YouCollege: Video Becomes the Next Big Thing in College Applications

Mar 24, 2010

With prospective students constantly seeking new ways to impress admissions officers and colleges trying to stay on the cutting edge to connect with students, new technologies are constantly cropping up in the admissions process. Read on for the first article in a two-part series on college admissions and new media, starting with: The video essay.

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Students Filming

A New Vehicle for Self-Expression

We've all heard it - even in the recession, the number of students applying to college increases every year. With so many people to choose from, good grades and high test scores just aren't enough, and the advice on how to stand out seems to change all the time. First students were told to be well rounded, balancing their academics with a variety of volunteer and extracurricular activities. Then students were told to be angular, doggedly pursuing just one or two activities to demonstrate commitment and leadership.

When it comes to the application itself, students typically see the essay as their chance to let their personality shine through, and colleges have responded in kind. Many schools include quirky alternate essay questions that let students demonstrate creative thinking as well as strong writing skills. The 'application industry' - think test prep companies and college admissions coaches - has responded as well, offering a whole slew of expensive essay coaching services.

Now a new form of admissions essay has popped up: The video essay. Prospective studio art majors have been using video in their portfolios for a long time - the Common Application has included video in its arts supplement for two years - but only recently have some schools started actively soliciting video from all their applicants. St. Mary's College of Maryland started accepting video essays in the fall of 2008, and George Mason University and Tufts University just began officially accepting them in the fall of 2009, although they don't allow videos to substitute for the written essay.

Michael Klinker Flight of the Jumbo

Still from Michael Klinker's Flight of the Jumbo.

The response from students has been enthusiastic and very creative. Michael Klinker sent Tufts a video of the remote control blue elephant-helicopter he built flying around his backyard, an homage to Jumbo, the school's elephant mascot. Justin, a prospective student at George Mason, sent in a video of his friends acting out The Cat in the Hat while he narrated from the book. Gabriela Sotomayor took a more straightforward approach in her video application to St. Mary's, acting out an imagined interview with a behind-the-camera 'admissions officer.' She added some creative flair with costume changes and a live music demonstration.

Some of the videos have even gone viral. In her application to Tufts, Amelia Downs made a video of herself demonstrating her 'math dances,' a series of interpretive dance moves acting out a scatter plot, bar graph, pie chart and sine and cosine graph. The video has grown wildly popular even outside of the admissions office, earning her a mention on NPR and over 100,000 views on YouTube.

It's clear that students are excited about the possibilities offered by video. Admissions departments across the country report that students are starting to submit videos without prompting at schools that don't specifically solicit them. Last year, the dean of admissions at Dartmouth noted the growing trend, particularly among students demonstrating music, dance and theatrical talents.

For college admissions offices, video offers a fun way to connect with young students. When interviewed, Ms. Downs noted that it was 'very cool' that Tufts invited students to submit videos. It also brings the application process into the 21st century. While video will never replace writing, a skill that is central to a student's ability to excel in college, it does allow students - and schools - to demonstrate their facility with new media.

Still, the video essay is more about expressing yourself than showing off your technical skills. Admissions offices assure students that they're not being judged on their production values, and Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts, has noted that 'At heart, this is all about a conversation between a kid and an admissions officer... We have a lot of information about applicants, but the videos let them share their voice.'

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Elitist or Equalizer?

Many high school counselors still have reservations about the use of video in the college admissions process. Some are concerned about privacy issues and how videos uploaded to sites like YouTube could affect students' future job prospects. In the share-everything world of Twitter and Facebook a college admissions video seems pretty tame, but the warning is worth heeding. Teenagers often don't think about long-term consequences when posting personal content online.

A more pervasive concern is the possibility that video will widen the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' Money already gives kids an edge in the college admissions game, from access to better secondary schools to test prep courses and expensive coaches that guide students through every step of the application process. Many counselors fear that poor students simply won't have access to the resources required to film and edit a quality video. Jim Jump, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has expressed concern about an 'arms race' in which students compete over production values. If style begins to outweigh substance, poor kids will inevitably fall behind.

The early findings of the video 'experiment' at Tufts suggest that this fear may be unfounded. Two-thirds of the videos have come from financial aid applicants. Students who don't have access to fancy equipment make use of what's at hand, such as the incredibly pervasive camera phone and inexpensive digital video camera. And admissions officers note that the best videos aren't necessarily the slickest. It isn't production values that matter, it's creativity, energy and that elusive 'heart.'

Even still, a new company has formed that levels the playing field. CollegeSupplement.com facilitates the video application process for both the student and the admissions office. The website offers a free (with low-cost upgrades) guide and platform for students to create and share a 'multimedia supplement.' Additionally, the company has partnered with several large public school districts, including inner-city schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, to provide cameras to high school students. These partnerships give students access to both the technology and support to create quality videos, no matter what their socioeconomic status is.

Steve Metzman, founder of CollegeSupplement.com, points out that the application video actually makes the process more fair for poor students who can't afford to fly around the country visiting schools. Submitting a video gives them a chance to literally show who they are, and is the next best thing to forming an in-person connection.

Filming

Thinking about making your own application video? Here are a few things to remember:

Don't get bogged down by technology.

Listen to the admissions office when they say production values don't matter. Your time is better spent coming up with creative ideas that form a strong narrative about who you are. You'll want to do some editing to show that you take pride in your work, but don't let the technical side take over the whole project.

Be yourself.

It's only natural for students to turn to parents and counselors for help on something as important as a college application. But admissions officers want to look at this video and see you - your ideas, your script, your personality - not an adult's guiding hand.

Think outside the box.

Above all, video is your chance to get creative! Got your own special dance or talent? Show it off. Don't worry about looking goofy, your enthusiasm is what counts.

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