March 10, 2009

Is Ted O’Neill your homeboy?

Columnists debate the merits of the "uncommon" spirit.

Dear Andrew,

So I know, as a Hitchcock-dwelling, Common App–hating, “Ted O’Neill is my homeboy” T-shirt–wearing U of C student, that you have fully and unquestionably bought into our admissions policies. But I think that Ted O’Neill’s recent departure gives us a good opportunity to critically examine his legacy and the future of the College’s admissions policy.

First, I should say that O’Neill has had a long and distinguished career as an administrator here, and by all accounts he’s a good guy; no one’s questioning his love of or service to the University.

What I would like to question is statements like this, which is what he wrote in an e-mail interview for a Maroon news story: “[The Office of College Admissions] understand[s] that standardized test scores are not the honest measure of a student’s ability or soul.”

Ah, yes, the bogeyman of the SAT, which of course doesn’t purport to measure “soul,” whatever that means. (And by the way, the scholarship I’ve read indicates that the SAT actually is a pretty good predictor of success in college.) What I want to know is what does measure a student’s soul—a question about mustard?

Now, I know with that snarky little comment I unfairly stated the case for “quirky” essays. What’s more to the point, though, is whether the admissions office should be in the business of measuring applicants’ “souls”; to me, that very notion is ridiculous on its face. Moreover, it’s exceedingly arrogant for O’Neill to think that he and his staff can or should be trying to determine something as nebulous and as irrelevant to academic success as a “soul.”

All right, Andrew, I think I’ll leave it at that, though of course there’s much more to be said. Look forward to hearing back.


Dear Matt,

I hate the word “soul.” In the first quarter of Hum we had to write an essay on whether Socrates’s dialogue had induced a change in his student’s soul, and I ended up writing it about how inappropriate I thought that word was in context.

But I think what O’Neill means is something more like “character.” He doesn’t want students who simply go through the motions––who get straight A’s not because they love school but because society (or their parents, or whoever) tells them to get straight A’s.

It is very easy to get good grades, get a high SAT score, and still be an intellectual zombie. And people who do that can go to Northwestern. What the admissions office is looking for, I think, is people who are passionate, creative, interesting, unique––and smart.

And so it makes sense to ask a question that comes out of nowhere (which, incidentally, is the same strategy that Google and Microsoft use in their interviews). You can study for school and you can study for the SATs, but something as surreal as the Uncommon Essay forces you to call on your creativity, ingenuity, sense of humor, and all those other qualities that don’t show up on a transcript, but that are part of who you are as a person.


Dear Andrew,

I’m all for making fun of Northwestern, but let’s be honest: Do you really think NU students are somehow less interesting than we are?

Come on. I happen to know a fair number of people who go to Northwestern, and most of them are more interesting than the average person I know here.

Anyway, useless anecdotal point aside, do you really think the admissions office should be screening applicants for “personality” and “sense of humor”? Holding aside the issue of whether a question about mustard really gets at these things—which I doubt—there’s no way to distinguish between interesting and uninteresting, or good sense of humor and bad, because everyone has different conceptions of these things. Instead, what we’re getting is people with senses of humor similar to admissions officers’.

I’d also like to respond to another Ted O’Neill quote, where he cites as a point of pride his office’s “resistance to trying to seek more applications, even if they are unsuitable, just for the sake of looking better in the eyes of U.S. News and World Report.” Bogeyman number two, U.S. News rankings—i.e. what gets many alumni good jobs.

Let me add that the idea behind moving to the Common App was to get more applicants—some of whom would be admitted, some of whom would not be—which would allow for a more diverse class, and, yes, decrease acceptance rates, which, yes, might help our ranking.

I find it really disturbing that the Dean of Admissions doesn’t seem to understand this.


Dear Matt,

So what you’re saying is that Admissions should focus only on one’s “academic” record and ignore everything else. But I don’t think the U of C would be the U of C if it did that.

Every elite school has more applicants than slots. So it has to select its students, and before it can do that, it has to decide how to select its students. And grades and SAT scores aren’t the only legitimate ways to do that. I don’t think either of us would be too disturbed if West Point rejected pacifists, or if Caltech rejected aspiring poets. Different schools have different programs, and so they accept different types of students. The U of C, from Robert Maynard Hutchins all the way through Ted O’Neill, has tried to be a place where learning is valued for learning’s sake.

And that’s why the admissions office should care about more than just grades and SAT scores (and the like). You can get stellar grades, be brilliant, and still have no higher goals in life than making a fortune. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not the sort of culture the U of C espouses. And people who want the U of C to be like that would probably be better off going to another school where they could fit in more and be happier.

There is more than one way to be a great university.


Dear Andrew

I certainly never said that only an “academic” record (I don’t know why you put academic in quotes) should be considered; in fact, I think extracurriculars should be an important part of any application. What I don’t think is that there should be some sort “quirky” quotient that students must meet in order to be admitted.

I’m all for valuing learning for learning’s sake. I just don’t understand how the essay questions or our admissions process work to measure that. You said earlier that “it is very easy to get good grades, get a high SAT score, and still be an intellectual zombie;” I say it’s much easier to write a half-decent essay and still be an intellectual zombie.

I also find your analogies to West Point or Caltech particularly inapt: If someone wants to go to a university but has a fundamental misunderstanding of the school’s parameters—if, say, a prospective student here wants to major in engineering—then, yes, he should be rejected. That example is wholly different than one of someone not fitting into a subjective notion of the U of C’s identity.

What I want is a diverse school where people are accepted based on their merit; what you’re advocating for is a homogeneous student body where people are accepted based in no small part on their ability to fit into this ideal of vapid uniqueness.


Dear Matt,

I don’t think that anyone, including Ted O’Neill, would say that there’s a “quirkiness quotient” that applicants have to meet to be admitted. But I’m not sure you understand what quirkiness means. It doesn’t mean having a certain sense of humor, or a certain “nerdy” personality. All it means is the ability to think and act creatively and—I really shouldn’t use the cliché here—outside of the box. This is not a quality distinct fro-m academic merit––this is academic merit.

You criticize a “subjective notion of the U of C’s identity,” but what is an objective one? As a strong writer yourself, you should understand that an essay, especially one in which students are forced out of their comfort zones, provides valuable additional information about one’s intellectual character—and whether the students are the type of brilliant, interesting people who should be at the U of C.


Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a Viewpoints Editor.

Andrew Alexander is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry. He is an Associate Viewpoints Editor.