Single form poses threat to diversity

January 26, 2007

Chicago is criticised for abandoning unique admissions process in favour of standard form, reports Jon Marcus

The widespread adoption of a common application form by US universities has come under fire, with opponents claiming that the move is creating unwanted conformity in a system whose strength is its diversity.

The criticism comes in the wake of the decision by the University of Chicago to adopt the form. It is already used by 300 top institutions, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities, and simplifies the application process for students.

Chicago promised to continue setting the distinctive essay questions it is well-known for, but purists say it is abandoning its uniqueness for the sake of a higher standing in the most important American version of league tables.

The university said that some prospective students were intimidated by the quirky essay questions, reducing the pool of applicants - one of the measures on which rankings are based.

Past applications have included an essay option requesting that students devise a brunch menu and a guest list for historical, literary "or other disreputable persons" and include dialogue from the meal that reveals something about themselves; another wanted students to describe themselves as points or a series of points on the Cartesian co-ordinates system, and explain why; and a further option invited students to write an essay inspired by a super-huge jar of mustard.

"Why ruin such a prominent and eccentric tradition with one that is common and cliché?" one Chicago student wrote on the university blog. "By changing the application (form), the university is going to lose the self-selective applicant pool it now boasts and the university we know and love will not be the same."

The essays "exude the individuality that the university prides itself on, and encourage the self-selection that it is known for", wrote another.

"When the University of Chicago goes common, I foresee a flood of applications from the Ivy kids... the students who apply en masse to the all of the 'good schools' without stopping to think about which will be the best match for them."

Despite the controversy, Chicago intends to accept the common application from for students who apply for the 2008-09 academic year, though they will still have the option of answering the quirky essay questions.

Some 300 US universities use the common application form, which was devised by a founding consortium of 15 schools in 1975. Another 23 joined this month.

The form is available online and makes life considerably easier for students who apply to more than one of the nation's universities, most of which are independent of one another.

Universities that do not adopt the form increasingly risk seeing students pass them over rather than take time to fill out a separate application form. This year, more than 175,000 students submitted some 700,000 common application forms.

The form includes essay questions, but they are relatively pedestrian. This year, students were asked, for example, to evaluate a significant experience in their lives or an ethical dilemma they had faced and its impact on them, or to discuss the importance to them of an issue of local, national or international concern.

Ted O'Neill, Chicago's admissions dean, said: "We know that too many students who would love this college don't apply. Sometimes it is time to try something new in the interests of furthering the values we hold dear.

"Even as we patted ourselves on the back for being different and clever, we realised there was a chance that some students would be confused or intimidated by our use of an instrument that looked different..." he said.

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