Are liars better than squares in the world of the Common Application?

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Once upon a time, being admitted to a university was as simple as taking a test. If you could prove general knowledge in common subjects and could write in Greek and Latin, you were in.

Today, California high school seniors face three options to four-year universities: the number-based CSU application, the more personal UC application and the bizarrely curious Common Application, known also as just the Common App — none of which guarantee admission.

The Common App is an online college application system that began in 1975, allowing a student to apply to multiple private universities with only one account. A student submits the same essay response to schools with a common prompt and answers additional questions exclusive to the respective college. Though seemingly convenient, the Common App is infamous for hosting odd essay and short answer questions. According to the Common App’s website, it believes in “evaluating students using a holistic selection process.”

Unlike private schools of the late nineteenth century, there isn’t enough room to let every applicant attend, so admissions get picky and assess character. This means posing questions like, “What year would you travel to and why?” and “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?”

Universities strive to paint a picture of a prospective student greater than what SAT scores, GPA or autobiography can tell them, but these questions are pretentious. Private schools fail to realize that genuine character is impossible to assess in any application and instead make the judgement that only interesting people deserve an education.

The first problem that emerges is the assumption that students will sincerely answer the question. This scenario is too much like the Hawthorne effect: People act differently when they know they are being observed. Knowing that a college is trying to assess one’s creativity, wouldn’t one strive to sound as creative as possible? Especially when it comes to getting into a college, one would probably spend a large amount of time crafting the perfect representation of oneself. And that’s the problem: It isn’t real if you’re crafting it just to be admitted into college.

The admissions counsel can’t correctly interpret personalities, no matter how carefully it looks at the profile of applicants. Go ahead, ask for their background, favorite movie and most embarassing moment. Fly them out and meet them in person. Every university, no matter how intrusive their application, has its handful of bad decisions. From cheaters and dropouts to federal criminals, there’s no guarantee that what a student says about oneself to get accepted will follow through in the long run.

Harvard University, who embraces the Common App, is just one example of this. There’s even an article titled “9 Criminals Who Went to Harvard.” Just because admissions thinks they can accurately understand who an applicant really is with the questions they pose, there’s always the chance of broken promises. Attempting to select based on the quality of character is pointless when he or she knows to be on his or her best behavior. Private colleges, or all colleges who wish to do so, might as well disregard character altogether.

On that note, we must consider the possibility that the most uninspiring applications could yield the most successful alumni. By questioning the uniqueness or individuality of a person by the creativity of his or her responses, private colleges judge their educational worthiness. Applicants hope to be “well-rounded” in having good grades, test scores and community service hours as well as a shining personality. Private colleges believe creative essay responses demonstrate both this attribute and the ability to write. California public universities test writing through custom exams, prompts and SAT scores, yet private universities overestimate their ability to decipher an entire person through oddball questions.

When it comes down to two applications with equal merit, the essay that stands out the most typically gets selected. Perhaps the essay full of wit and “out-of-the-box” thinking gets selected over a more typical response discussing the hardships of high school academics. Does this mean that a student labelled as “boring” is less deserving of higher education at that university? Or do we assume an applicant that is not considered boring to be of such “high consideration” that he or she will end up getting into another respected school?

Whether private schools admit it or not, the most successful students could simply come from high test numbers. We must not overlook what a high GPA and high test scores say about a student: He or she is reliable, consistent and knows his or her material.

The Common App has been successful in weeding out the squares for over 30 years. The system has proven its fascination with understanding the “whole picture” of college applicants. Clearly the most academically successful high school seniors get their first pick at any college, public or private. But those who struggle with representing an intriguing yet sincere self through bizarre questions about dinosaurs and aliens are least successful in the battle of admissions.

We know there isn’t enough room to admit everyone into university. But until then, private schools’ selectivity only ask for the best show a student can put on. They limit access to higher education for those students who don’t tickle their fancy. To resolve the issue: Either build enough colleges for everyone or cut the ridiculous questions. It’s no wonder the CSU application is so desirable. Keep it simple, Common App.

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