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Creative Tufts - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Creative Tufts
So, my alma mater has added some creativity questions to the application (article here). Despite my general leaning toward conservative academic standards, I think this is a good thing--one of the things I always liked about Tufts--and it goes from the admissions process on up--is its strong focus on fluency in writing. Even the engineering and math students are expected to spend a lot of time writing. Coherently, even. Given that they've always, as far as I know, put a heavy emphasis on the essay in admissions, it's no wonder that the school is drowning in publications. While I was there, they flatly refused to consider the universal application (because it doesn't show creativity), and one year had an essay on "the most humorous thing that ever happened to you, and how it affected your life." I guess someone was bored with wangsty high school essays. ;)

I do see the concern with subjectivity raised by one of the commenters on the article--it's the exact reason I'm against the essay on the S.A.T.... how in the world are you meant to standardize grading on an essay in any way that counts? Either you're grading it on things that don't especially matter, or you're going to get a lot of different subjective opinions affecting the grading, which defeats the point of a standardized test: to look objectively at differences among students.

There is, however, a reason that the aptitude tests are only a small part of college admissions. They also look at extracurriculars (which is why every time I watch Dead Poets Society, I want to sit down with Neil's father and explain that doing the yearbook, not to mention Shakespeare plays, will be good for college admissions and scholarships), and the essay. Why does that not fall under the same rubric as an S.A.T. essay? Simple--the same group of people, all in contact with one another and in frequent meetings, are reading the essays. They're being judged on the same criteria across the board, and if one admissions officer isn't sure where to put a particular essay, he or she can pop across the hall and have a colleague look it over. (And yes, every essay is read, at least at Tufts. I worked a few semesters in the office, and admissions officers are the hardest working people in administration.) It may still be subjective in terms of all colleges, but you're not going to get accepted or rejected at a particular one based on the luck of the geographic draw, because the standards are the same.

And what of the very real possibility of screening by "acceptable" political views? I'm not sure there. I think, as an alum, I'd like to keep tabs on it. That said, while conservatives on campus enjoyed playing enfants terribles while I was there--and in one case, were highly effective on a free speech issue, getting the president to check with constitutional lawyers and overturn a shockingly bad policy--the fact is, they were, in fact, there, had a student press presence, and did not get in by claiming to believe things that they didn't believe.

But aren't those silly topics? What if Rosa Parks didn't give up her seat? What if this, what if that? What bearing does this have?

This, actually, is why I like it. If I were a history teacher, I would assign AUs right and left--being able to construct a viable alternate history demonstrates not only mastery of names and dates, but understanding of the signficance of historical events. Maybe two people won't see it the same way, or come up with the same alternate history, but an essay like that--if done well, which is presumably what's to be judged--shows an ability to think oneself into history, to extrapolate cause and effect and examine theories of human nature and social impact. That helps separate the "grunts"--the ones who go through the motions of getting an education ("Doing School") without letting it sink in--from kids who have a passion for understanding.

Now, if they were looking at this only and not paying attention to the other parts of the application (the standard comparisons, student activities, grades, and so on), it might be problematic, and I could understand the concern. But there are a whole lot of kids who hit the baseline qualifications, so they have to start narrowing it down somehow to get a workable class size. Doing so on the basis of creative thinking and fluent writing seems to me a very good choice of criteria.
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hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: October 30th, 2006 03:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
ITA. I had a boyfriend who went to University of Chicago, which is known for its totally wacky essay questions (or was, at least. Hold on while I go look at the current application...Yeah, they actually call it "The Uncommon Application." One of the required questions is "Would you please tell us about a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, magazines, or newspapers? Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own."
Then there are five essay options (inspired this year by submissions from the current freshmen), including:
"You are hosting a brunch for historical, literary, or other disreputable persons (think: Mad Hatter's Tea Party). What is your menu? Who are your guests? In answering this question, imagine a scenario: We want some exposition, serious or silly, we would accept some dialogue, and we are willing to trust you to respond in such a way that your brain power, your imagination, your sense of taste, and your capacity to tell a story reveal something true about you."
Or, for people with the exact opposite mindset:
"The Cartesian coordinate system is a popular method of representing real numbers and is the bane of eighth graders everywhere. Since its introduction by Descartes in 1637, this means of visually characterizing mathematical values has swept the globe, earning a significant role in branches of mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus. Describe yourself as a point or series of points on this axial arrangement. If you are a function, what are you? In which quadrants do you lie? Are x and y enough for you, or do you warrant some love from the z-axis? Be sure to include your domain, range, derivative, and asymptotes, should any apply. Your possibilities are positively and negatively unbounded."

