Penn Only Bothers to Consider 1 of 7 College Essays Submitted by Applicants

Why that's bad for Penn, and bad for Philadelphia.

Sirens sounded this week for college-bound high-schoolers tinkering away at college application essays. The Common Application Board of Directors announced that students would no longer have the coveted “open-ended” essay option, but instead have to choose from five more “specific” essay topics, including a prompt for “a background or story … central to their identity,” which doesn’t seem that creatively stifling to me. They’d also be limited to 650 words, as opposed to before, when no real enforcement of the suggested 500-word count meant applicants could go on for days.

Basically, the new policy affects no one except fringe smart alecks writing free-verse interpretations of the Twilight series, and six-page stream-of-consciousness accounts of their first time on pot.

Besides, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Furda, the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania says it probably won’t matter anyway.

Recently, Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, gave me a refreshingly honest take on the value of essays. Not every single one, he said, played a role in admissions decisions. Perhaps one in seven did, he guessed, or maybe one in eight. In his mind, that didn’t make them any less valuable.

One out of every seven applicants (562 out of the 3,995 students who were offered spots in the Class of 2016 this past year) had essays that actually mattered. The other 3,373, I guess, comprised the army of transcript super-soldiers every kid with Ivy League aspirations must now face.

It might have been a little naïve of me to think that essays—the part of your application where you prove you’re human—would have a major bearing on whether or not someone has the qualities a school islooking for. But on some level, this confirms the worst insecurities every kid has when baring his or her soul to anonymous admissions shadows: Personality doesn’t really matter. Not a great test-taker? Some extenuating family circumstance that may have kept your GPA only slightly above-average? You may formally air that consideration, but don’t expect to be heard.

To see if I was perhaps too offended by this, I called a friend who works in the admissions offices at my alma mater, which admittedly has a much smaller applicant pool than Penn’s. If they’re really not using the essays, I asked, wouldn’t Penn just be better off coding one of those “prove you’re not a robot” letter-number combinations into their applications?

One out of seven surprised her, too. Their application essays are ready pretty carefully at her office, she said, partly because SAT scores aren’t required. But it made sense to her that a university like Penn, with its tens of thousands of applicants, might use other, more quantitative factors as initial benchmarks for consideration. Even if that means emptying a chopping block of numerically insufficient kids into the trash.

It was probably Pollyanna of me to think that Penn was parsing through application piles looking for compelling human interest stories, but that one-out-of-seven statistic also confirms some of my darker stereotypes about the ivory tower aura Penn casts over our fair city. The group of kids retained in their applicant pool by virtue of a 2,100 SAT score and a 3.95 GPA is, likely, a pretty homogenous group. That’s not to say that Penn isn’t proactive, as it should be, about seeking out diversity. But I am absolutely sure that more than one out of seven of those less-than-sterling human statistics has something to say that might make them a great addition to that campus, and to this city.

Moreover, this confirmation that it’s really the numbers that count deepens the insecurity we’ve all started to have with our universities and colleges, such as they are in 2013. Penn and other elite universities, I’m not the first to point out, used to be promising institutions of social mobility. They attracted bright, ambitious kids from all walks of life, exposed them to different cultures and ideas, and honed their ability to think. Today, those same institutions look more like gathering grounds for kids with enough resources to Botox their applications with SAT tutoring, parental hovering, and guidance counselors with the time to write them 800-word recommendation letters.

While we talked, my friend mentioned a provocative op-ed published by the The Harvard Crimson a couple years ago. In it, a student suggested that Harvard switch to a randomized lottery system. His point was that the types of kids who get into Harvard today are going to be fine no matter what. Open up that educational nirvana to people who would never otherwise have the chance, and not only would you have an honest, fair admissions process, but alumni with an even greater loyalty to their school.

For the record, I don’t think a lottery system is a smart choice for Penn. But I do think that a more holistic evaluation of applications might lead to a student body that brings more unique qualities to the university, and takes away more from their time there. And having a smart, diverse group of alumni with fidelity to their campus? That’s a boon to both Penn and to the city around it.