Four trials, no common application.

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I have wonderful news for all of you stressed out parents of kindergarten kids whose school play has been canceled to focus your 5 year olds on college and careers. Good news also for you anxious Grade 11 students terrified that Boone’s farm you drank instead of writing a five paragraph report on The red badge of courage will ruin your future forever. Fantastic news for anyone like a certain friend of mine named “me” choking on the SAT. And great news for all those who fear the common application and its reputation as a glitch.

Bard College, a highly selective liberal arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is about to enter the second year of a groundbreaking college admissions experience: four terribly difficult essays, 2,500 words each, reviewed by Bard’s faculty (which I guess I like to jot down papers). All four tries get a B + or better? You are in, period. No standardized test, no cumulative average, no CV inflated by dishonest volunteer work. Last year, 41 students completed what the college calls the Bard Entrance Exam and 17 scored high enough to be admitted. This fall, that number could be significantly higher, as the country’s only real alternative candidacy for an elite school gains publicity. I’m definitely doing my part to push it, because the idea is great.

Growing admissions pressures, especially at elite schools, are very apparent for any Gen X (or older) spending time with millennial students. There is no way, for example, that in the time of 1994 I would be admitted today into my own alma mater, Vassar College. Today perfection is the bare minimum: 4.0 and co-winner, perfect board grades, impeccable extracurricular activities, 30 hours a week of volunteering that you don’t appreciate, a perfectly mundane essay on challenges in your life that made you a better person – and then you strength make the first cut. Don’t get me wrong, I love both high school shoes. But are they really the only people who deserve to go to a great university? Doesn’t an entire school full of perfection devoid of imagination lead to the sad disappearance of college fun?

Bard’s entrance exam is aimed at exactly the kind of student who, for a number of reasons, doesn’t fit into that cage of hellish perfection – which is rather, as the VP of Student Affairs told me. and Bard admissions director, Mary Backlund, “someone who really enjoys learning,” but maybe “couldn’t be bothered by what he saw as the” busy job “of high school, and instead turned invested in things that aren’t seen as “academic” in some places, like music or the arts – or just reading for themselves. For these students, Backlund told me, “this option is a ‘second.’ : they can apply and do whatever they like – research and think – all at the same time. ”

Certainly, many stressed elderly people not search for kicks, and for them the common app is a time saver – but how does a young person memorize their own social security number these days, if they don’t have to handwrite in seven different applications in a row? Granted, many universities require additional testing, like Tufts’ famous prompt on #YOLO. But the common app, which acts as a clearinghouse for everything from a student’s name and address to their GPA, extracurricular activities, and referral records, can still seem like arty or distraught students. little telling of what they have to offer. Its emphasis on the usual prestige suspects also disadvantages students with more eccentric resumes. But for almost every school in the country, there is no alternative. Except in Bard.

The genius of Bard’s method is that while it may be easier to build than the common application, it is significantly more difficult. Students have the choice between 21 essays, in three fields: social sciences, history and philosophy; arts and literature; science and mathematics. “The faculty had a lot of fun” designing the essays, says Backlund, “not to be difficult, but to be engaging and open, so that applicants have something real to chew on and show off their thinking skills. All require substantial amounts of original research (all sources are available on the portal) and careful reading. Questions from last year included this:

In his 1963 gravity lecture (you can also watch the video here), Richard Feynman mentions that Uranus’ “strange” behavior led to the discovery of a new planet. Specifically, the fact that Uranus’ motion did not match what was predicted by the then current understanding of planetary motion could be explained by the existence of an unobserved planet – and the planet was then observed. exactly where it had been predicted. Suppose the observatories looked at the indicated position and did not actually find the predicted planet. Then what ? What new questions would this result pose to the scientific community? How could they test other explanations for Uranus’ unexpected movement?

Personally, I think any kid who manages to write 2,500 words without joking about “the unexpected movement of Uranus” deserves automatic admission, but seriously, this essay doesn’t bother. It’s a fascinating hypothesis; it takes into account astronomy, physics and mathematics, but also the philosophy of science and the thrill of the unknown with which research is confronted. Plus, a healthy dose of Feynman! I saw this year’s questions released on June 2, creating an app myself that, dammit, I won’t finish at all. They are just as tough.

Skeptics have argued that these essays are just another way for privileged students to pay for “help” in their college applications. (I know at least a few unscrupulous, jobless doctors who would be willing to play.) But Backlund assures me that Bard has accountability measures: every incoming freshman takes a three-week workshop on “Language and Thinking.” before the official start of school. “Everyone has to pass L + T to enroll in college,” she explains, and during the workshop, professors will have in hand the essays from candidates for the entrance exam. “If, over the course of the three weeks, it becomes apparent that there is a real gap” between their admission essays and their work for L + T, “we can take appropriate action and the student will not be faced with to an “expulsion” because he will not have yet “enrolled” in college.

There are other schools in the United States – many, like Bard, small elite colleges – that do not require the SAT or ACT. St. John’s College (you know, that “big book place” where they all learn geometry in Greek or something) also requires a unique set of essays, but they still require common application and knowledge. view transcripts. Even my birthplace, Deep Springs College, perhaps the most iconoclastic higher education institution of all time, requires grades and transcripts.

But Bard appears to be the only college of its caliber in the United States to give students the opportunity to absolutely blow their high school classes and still have a chance to be great in college. Since I find it absurd to determine a youngster’s whole future based on her choices at 14, I couldn’t be happier that BEE, as Backlund puts it, subverted the “mad hound tail hunt created. through US News and common application. (However, Backlund does not resent any student who wants to use the Common App: after all, Bard still accepts it.)

But why aren’t more colleges offering alternatives to the traditional app – alternatives that recognize that many promising young people simply fall apart in high school because their lives are in disarray, or their families are falling apart. , or because they just hate it? And why stop at essays (which, let’s face it, aren’t the cup of tea for many kids who might still be good at college)? What if you submitted a spectacular and original scientific or mathematical project? The detailed business model of a company that you invented? I wish more American colleges and universities would stop asking students to go through a series of increasingly privilege-reifying hurdles (the current admissions process favors high-income students) and start asking students. candidates to show their real potential.

So, 15-year-old eccentrics from America: keep skipping class to paint graffiti murals on the side of the abandoned white castle! Quit this insincere volunteer work and get the part-time job you really need! And when certain bosses tell you that you will never go to a good university with such behavior? You tell him you’re going to Bard’s.

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