College & Workforce Readiness

Video Essays Play as Auditions for College

By Ian Quillen — April 05, 2010 7 min read
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Rosemary Mwaura says she’s a quiet, thoughtful student who listens a lot but talks just a little—and even has a little bit of stage fright.

But in an optional video essay as part of her application to George Mason University, Ms. Mwaura shakes off her shyness, dancing and rapping about her Kenyan heritage, American lifestyle, and Capital Beltway dreams in a two-minute YouTube spot.

“It was different for me,” said Ms. Mwaura, a senior at Nashua High School South in Nashua, N.H., who was recently accepted to George Mason but was still considering her options in March. She was one of nearly 100 GMU applicants for 2010-11 who submitted videos to the admissions department. About 25,000 high school students applied to the 2,500-student freshman class at GMU.

“[Recording a video] was getting to do something that I wouldn’t do, that I would normally be scared out of my mind to do,” Ms. Mwaura said in a recent interview.

The experiences of students like Ms. Mwaura are likely to encourage more colleges and universities to incorporate digital video into the application process, via a Web clip linked to YouTube or another hosting platform, a digital file sent through e-mail, or a DVD.

Admissions officials reason that high schoolers who grew up around social media might be more comfortable expressing themselves in cyberspace than on paper or in an interview room, and that access to a digital camera is readily available at schools and libraries, if not at home.

Skeptics, however, say videos could tilt the admissions process toward students who are more expressive and have more expertise with technology tools and the Internet, and away from academic transcripts and test scores.

Rosemary Mwaura’s Video Essay

Rosemary Mwaura dressed up in a costume of a panther, her New Hampshire high school’s mascot, for a two-minute rap video she submitted as part of her application to George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

But Andrew Flagel, the admissions director at George Mason, which is located in Fairfax, Va., doesn’t see it that way.

“Whether it’s a recording or essay, they’re all critical, but they don’t have nearly the weight, remotely the weight, of this academic process,” Mr. Flagel said. Students who want to get accepted should focus on improving their grades and test scores first, he said, and so should their parents and school guidance counselors.

As it is, George Mason, Tufts University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland are among only a small group of colleges that currently solicit video essays as part of the admissions process. But some observers believe the practice is going to increase in popularity.

Robert Bardwell, the secondary school vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselor Association and a guidance counselor at Monson High School in Monson, Mass., said that the rather scattered trend has the potential to catch on in a hurry.

“I think of it like online applications, which in its infancy were very much a blip,” said Mr. Bardwell. “We all said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to come,’ but we weren’t jumping up and down excited. Now, if you talk to most counselors doing admissions, they’ll tell you those days of written applications are numbered.”

And, while Mr. Bardwell is leery of a change in the process that completely eliminates written documents, he said he sees positive educational potential in trying to help students learn to produce high-quality video essays.

Computer-technology classes, he said, could include a video-essay application as part of the curriculum, in much the same way some advanced English courses include a written college essay.

“It has great curricular tie-ins,” Mr. Bardwell said. “But I want to make sure it’s done right.”

‘Understand Who They Are’

Out of 15,000 applicants for 1,300 spots in the freshman class at Tufts, in Medford, Mass., about 1,000 elected to submit a one-minute online video. Of those, the most-viewed on YouTube include Amelia Downs’ quirky video of dances that resemble common mathematical graphs, and Michael Klinker’s demonstration of flying a self-built model helicopter, constructed to look like Tufts’ elephant mascot, Jumbo.

“My major [written] essay was about my desk and how I create something there,” said Mr. Klinker, a senior at Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, N.H., and an aspiring engineer who builds miniature airplanes and helicopters as a hobby. “I liked [the video option] because I could show them what I mean when I [write] about the airplanes that I build [from drawings] on my desk.”

Michael Klinker’s Video Essay

Michael Klinker’s mechanical incarnation of Jumbo, the mascot of Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., takes flight in the video essay the New Hampshire teenager submitted to the school.

St. Mary’s, a public college in St. Mary’s City, Md., has offered prospective students the option of “casting for the incoming class” for the past two admissions cycles. Unlike at most other colleges, a video essay to St. Mary’s replaces the written essay when a student chooses the option.

Richard Edgar, the director of admissions at St. Mary’s and a frequent lecturer about the written college essay, said that of about 300 video submissions for the class of 2014, the most memorable take unorthodox approaches. For example, he said, one student used the video to tackle a “prompt” for another written-essay question, which asked students to describe the dinner parties they would host if the director of admissions visited their homes.

“We want to understand who they are,” Mr. Edgar said. An essay, “whether in a video or in art, it shares a part of your soul. You just don’t get that from any other part of the application.”

Mr. Klinker, Ms. Mwaura, and Ms. Downs echoed that perspective, saying a video serves as a less filtered window into an applicant’s personality.

Mr. Klinker said his guidance counselor told him merely to be himself in the flying-elephant spot. Ms. Mwaura said her counselor actually advised against submitting a video to George Mason because of her reserved personality. And Ms. Downs said her video, which had more than 100,000 views by late March and had been featured in The New York Times and on National Public Radio, was a complete secret to those close to her.

“My mom would’ve been more like, ‘You should give this a second thought,’ “ said Ms. Downs, a senior at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, N.C. “My mom didn’t see it until after the newspapers came out with it.”

‘Unique and Different’

While Internet viewers appreciated Ms. Downs’ creativity, if video essays become more common, larger colleges and universities may not have sufficient time to evaluate them for creativity, let alone savor their humor.

“Sure, you could as easily attach a video clip as you can a recommendation or statement or résumé,” Mr. Bardwell said. “I think large schools who can’t be bothered with letters of recommendation aren’t going to want video clips. My sense there is, it’s purely a numbers game.”

Amelia Downs’ Video Essay

Amelia Downs, of Myers Park High School in Charlotte, N.C., mimics math equations in a video essay she submitted as part of her application to Tufts University.

St. Mary’s, which also allowed videotaped submissions for a time in the 1990s, receives about 2,500 applications for its 500-student freshman class. At 2,000 and 5,000 undergraduate students, respectively, St. Mary’s and Tufts both fall within the small, liberal-arts school classification.

But George Mason, a public university whose undergraduate enrollment of more than 18,000 is boosted by a high number of nontraditional students, is one of the “large schools” Mr. Bardwell references. Yet it will likely continue offering a video option, Mr. Flagel said, and hosting submissions on its Mason Metro Web site, a home page used to help promote the institution to prospective students and others.

“The truth is, a big part of the motivation wasn’t what we wanted out of the students, but what students wanted out of us,” Mr. Flagel said. “What we were hearing is the desire to speak to us more directly.”

Conversely, a college’s willingness to explore video applications could give interested students some guidance about campus culture. And while a video’s screenplay and sound quality may not determine whether a student gets accepted or rejected, simply having the option of submitting a video clip could help sway him or her to apply.

“I would say to [a student], ‘If you have that type of skill, type of interest, and that’s the type of place that’s encouraging you, it’s a good match,’ “ said Gene Fox, Mr. Klinker’s guidance counselor at Hopkinton High. “It’s such a competitive business for these kids, that more and more of these colleges and universities are looking to something unique and different.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Video Essays Play as Auditions for College

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