NEWS

  /  

April 20, 2007

Prospective students judge evolving admissions process

Henry Cone-Roddy is a devoted Iliad fan with a soft spot for Ben Franklin. He has difficulty pronouncing the word “karate,” his friends think he’s “dry and quirky,” and he is a proud theater junkie.

“Last year, I played a messed-up hippie with [outlandish] fantasies,” Cone-Roddy said. “It was fun.”

Cone-Roddy recently decided the U of C is the right fit for his personality. He is one of the 3,628 high school seniors accepted to the College this year, and he will join the class of 2011 next fall. Like Cone-Roddy, many of the prospective students visiting campus this weekend to check out the dorms are proud of their unique characteristics and accomplishments that they say make them perfect for the U of C.

Yet it stands in question whether the admissions office could ever have known about Cone-Roddy’s quirky personality--—and that he’d be a good fit for the U of C—without the Uncommon Application, for which he wrote an essay about who he would invite to a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Many prospective students said that as President Robert Zimmer continues to court the Common Application, they fear that the U of C’s quirky admission process will be phased out along with the Uncommon Application. They worry the oddball composition of the student body could be threatened.

An anonymous source within the administration lamented the switch to the Common Application as a ploy to attain one of Zimmer’s latest goals: attract 15,000 applicants per year within five years.

“[These numbers] could happen anyway,” said the source, who believes that the Uncommon Application is more than sufficient.

He added he saw Zimmer’s goal as superficial, aimed at increasing selectivity—and subsequently, the school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking—without improving the strength or increasing the size of incoming classes.

“I wouldn’t characterize this…as hard,” Zimmer said of his goal to attract 15,000 applicants per year. He called it a “reasonably aggressive goal,” adding that he wants administrators to be “ambitious about trying to reach more high school students.”

Relative to peer institutions like Columbia and Harvard, who have acceptance ratings in the single digits, the College’s 34.9 percent acceptance rate of the 10,408 students that applied rated high.

“I want to see more of those high school students, for which this would be a good place to go to school, applying,” Zimmer said.

The administrative source saw this explanation as disingenuous, saying that Zimmer’s goal is focused on boosting the U of C’s ranking.

“Why deny more people just for the sake of denying more people?” the source said. “Look at the average SAT score. The applicant pool is as qualified as any [other school’s]. Zimmer just wants to be able to say to the presidents of Harvard and Yale, ‘You denied [a lot of] people…. I denied [a lot] of applicants, too.’”

Dean of Admissions Ted O’Neill said that, if enacted, the switch to the Common Application would not go into effect until fall of 2008, for the class of 2012. He emphasized that specifics have yet to be worked out, including whether the new application process will incorporate a supplement aimed at preserving the quirkiness of the Uncommon Application.

“We select for this College,” O’Neill said, adding that the potential supplement might retain the Uncommon Application’s famous essay questions, possibly under a new name.

Still, the switch to the Common Application is on the minds of many visiting students.

Prospective student Caitlyn Driehorst said the Uncommon Application helped make the the U of C her number one choice, showing her that the U of C “is as nerdy as I am.”

“The Common Application was incredibly confusing,” she said, commending what she saw as the self-selecting nature of the U of C’s admissions process. Like Driehorst, many claim the Uncommon Application discourages those who are not right for the school from “applying nonchalantly.”

She added that the U of C should be proud of what she considers one of the impressive offshoots of the Uncommon Application: “a higher selectivity statistic, but still with high SAT scores.”

Yet the application that made Driehorst love the U of C is the same force that could have prevented her from attending: facing the U of C’s perceived lack of fame compared to more selective colleges, she had to convince her parents that this school is good enough.

Many blame the U of C’s perceived obscurity on its adherence to an application process that takes more time to complete, whereas the Common Application brings schools renown and a larger applicant pool because students need only “click a box,” as Cone-Roddy put it, to apply.

Driehorst said the U of C’s recent rise in rankings—from 15 to 9 in one year—helped her persuade her parents that it is as good as schools that are more selective.

“I was like, ‘Look, look, look! It beat out Johns Hopkins!’” she said, adding that when they saw the rankings, her parents came around to support her application to the U of C.

Like Driehorst, Michael Thompson and Will Van den Breul had a paradoxical experience with the Uncommon Application: It made them love the school, but it almost made them miss out on applying in the first place. Neither of the Wisconsin prospective students had heard of the U of C until late in their college search, they said, because the Uncommon Application prevents the school from gaining universal recognition.

“I came down to visit Northwestern and hated it,” said Van den Breul, who only found out about the U of C once he was in Chicago and a friend encouraged him to apply.

“It was the school that no one knew about.... It was kind of sneaky,” he said, laughing. “At first, it’s like, 40 percent acceptance rate…. what?! But I like that kids have to find it themselves.”

He said the Uncommon Application “drew [him] in” and made him think the school would be a good fit.

Thompson added that he was “really turned off by the Common Application.”

“A lot of our friends would have applied” if the U of C used the Common Application, Van den Breul said, adding that many of them “wouldn’t have fit in here at all.” Both boys worried that a switch to the Common Application could dilute the unique student body with students who are not right for the school.

When the school does make the switch, “I’m saving a copy of the Uncommon Application and framing it,” Van den Breul said.

Though the Uncommon Application was all the buzz among prospective students on campus this week, not everyone hailed the application, and several, reflecting the position of some students on campus, saw the switch to the Common Application as a positive change.

Jeremy Schwartz, who is still on the fence about attending the U of C (he has fears that the school is “frown town,” he said) waited until the day it was due to fill out the Uncommon Application.

“It was inconvenient,” he said, adding that a switch to the Common Application could be a positive change because “it’ll make more people apply.”