Feb 23, 2010

Do the Tufts Admissions Videos Compromise Applicants?

We don’t ask college applicants to post their essays on a public message board prior to uploading them for admissions review. Why? For one thing, there are potential privacy issues. And who wants work subjected to indiscriminate public scrutiny? Adolescents applying to college have enough to worry about without having their essays critiqued by a bunch of yahoos with nothing better to do.

Yet suddenly the Boston Globe and New York Times are so charmed by the Tufts application supplement allowing students to upload optional videos that they are providing links to a few favorites. According to the Times, Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions for Tufts University, reported that the idea for a video option “came to him” last spring as he watched a YouTube video someone had forwarded. “Maybe I was naïve, but it didn’t occur to me that these videos would be so public and so followed.”

The video supplement is not really new. Athletes and musicians have sent scouting and audition tapes—now videos—for years. Other colleges have encouraged creativity among applicants by giving them the opportunity to show off video accomplishments. Rollins College is well into the second year of a test score waived option (TSWO) for which students may send a “personal representation” that is defined as anything from YouTube videos to slide shows.

Locally both George Mason University and St. Mary’s College have given the applicant the option of substituting a video for an essay. In fact, the practice has become so popular that the Universal College Application has specifically provided for uploads on its standard form.

What’s different here is that Tufts opened the door a little further without giving much thought about the privacy of their applicants or how commentary in a public forum could be abused. As a result, about 1000 applicants developed and uploaded videos clearly labeled with both names and targeted university.

Some of the videos are slick, some are brilliant, a few are silly, but most are sincere attempts to win a highly-coveted acceptance to the college of their dreams. And predictably, the videos have generated running commentary from viewers, some of which so awful it had to be removed. Sure there are supportive remarks and there are five-star ratings—some from alums and some from current students cheering applicants on. But there are also obscenities and personal criticism cutting to the edge of what could be a few fragile egos.

Since bringing the videos to light, major news sources have generated tremendous interest in both Tufts University and students applying for the class of 2014. They’ve also brought thousands of viewers to videos labeled “Tufts” or “Tufts Admissions.” You couldn’t buy this kind of publicity.

But the trend toward providing technology-based outlets for creativity and alternatives to essay-writing isn’t necessarily a bad thing especially insofar as it makes applicants multi-dimensional and pulls forth that elusive “voice” colleges always talk about. The trick is to make it safe and confidential and not public and subject to abuse.

The technology is there. So why not establish a process that protects students and their work before jumping feet-first into the media fray effectively blowing the cover of applicants who may have been even more naïve than Dean Coffin?

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