I almost applied simply because I was so taken with those essay questions--I loved that the college seemed to really want creative thinkers and unusual ways of approaching problems.

Ha, sorry this is so long but I am still totally amused by the essay options there! I think it's one of the best possible ways to see if you're getting a really *interesting* class, not just a well-qualified one.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 03:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
And a class that will tweak each other into thinking once they're all there. I used to absolutely love the letters page of the Tufts Daily, which is where we had our little tempests in teacups. When one wank or another was going on, the letters "page" could be three or four pages of people responding to each other's letters. It must be so much more active now that the internet is in play!
tigermouse88 From: tigermouse88 Date: October 30th, 2006 03:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
In principle, I agree with you completely. When I applied to colleges just two years ago, Johns Hopkins had an "essay" question on its application which read roughly "describe how you would use $10 to plan a day's entertainment". However, it was specified that although traditional essays were also acceptable, applicants were welcome to submit an answer in an alternate medium. I originally intended to create a short film exploring the worthlessness of 10 dollars in the Icelandic economy, but did unfortunately not allow. I ended up sending in a photograph of me and my friend standing by our bicycles out in the middle of nowhere, with home-made bread and lots of water, and labeling each part of the picture to clarify how/why I had gotten it for free, the point being that a) $10 buys you nothing in Iceland, and b) much better fun can be had for free. Anyway, it was probably the most entertaining and worthwhile part of the otherwise grueling process of applying to colleges, and I think really showed a different side of me than any of the essays did.

However, speaking as an international student, I must express my worry that these "alternate topics," particularly if they are of historical import, might be heavily biased against someone with a non-American education. Take Rosa Parks, for instance. I know the basics of her story, because I'm half-American and my grandmother once gave me a children's book with short 2-5 page biographical essays about famous Americans. But the information in those five pages is all I know. We never studied the civil rights movement in history classes - we were too busy with our own severing of ties with Denmark. I'm pretty sure that none of even my best-educated peers back home could tell you more than a few words about Rosa Parks, and many might never even have heard the name. And that goes for any number of topics and a large group of international students all over the world who would, indeed, add greatly to the diversity of the student body of any university. Those students will be put through an extremely difficult and stressful process of researching these historical moments in order to write yet another 500-word essay, worrying that they're going to fail completely to fit in at an American university because of their lack of understanding of American history and culture - as if they aren't already nervous enough because of their oft-audible accents and the prospect of living thousands of miles away from everything they hold dear.

Certainly this problem will not be too difficult to avoid - simply making the application questions more generic and/or allowing people to choose between two or three questions, not all of which require an American high school education, will make this a lot easiser. But it's still something that has to be taken into account, and I hope that officials realize that.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 03:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's a good point which I hadn't thought of. The article mentioned the Rosa Parks one; I'm reasonably sure there would be a choice (Tufts is a major International Relations school), but if there isn't... yeah, I could see issues, especially since there's not a history requirement which would expect people coming in to have knowledge of X event in American history prior to entrance (a pre-req to a required course).

On the other hand, for something that specific, it wouldn't be untoward to ask people to do some reading to find out what it was about and what the impact was. For instance, for the purpose of the exercise, would it be out of line to ask students to contemplate how the world would be different if Erik the Red hadn't been exiled from Norway? Sure, they'd have to look up who Erik the Red was and what he did, but that's an academic skill to test as well. Nothing says you have to automatically know things going in. Nothing wrong in wondering what would happen if the Qing dynasty had responded more quickly to the Wuchang Uprising, either. ;p (In fact, on the Parks issue, most American kids only know the basic bare bones of the story, and reading more deeply into it could only come up with a better thought-out AU.)
petitecrivan From: petitecrivan Date: October 30th, 2006 04:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
While I do agree that it's difficult to judge the SAT writing section, I think it was a good addition. Using myself as an example...I don't generally test too well, but I'm a decent essay writer. I got a 690 on that part of the SAT and if schools had actually counted it, then it would definately have benefited me. I bet they grade those essays the same way they grade the AP ones. A bunch of English teachers sitting around and passing the papers around and each giving their grade. (OK, so it's not quite like that, but it's something along those lines.)

And I like the idea of rewriting history as an assignment. It sounds like a really cool idea.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
A bunch of English teachers sitting around and passing the papers around and each giving their grade. (OK, so it's not quite like that, but it's something along those lines.)

