Admissions Form Stirs Debate at U. of Chicago

University of Chicago students are proud of the quirky questions on their school's application. Many are wary of the university's plans to also use an online form accepted by more than 300 schools.

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The University of Chicago says that in two years it will begin accepting what's known as the common application - an online form used by prospective students to apply to several colleges at once. But the move isn't sitting well with many current and former University of Chicago students who say they take pride in the U of C's uncommon application, especially its quirky essay questions. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? That's how one recent question on the University Chicago's uncommon application began, as it asked perspective students to write an essay inspired by super-huge mustard. It's questions like that or what do you think of Wednesday that many students says is one of the key reasons they came to the U of C.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JESSIE ROITLER(ph) (Freshman, University of Chicago): I was really proud of my essay I wrote. It had to do with string cheese.

SCHAPER: Jessie Roitler is a first year student from Charlotte, North Carolina, eating lunch in Reynolds' Hall - the University of Chicago's Student Union. She says after weeding her way through other colleges' predictable and boring applications, she had a lot of fun with the uncommon application.

Ms. ROITLER: And it was kind of like a dare, because I thought it was so quirky and so out there. And I was like, if this school likes it and wants to take me, then I dare them to. And they did, so it kind of meant something more, yeah.

SCHAPER: Roitler says she and other students fear the University of Chicago would lose a little bit of its offbeat identity if it eliminated the uncommon application.

Ms. ROITLER: The school kind of lacks, like, athletic school spirit, and it lacks maybe some other quintessential college experience things. But I think the uncommon application is something we do have. It does represent this unified quirkiness that we're all proud of, and I'd hate to see it go.

SCHAPER: University officials promise it won't, even though the U of C will become one of more than 300 colleges that accept the Common Application, an electronic applications students fill out once and can send to as many schools as they want. School officials say they will keep their quirky essay questions as part of the application, too.

Dean MICHAEL BEHNKE (Vice President and Dean, Student Enrollment, University of Chicago): Nothing's changed, really. It's an addition. It's not a replacement.

SCHAPER: Michael Behnke is vice president and Dean of Student Enrollment at the University of Chicago.

Dean BEHNKE: We decided to apply for membership in the Common Application primarily because it's become the way students apply to college.

SCHAPER: Behnke says the Common Application is expected to be used by more than 300,000 perspective college students this year, who will be sending in more than a million applications electronically.

Dean BEHNKE: If you want to get the attention of high school students, you don't ignore numbers like that.

SCHAPER: Even though the University of Chicago rose this year to number nine in the U.S. News and World Report rankings of elite universities, Behnke says the school is still not very well known nationally, and often overlooked by students applying to Ivy League schools. As one of some 300 schools students can click and send a basic application too, Behnke says the University of Chicago is hoping to broaden its base of applicants to include more low income and minority students.

But Luis Lara, a third-year student from Miami, disagrees. He says the University of Chicago would be better off spending more to recruit students in inner city neighborhoods, like it did with him. And even though university administrators promised to keep the quirky essay questions, he says the Common Application is another step in what he calls the homogenization of higher education.

Mr. LUIS LARA (Junior, University of Chicago): We're just following the path of every other school. I think - I know that the Common Application people are bragging that they have more schools switching to them. But I don't think that's a good thing.

SCHAPER: Lara says universities should strive to show prospective students what makes them unique, and that applicants should also demonstrate what makes them different. He and others suspect the real reason for the change is to boost the school to even higher college rankings.

Mr. LARA: Because more visibility is going to get a higher applicant pool. And a higher applicant pool is going to get us a lower rate of acceptance. And that's a part of U.S. News rank.

SCHAPER: University of Chicago officials deny that the change is motivated by the desire to rise higher in magazine rankings.

Before the holiday break, Lara led a campus protest against the Common Application, and more than 1,200 people signed his online petition opposing the change. But as classes resumed this week, the controversy has died down a bit. Most students say they're okay with it now, as long as applicants will still be asked to answer weird essay questions, like the one on this year's application, which asks students to respond to this quote from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, "Don't play what's there. Play what's not there."

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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