College & Workforce Readiness

Video Essays Play as Auditions for College

By Ian Quillen — June 14, 2010 2 min read

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, 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,” says Mwaura, a senior at Nashua High School South in Nashua, N.H., who ultimately chose Washington’s Howard University over George Mason after she was accepted to both. 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.

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.

“[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,” Mwaura says.

The experiences of students like 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.

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.

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.

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,” Flagel says. Students who want to get accepted should focus on improving their grades and test scores first, he says, and so should their parents and school guidance counselors.

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.

As it is, George Mason, Tufts University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland are among 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., says that the rather scattered trend has the potential to catch on in a hurry.

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