The problem with that is that they can't all be sitting around. Yes, all the testers in one particular test site could be doing so, but the vast numbers of people taking the SAT prohibit the kind of grading you'd get in a school setting--at the very best scenario, everything is graded at headquarters, but most likely by harried bureaucrats who can either be totally subjective or are just running a protocol to check sentence length and vocabulary words, neither of which is particularly indicative of a "good essay." There's just no way to make it both fair and national. I mean, I'd have loved to get some extra credit for writing. I only got 680 on the verbal section, and would have loved to have it bumped over 700, so I could have skipped freshman comp. But when there's no way to judge it fairly, then there's not a good argument for having it there.
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: October 30th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not quite sure I understand. AP exams are graded at headquarters, and if I remember correctly, three qualified and certified (by some standards set by CollegeBoard) teachers grade each one.

Wouldn't the SATs be graded by several qualified people, if not teachers?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are a lot more people taking them, though--the numbers alone are prohibitive. And honestly, I don't trust the grading on the AP essays, either.
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: October 30th, 2006 05:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I'd have *killed* to have had an AU history question on my undergrad application! The best one I had was University of Chicago, who asked me to come up with a pilot for a TV series and gave me a few things to choose from in terms of plotline, a character, and a prop. Best time I've ever had writing an admissions essay, that's for certain.

That being said, I have a huge problem with the SAT essay (though mine stem from having taken the essay on the GRE twice now). I did horribly on it, mostly because I'd spent my undergrad -- and my year of grad school -- writing extremely specific essays based on piles and piles of sources. The GRE essay threw a single sentence at me and I was effectively stumped. I daresay this says more about my lack than about the exam, but I still don't particularly care for it. Especially at the grad school level, when you're sending in writing samples anyway... /rant

Doing so on the basis of creative thinking and fluent writing seems to me a very good choice of criteria.

I think that makes a lot more sense than trying to weed out based on numbers. Numbers, as we know, can be fudged. And surely the admissions people deserve more interesting things to read!
ncp From: ncp Date: October 30th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
When my husband was applying to B-schools, the University of Chicago asked questions like "Who was you hero as a child" and "Design a mascot for the new B-School Building". All the other places asked variations on "What are your career goals and why will an MBA help you acheive them?" So the other schools got a search-n-replace essay (with modifications), and Chicago got fun, interesting essays he had to think about. Most people who apply to Business school don't like these creative essays, so Chicago always gets the "nerd" contingent of MBAs. Unfortunately, the new admissions director has changed the Chicago application essays so they are more like the other schools.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yeah--not a person who would thrive as a Jumbo. I always have such a lovely time when I go to the Jonah study on Yom Kippur... it's so very, very Tufts, with the rabbi just participating and being as interested as everyone else. Tufts is a school that doesn't have much respect for the 'throats.
slyvermont From: slyvermont Date: October 30th, 2006 09:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
My daughter plans to apply to Tufts; she hasn't looked at the essays yet so I can't tell you what she thinks of them but she seems to like responding to interesting and challenging prompts.

Tufts has gotten much more difficult to get into, and if you look at its numbers over the last 5 years, you'll see that it is putting much more emphasis on the SATs now. The average SAT of a Tufts student now is considerably higher than just a few years ago (the 25 percentile rose 70 points in three years). What I am curious about, given this new application, is whether the weight Tufts gives to the SATs will change given the new essay questions.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 30th, 2006 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I doubt that reflects more of a "focus" on SATs, just a wider bunch to choose from. I'd guess the baseline just rises every year that there are more applicants, but once you're above the baseline, it really doesn't matter how far above it, and the other things are what's used to sort out the people who hit the baseline.
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: October 30th, 2006 10:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, how interesting.

I had a few applications that were a little unusual. For William and Mary, on top of the common app, we had to submit an 8 1/2 x 11 in (I think) of paper with anything on it we wanted. We could do a drawing, an essay, a poem...I did a collage of me and my extracurricular activities. The original is framed in my room, and I really enjoyed doing it. For a scholarship app to Furman (where I am), one of the essays we had to write had to include like five out of seven given words (or something like that). The words were unusual and not necessarily similar, like hammer or lunch.
aebhel From: aebhel Date: October 30th, 2006 11:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
This actually reminds me of something interesting. My younger brother, now a freshman in college, spent his entire high school years at war with English teachers who required him to write the infamous "tell me about yourself" essays. At first he just refused to do the assignments but after a while (and much bullying on the part of my mother) he took to doing the essays in such a way as to satisfy the parameters of the assignment without telling the teacher anything at all about himself. The last one he wrote was for his intro to comp. class, and it detailed all of the ways he's gone about avoiding assignments just like that one. If nothing else, it was an exercise in how going out of one's way to avoid an assignment can make it much more interesting.
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