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College admissions: A creative way to stress out students

December 21, 2012|By Joseph Serna
  • High school students attend a meet-and-greet with college representatives.
High school students attend a meet-and-greet with college representatives. (Andrew D. Brosig / Associated…)

I’m flipping a coin. Pick heads or tails. OK, now which did you pick and why?

Actually, never mind. It doesn’t matter. Because unlike with college admission employees around the country, how I view your answer won’t affect if you get into a university or not.

But for students applying to places like the University of Chicago, it’s a new reality.

Garrett Brinker, an admissions official for the University of Chicago, told the Los Angeles Times in Wednesday’s story that questions like “So where is Waldo, really?” are “a way to see students who can think differently and go beyond their academic, intellectual and extracurricular comfort zones.”

How do you answer where Waldo is? Is it with something like “He’s on Page 5!”? Or do students aim for the existential, wow-them-with-my-individuality-or-creativeness response, and hope they hit the mark?

Come on, universities, many students have other college applications to fill out, finals or midterms to study for, community service to complete and extracurriculars to attend to pad their application. Not to mention the SATs. Now you’re going to make them wonder where, metaphorically, the guy with the glasses and the ugly red-and-white sweater is? Is he at the University of Chicago? If they say he’s there, do they get in?

Brinker explained that the essays “break up the monotony of the application process” for students and universities.

Now, I can sympathize with admission employees. Reading the same self-promoting essay from applicants all day, every day must be grueling. Reading responses to the Waldo riddle is probably like the literary version of the children’s book, with answers as varied and entertaining as the crowd that always surrounded him in the illustrations.

But whereas the philosophical, creative or essentially liberal arts-loving students may get a kick out of that process (I know I would have), others who may be just as successful or more so as college students could stumble. Applicants could give up or falter simply because they’re unsure of what the university wants to hear.

The idea is there’s no wrong answer and it’s a chance for the schools to find a student who is the right “fit.” But with questions so off-the-wall and answers so open-ended, it make the choice of who gets in and who doesn't more susceptible to the tastes of the admission officer than a standard personal essay would, in which a basic mastery of language, writing and presenting an argument are measured.

Would they appreciate an answer like I’d be tempted to give them? “Waldo is saving my seat at the University of Chicago.”

I doubt it.

Wake Forest asks students to “think of things that fascinated you when you were 10 years old --  what has endured?” Come on, the students were 10. Back then I wanted to be a garbage man (because I wanted to drive the big trucks) and was obsessed with reading about the Black Plague. Does either interest scream college material?

Brandeis aska students in its admission application: “A package arrives at your door. After seeing the contents, you know it’s going to be the best day of your life. What’s inside and how do you spend your day?”

For me, inside the package would be an updated version of the Grays Sports Almanac that Biff had in "Back to the Future II." I’d take that puppy straight to Vegas. But Brandeis admissions would probably think I have a gambling problem. Great.

Glad I don’t have to worry about admissions anymore. Based on these new applications, I’d have a better chance at guessing right on a coin flip.

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