Robin Jones Kerr: A swing and a miss for GW’s new application questions

Everywhere we look on campus, we see evidence of GW’s “Making History” marketing campaign. It’s on the side of Gelman Library, it’s plastered on walls in the Marvin Center, it’s even painted up the sides of steps.

Everywhere you turn, you’re reminded that this is the school for politics and policy, and if you’re not creating your “Only at GW” moment, you’re not doing it right.

I was disappointed to see last week that not even the University’s admissions essays are safe from the buff and blue splash zone.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

Whereas GW used to offer just one essay prompt (your generic question along the lines of “Why GW?”), it now lists three options: What would you ask George Washington himself if you went to dinner with him, how does GW fit with your “interests, talents and goals” and “As a member of the GW class of 2019, how will you make your own history?”

GW is trying to make its application more flexible: In addition to the new prompts, it’s allowing students to apply to a primary school (like the School of Media and Public Affairs) as well as an alternate (like the business school). But while the University’s intentions were good, the execution was, unfortunately, poor.

GW should have considered deeply which questions would inspire the best, most informative and most personal responses from applicants, rather than try to make them conform to a shallow marketing campaign.

The entire purpose of the essay portion of an application is to glean something about an applicant’s personality that you can’t get from transcripts or standardized test scores. The Chronicle of Higher Education called it “a student’s essence.” None of these three questions, in my opinion, will provide that information to a GW admissions officer.

Granted, the Common Application, which GW now uses, asks questions of its own, but the whole point of the Common App is that the same information, including the essay, is sent to multiple schools for convenience. The GW-specific questions are vital for connecting with potential Colonials.

Incorporating a fundraising slogan into application questions seems inappropriate. Asking students about “Making History” is vague and almost begs for a pretentious answer. What about students who have no desire to make their own history? What about the humanities majors who would rather study the history of politics than get elected to Congress?

I’m relieved that I don’t have to apply to GW all over again, because I don’t find any of these options palatable. Most of us only know one personality trait of our namesake – leadership ability – so I hope the admissions office is ready to read thousands of similar essays about going to dinner with George. A better move would have been to let the student pick the historical figure: Whoever he or she chose would say something dynamic about his or her character.

And one of the other questions simply asks applicants to praise the University, which seems, again, a call for cookie-cutter essays. It makes sense that the admissions office would want to know if students have done their research and visited campus, but an applicant’s knowledge of GW’s strengths – its location, history and academics – doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a good fit here.

Instead, GW could have gone the route of some of its peer schools, like Duke and Tufts universities, which ask questions I find fascinating and that would surely communicate a student’s essence. Duke tells students, “If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better – perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background – we encourage you to do so.” That prompt gets straight to the point instead of hiding behind a tagline, and I can only imagine the insightful essays Duke admissions officers get to read.

I’m not asking GW to necessarily go the same direction as schools like the University of Chicago, which, believe or not, asks, “What makes an odd number odd?” and “Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!).”

But at least those questions pique my interest.

Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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