RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
What if instead of writing an essay to go with your college application, you could draw a picture? Or instead of writing about an important life experience, you could write a short story? That's exactly what Tufts University outside Boston is hoping students will do. Beginning this year, Tufts is offering applicants several new unconventional essay questions in hopes that students will offer better clues about themselves. Tufts move comes as universities are struggling over the question of which students to admit from a growing number of applicants.
In the latest in our series on alternatives to the college admissions game, here's NPR's Tovia Smith.
TOVIA SMITH: It's easy to feel for college applicants laboring to come up with 300 original words about a personal hero or a life-changing experience. But you may not think to pity the guy who has to read all those essays.
Professor LEE COFFIN (Dean of Admissions, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts): We read the same essay over and over and over again, and they all say the same thing.
SMITH: Lee Coffin, dean of admissions at Tufts, says he gets thousands of applications every year with polished but predictable essays, like "My Grandfather, My Hero" or "My Summer in Costa Rica."
Prof. COFFIN: They would talk about leaving the Unites States for the first time, encountering poverty in a real and deep way, and being struck and moved by that. But one essay from the other was interchangeable. And the voice is what's missing.
SMITH: It's a problem, Coffin says, since schools really count on essays to help sort through what he calls the qualified muddle. That's the vast majority of kids who have good grades, recommendations and extra-curriculars, but who on paper tend to look the same.
Now Tufts is hoping to better distinguish among students by asking better questions. So kids can choose to write an essay, for example, about the book that most helped them understand themselves. Or they can write a short story, about, say, The End of MTV, or What if Rosa Parks Did Give up Her Seat on the Bus? Or they can draw an ad for a movie.
Professor ROBERT STERNBERG (Dean of Arts and Sciences, Tufts University): Our argument is that the problem has not been lack of creativity in the students, but lack of creativity in the college admissions process.
SMITH: Tufts dean of arts and sciences, Robert Sternberg, designed the new questions based on research he did as a psychology professor at Yale. He says his questions can not only predict academic success, but they can also measure different aspects of intelligence. Since Tufts' mission is to train future leaders, Sternberg says his questions are meant to assess kids' leadership potential, which he breaks down to a mix of creativity, practicality, analytical skills and a certain kind of wisdom that's different than book smarts.
Prof. STERNBERG: Rather than say we want the kids who have the highest SATs -you know, let's take the kid with the 750 instead of the 740, wow, that'll help us get a better position in U.S. News and World Report. Sure we want kids who are good in academics. But the difference will be that these are kids that the world will be a different place for their having been in it.
SMITH: So far, Admissions Dean Lee Coffin says it's working. The essays are still optional, but most students who answer them are letting their hair down, and revealing that je ne sais quois that Tufts is looking for.
Prof. COFFIN: Here's one. It's a short story prompt "Confessions of a Middle-School Bully." This boy writes: You know that huge kid middle school with a crew cut who pushed you in the hallway and called you a twerp? Yeah. That was me.
Mr. EVERETT WALLACE (High School Senior; Tufts University applicant): …who pushed you in the hallway and called you a twerp: Yeah. That was me. I did what I wanted when I wanted, and no one objected.
SMITH: Everett Wallace, a high-school senior from a suburb just outside Boston, says he groaned when he first saw Tufts' new essay questions. But once he started writing, he really got into the character of his fifth-grade bully, and his comical attempts to reform by applying the ideas of the great ethical philosophers. Like when this fictional toughie learns from Immanuel Kant that he should do what he would want everyone else to do.
Mr. WALLACE: So he does things like, well, at lunch, I've got this cookie, and wouldn't it be nice if everyone gave out cookies? So he goes over to someone who he's probably bullied before and give him a cookie. And the kid is terrified and he says, no, I don't want your cookie. And he says, no, you're taking my cookie. I'm being ethical here. So he starts force-feeding him the cookie and the teacher comes over and she sends him to the principal again.
SMITH: Ultimately, Dean Coffin says, the essay earned Wallace early admission.
Prof. COFFIN: It was witty, it was well-informed, it was smart - and that was all you needed to know about this kid.
SMITH: Other schools, like University of Chicago, for example, have been asking quirky essay questions for years. But Tufts is the first to attempt to use the questions as a kind of scientific metric to gauge such intangibles as leadership. Tufts will be tracking students to see if those who write great essays, do in fact, turn out to be leaders.
But some experts are skeptical.
Professor HOWARD GARDNER (Harvard University): The essays might indicate whether you have a quirky kind of mind, whether you can think about things outside-the-box, so to speak, whether you might be an interesting person to have on campus - but it's probably not the right way to assess leadership or practicality or creativity, in my view.
SMITH: Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and author of the classic book on multiple intelligences, says Tufts' new questions may mean the school gets a more diverse group of students. But he says evaluating kids the right way would probably requires the good old face-to-face interview.
Prof. GARNER: Years ago, Harvard had quite a diabolical interviewer named Daniel Fauchenstein(ph). He used to do things like nail the window shut, and ask the students to open it and see what they would do. Or when they would come in, he would be crawling on the floor, saying he couldn't find his contact lenses and see if they freaked out or if they helped him. So the $64.00 question is, do we have to be much, much more imaginative?
SMITH: But most colleges today are more interested in being expedient than imaginative. Ted O'Neil is dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, which just announced plans to make its famously quirky questions optional rather than required. The questions do elicit better answers. But on the down side, O'Neil says, they tend to discourage some students from applying. That can make a campus less diverse. And fewer applicants can also make a school look less selective, which may mean a drop in its ranking.
Professor TED O'NEIL (Dean of Admissions, University of Chicago): Sometimes, being imaginative costs you. And the question is, how many of us are willing to bear the costs of being different, being imaginative, asking tougher questions? And I think we all have some reluctance to do that.
SMITH: Still, many schools are watching Tufts' experiment with cautious optimism. MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones says Tufts may be on to something — if not a silver bullet, at least a way to loosen kids up a little, and get them to write essays that are a little less safe and a little more inspired.
Professor MARILEE JONES (Dean of Admissions, MIT): Student come through, highly distinguished, but utterly lacking in joy. That's why we're trying to figure out, is there some other way that we can find the essence of the human? Who is this being here? Not the doing, but who is the being in this application?
SMITH: Ultimately, the individualized essay questions may reveal more than just what makes students unique, so schools can decide who to admit, but they'll also show what's unique about universities, so students can decide where to apply.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
MONTAGNE: And if you tune in to ALL THING CONSIDERED this afternoon, you can hear how top African American students have to decide between an Ivy League school or an historically black college. And you can read expert advice on finding the right college, getting accepted and paying for it at npr.org.
This is NPR News.