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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/11/2009

Broaddus: Between the lines of the college admissions process

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Henry Broaddus, admissions dean of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va.

By Henry Broaddus
During a particularly stirring scene in "Dead Poets Society," the teacher played by Robin Williams asks one of his students to read from a textbook about how to evaluate poetry.

The student recites, "If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness."

By the end of the scene, at the behest of Williams, the students gleefully tear these very pages from their books and throw them in the air. Says Williams, "We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry."

I feel the same way each time I disappoint a parent or student with my inability to articulate the specific GPA and test scores necessary for gaining admission to William and Mary.

Although I certainly can characterize the range of these credentials reflected by our enrolling students, I do so with the careful qualification that we’re not measuring student potential along these limited axes.

We’re also looking closely at the so-called soft variables, qualities such as curiosity, creativity and motivation. And evidence for these can be as wonderfully various as the syntax for good verse.

Mind you, I sympathize with the degree to which such answers can sound like a form of obfuscation. On one occasion, when pressed by a particularly aggressive questioner about what makes a good college admission essay, I finally broke down and said, "If you’re a guy, don’t write about Holden Caulfield. If you’re a girl, don’t write about Anne of Green Gables." Of course, that’s less of a formula for success than an observation of what’s typical. (Full disclosure: we admit plenty of students each year who write about Holden or Anne, but sometimes I do feel like I’ve set my iPod to repeat play on the same book report.)

Without being prescriptive about it, I wish more students approached the application process by trying to impose their own individuality onto the available framework of open-ended questions and resume-like forms. Doing so doesn’t require tidy morals in their writing or unfettered success in all pursuits. In fact, those usually get in the way. We’re looking for potential, not perfection. We’re interested in candor, not wisdom.

If that’s too much to ask of most seventeen-year-olds, and I recognize that it may be, then I wish merely that students were less paralyzed by the fear that there are right and wrong answers to essay questions, strict requirements for curriculum and GPA, and fixed understandings of what a list of extracurricular activities should look like. I wish more students approached the college application process as an opportunity for self-reflection and personal expression, not as entry into a high-stakes competition. I wish fewer students furrowed their brows, and more let down their hair.

The real poetry of the application process, after all, has nothing to do with the decisions rendered by admission committees, just as ultimate success and happiness have nothing to do with where one goes to college. The real poetry comes with the students’ recognition of the college admission process as a microcosm of lessons that will be repeated throughout adulthood.

They learn that sometimes working hard and doing all that can be expected does not guarantee a desired result. They confront the vast difference between a fair process and fair outcomes, and they discover that all any of us can promise to anyone is the former. They realize that reputation, as defined by others, matters far less than the personal determination of what makes one a good match for a particular college (or in any other relationship). They see that disappointment often offers the prospect for growth, and success usually calls for humility.

At its best, in other words, the college application process begins the college education process.

Tear up any guidebook that suggests otherwise.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 11, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  college admissions  
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