The video application essay

College applicants are trying to wow admissions officers with personal videos, reports the Boston Globe. Tufts is the first selective college to encourage video submissions as an “optional essay.” More than 6 percent of 15,436 applicants sent in a one-minute video; many are on YouTube.

Amelia Downs performs a series of dorky dance moves named after math terms like the scatter plot and the bar graph. Sam Zuckert plays a song made solely from the sounds of a piece of paper ripping, crumpling, and waving in the wind. And then there’s Mike Klinker, using a remote control to fly a Styrofoam elephant — with his name on it — through a clearing in the woods.

Tufts students and alumni are commenting on their favorites on YouTube.

Lee Coffin, Tufts’ dean of admissions, says the clips showcase a creativity and personality that would be hard to convey on paper. The idea is part of an effort begun by the university in 2006 to evaluate aspects of applicants’ intelligence not reflected in SAT scores and grades.

. . . The videos are judged as one part of a whole picture, with a student’s academic record still weighing the most, Coffin said. Production value will not be a factor, nor will public comments be considered in the admissions team’s decision, he said. What counts, he said, is creativity and wit, something that shows a student’s voice or talent – that can answer, “What spark do they bring to the class?’’

While other selective colleges don’t solicit videos, applicants often submit them along with blogs and personal websites.

Harvard College has for decades asked students to submit any supplementary materials — art portfolios, manuscripts, music recordings, and films — that display exceptional talent. But Harvard’s admissions dean frets that video applications may give an unfair edge to students from affluent families.

At Tufts, Coffin said more than 60 percent of the videos were submitted by financial-aid applicants.  “Access to video capabilities — via computers or cellphones, even — among teenagers is almost universal,’’ he said.

I worry more that flashy extroverts will edge out shy, nerdy students.

About Joanne


  1. Why is “creativity” a consideration for college admissions? If you want to enter the English program, show me you know something about English–creatively, or not. Same with math. Same with history. Same with business.

    You get the idea.

  2. It strikes me that we as a society have delegated a tremendous amount of power to college admissions officers. How much do what know about who these people are and what their values might be?

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    Joanne, I agree with you: “I worry more that flashy extroverts will edge out shy, nerdy students.”

    And there are flashy nerdy students (sort of like the kid in Rushmore) who will definitely have an edge.

    Not that the flashy kids are undeserving, but as you say, this may make it harder for certain personalities, however bright, to get in.

    Something similar is happening with the teaching profession. The recruiters (such as TFA) are going for leader types who were presidents of clubs and such. While such leader types can probably do much good, it would be a shame to lose the type of person who would rather stay at home tinkering with electronics or writing sestinas than run a club.

    (I am somewhere in between very shy introvert and flashy extrovert, so I am not saying this entirely in self-defense.)

  4. The ed world overall seems to have been in a love affair with creativity for at least a decade, to the point that it seems to trump solid content and specific instruction. It seems to be venerated equally on the part of students and teachers.

    Years ago, I remember reading some MIT faculty comments indicating that they felt the quality of the students in their departments had declined. That was not long after my son said that he was surprised that a classmate had not been accepted at MIT, even though he was an outstanding, instinctive math mind. Neither he nor his classmates at a HS with a national rep in math/sci ever asked this guy for help if they got stuck on a problem; his mind just worked differently. (This was being said by a guy with a perfect on SAT math II, a 5 on AP calc BC, a subsequent engineering degree from a top program and a math master’s from another top school) Instead, the two kids from their HS who were accepted – and attended- MIT were more all-around students than mathematicians. Admissions people, who are not scholars, may be less impressed by exceptional kids in one specific area and more impressed with non-math/physics etc. attributes and achievements. If so, it’s not a good sign for STEM fields. Athletic coaches get to choose their teams; maybe academic department heads should choose their majors.

  5. chartermom says:

    I also wonder about the whole idea of what individuals “bring to a class” Shouldn’t individuals be judged as individuals? I don’t remember the concept of a “class” being all that important in college and I would think it is even less so now that kids are more likely to take a year abroad or enroll in 5 year programs than in the past. And I wonder if some of these “diverse” (whatever diverse means to a specific school — could mean a math-inclined kid at an arts-oriented school or vice versa) admissions really stay for 4 years or find the school isn’t a fit?

