH: She's got nearly 10,000 hits on YouTube from groupies like Tufts senior Erin Flood(ph).

Ms. ERIN FLOOD: That was awesome. So cool. If she doesn't get in, I'm going to refuse to accept my diploma.

SMITH: Tufts officials insist that's not going to sway them. They say they're too busy reading and watching applications to comment further. But other admissions officials say the idea of allowing any part of a college application to be public makes them cringe.

As Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions at the College of William and Mary puts it, this just adds to the already intense pressure on guys like him.

Mr. HENRY BROADDUS (Dean of Admissions, College of William & Mary): It invites, yes, second guessing. And, you know, inevitably people are going to try to reverse engineer the decision process and even wonder: What did they do that I didn't? That's the part that concerns me the most.

SMITH: Broaddus says he also worries the videos put too much focus on style over substance.

Mr. BROADDUS: You know, this isn't "American Idol," nor is it a pageant.

SMITH: But try telling that to students watching YouTube...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: ...who can be just as harsh as anything c ever dished out.

Unidentified Man #5: This one is horrible. He's not getting in.

SMITH: Admissions officials say students should think carefully before deciding to send in what is still an optional video.

Ms. MARIA LASKARIS (Dean of Admissions, Dartmouth College): If humor is not something that comes naturally to you, this isn't the time to take that risk.

SMITH: Dartmouth's Dean of Admissions Maria Laskaris says she worries about piling more pressure on students. And it's only a matter of time, she says, before kids start looking for extra help on their videos like they do with their essays or SATs.

Ms. LASKARIS: You know, all of a sudden, do you hire a professional, you know, videographers, and Francis Ford Coppola or James Cameron to sort of direct a sort of slick presentation? Don't want families to think that's what they have to do next.

SMITH: But Laskaris says there's probably no stopping the videos now. It is the language of this generation. She says even after they're accepted, some kids send another video just to show their gratitude.

(Soundbite of video)

(Soundbite of cheering)

SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(Soundbite of cheering)

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