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YouTube your way to college

Students' 'infomercials' are the latest way to say 'pick me out of this crowd, please!'

March 25, 2010|Meghan Daum

Isay this every year around this time, and here I go again: I'm glad it was more than two decades ago that I applied to college. There are far fewer of us Gen-Xers than there are of the cohort that's now awaiting admissions letters (or e-mails or texts or however the youngsters do it now). That means that a lot people my age got into colleges that probably wouldn't so much as accept our Facebook friend request today. Moreover, the application package (transcript, test scores, essay, references, $50 fee) was pretty much limited to whatever version of ourselves we could stuff into a 9-by-12 envelope.

Those days are over. In addition to acing their tests and maintaining their GPAs and finding a mildly original way to respond to essay topics like "What life experience has most influenced you?," college applicants are now submitting videos. And we're not talking footage of bassoon recitals or 50-yard field goals. We're talking infomercials for their very souls, little docudramas that just might go viral on YouTube.

Videos have played a role in college applications for a while now. But this year for the first time, three schools, most notably Tufts University, solicited them. They're not required (only 1,000 of Tuft's 15,000 applicants submitted one), and admissions officers are quick to emphasize that they won't judge production quality; they just want to get a sense of a candidate's personality.

One way applicants can submit their opuses is by posting on YouTube and sending Tufts the link. Along the way, some of these kids are becoming YouTube stars, which has caused a certain amount of bellyaching.

It's not just that the "American Idol" nature of the enterprise seems, to some, unbefitting the halls of academe (never mind that Yale just put out a 17-minute recruiting video that looks as if it were inspired by the kitschy and ironic musical TV series "Glee"). It's that the YouTube factor has the potential to effectively turn the whole world into an ivory tower Simon Cowell.

"As an admissions officer, I don't need another army of lobbyists one way or the other," Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College, told me when I called him. "Students at Tufts are getting together and dissecting these videos. People are commenting all over the Internet. The videos in and of themselves aren't the problem. It's the public nature of how they're being presented."

Pomona accepts videos (no YouTube links), but it only takes seriously the ones that match a talent to an educational goal -- prospective dance majors' tapes, for instance.

The thing is, the YouTube application videos -- at least the couple dozen that I watched -- aren't about talent as much as they're about salesmanship. Some are clever (a girl who interprets mathematical concepts through dance has received upward of 100,000 views), some are funny, some are technically masterful and some are embarrassing in the predictable ways (bad songwriting, bad poetry, bad skin -- you get the idea). But what I was most struck by was the way so many of them amount to little more than montage sequences showcasing the "greatest hits" of thus far very short lives.

Over the warm guitar chords of acoustic pop songs, we're treated to visual evidence of far-flung travels, sophisticated culinary skills and staggering levels of community service -- activities that, according to many students, are now considered as crucial for elite college admission as grades themselves.

For all the bragging going on, this is really an exercise in begging. And that's because even though this generation is known for having famously elevated levels of self-esteem, its real problem is its elevated population numbers -- at least when it comes to applying to college. Last year, Tufts had an acceptance rate of 26.5%. In 1988, when videotaping your vacation was mostly a geeky dad activity, it was 34.6%. That may sound like a less than significant difference, unless you're a high school senior.

The videos are ultimately as heartbreaking as they are weirdly compelling. Advertisements for individuals, they add up to a collective plea from an entire generation: Here I am in this enormous cohort; please notice me. Please pick me out from the crowd.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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