    I also agree with Momof4 that creativity seems to overly heavily weighted these days. When my younger one was in 4th grade the state-mandated writing test focused on an imaginative essay and the writing was graded not just on the ability to write but on how imaginative the essay was. Prior to the test, I remember the teacher fretting over a story because it wasn’t “good” enough. I read it and the writing was fine. It was just an action story — clear, concise, logical — exactly the type of writing that he would need in the future. However since the state-mandated test rated imagination over writing substance, he didn’t do well on the test. Crazy! (By the way, I think creative writing assignments are fine as part of a mix — they just shouldn’t be the only thing in the mix).

    Also some fields don’t require “creativity”. Do you really want a “creative” accountant? And other forms of creativity might not show up in an essay or a video (the math genius that Momof4 references).

  6. Years ago I read about an experiment in which professional actors were trained to play the part of electrical engineers and sent out on job interviews. Apparently, they got more job offers or at least requests for a second interview than did the real electrical engineers!

    Something similar is likely to happen with these admissions videos.

    Not sure whether the EE interviews were only with HR or included interviews with the managers they’d actually be working for, who surely were mostly EEs themselves..if the latter, that makes it even more scary.

  7. Out of my high school class, I would have been the last one chosen on the basis of a video. But I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and have made contributions to my field.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Who cares?

    It’s just one more thing that the student hires professionals/drafts the parents to “polish up” (read: produce) for the admissions packet.

    If you ask me, the uniformity of the SAT is a secondary benefit. The primary reason to look at SAT scores is because it’s the ONE place you know that the student him or herself is the one actually doing the work.

  9. Michael: I agree with you. If colleges wanted to admit the best students (outside of art and performance fields, which I am not sure belong in colleges – as opposed to specialized academies/conservatories), all they would need is SAT, SAT II and AP/IB scores and perhaps interviews and on-site evals ( re writing, foreign language etc). However, those are unlikely to produce the “diversity” the colleges worship. Of course, all this other fluff/BS in the admission process favors the BS artists and those who have lots of support/consultants/etc.; probably not “diverse”, but current practices mean than the “diverse” will get in anyway. Unfortunately, those “diverse” kids whose records would have meant admission by any standards are really stigmatized. I’ve known them and they really hurt.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Videos. Bah.

    A friend of mine who worked in admissions said that she had a theory: you could determine the best students by looking at the quality of the writing on the letters of recommendation. The best writers, she reasoned, would be vain about their intellectual abilities and would only recommend the best students. She figured that the recommenders probably knew the students way better than the admissions office ever would, and that the content of most letters was so generic as to be useless. But the syntax…

    She said, however, that she had never actually made a decision based on this novel approach.

    And thank you, momof4. It’s always nice to be agreed with!

  11. Mike Curtis says:

    Or…you could just show up at the admissions office and say,”I want to attend this school, and I’m willing to pay cash.”

  12. sounds like a gimmick by tufts to gin up publicity. they’re running short of students willing and able to pay 50k/yr. they don’t give out need-based financial aid from what i hear, so the youtubes are for naught

  13. To those who are aghast that colleges would do this, you have to remember that schools are not interested in educating the brightest minds, but instead are interested in putting out a product. That product is the ideal 22 year old in the eyes of adoring parents and high schoolers.

  14. Just as car companies try to sell the idea that a sports car will make a 40-something year old man desirable to beautiful women, colleges are trying to convince consumers that they will take teens and turn them all into bright, proactive, and outgoing future leaders.
    To help promote this idea, of course, they try to find the applicants that will look best in photos and videos.

  15. Diana Senechal says:

    Colleges themselves (like Yale) are using videos to recruit students. Yale’s musical video is sort of charming and sort of icky. The participants have excellent voices, and there are some nice touches, but it makes Yale students seem like a bunch of gregarious models who work hard, sure, but also have so, so so much fun together.

  16. Why does everyone have to be an entertainer these days? That’s my reaction. I’ve been told by eddy-types that my teaching needs to “be more entertaining.”

    Guess what? I’m knowledgeable, organized, and a good communicator. You expect me to sing and dance and goof, TOO? Unreasonable, much?

    How soon do we see affirmative action for the smart but extremely shy and unphotogenic kids? Or is that a kind of “diversity” no one cares about?

  17. If the video thing fails to win the student a place at the university, he can send it off to compete for a place on Survivor. It’s an efficient use of time and resources that way.