March 6, 2009

Admission control

With the departure of Ted O'Neill, the admissions office should abandon its "Uncommon" strategy.

Ted O’Neill’s retirement as Dean of College Admissions marks the end of an era for the University and the way it markets itself to the world. Over the course of 20 years, O’Neill has made a concerted effort to promote the University’s reputation as a haven for students serious about academics by stressing “the life of the mind”—most notably through the Uncommon Application and its prompts about mustard and days of the week.

O’Neill’s service to the University has been commendable, but the Administration should take advantage of the opportunity to reevaluate its admissions principles. Going forward, the College should deemphasize the significance of its essay prompts and scrap the “Uncommon” marketing campaign altogether. In its place, The Office of College Admissions should stress more, well, common elements.

The Uncommon image was designed to reach out to students who truly embrace their academic pursuits, but it has taken on a life beyond its utility. Billing the College as, above all else, “Uncommon,” sends a message of exclusion to students who might not buy into—or even fully understand—the slogan.

The College’s admissions blog tells students it aims to look “well beyond a test score or GPA and understand, as much as possible, that student’s personal and academic qualities.” The intent is to reassure applicants of a holistic approach, but it does more than that. By placing vague “personal and academic qualities” at the heart of admissions, the University sends a message that imperfect but objective standards of achievement and intelligence will be largely ignored in favor of more subjective measures. While the offbeat prompts still have value in that students must demonstrate creativity and writing ability, they should not be considered as important as high-school transcripts or SAT scores.

Such changes would undoubtedly have many benefits—a more diverse applicant pool chief among them. Furthermore, reform could improve the University’s U.S. News scores. This is a good thing; while the University should hardly feel beholden to such rankings, they also shouldn’t be ignored, at least to the extent that they’re important as a matter of public perception.

A transition would mean a break from recent tradition, but would be fundamentally in line with the University’s historical mission. The U of C has built a reputation precisely because it has made a conscious effort to find the best and the brightest of every stripe. This—not “Uncommon” attributes—is how the Admissions office should sell itself going forward.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Editor-in-Chief–elect, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.