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On the Death of Page 217 September 24, 2010 Campus Issues, Soapbox Blog 4 Comments on On the Death of Page 217

It has come to my attention that the page 217 application essay is no more. The DP has a eulogy up, which mostly remarks on the creativity the essay afforded students. Apparently the administration’s rationale goes like this:

First, Penn’s use of the Common Application — which has an open-ended essay as an option — made the prompt “repetitive and no longer necessary.” Additionally, students felt that the essay was required even though the instructions said it was optional. Finally, since the number of undergraduate applications reached almost 27,000 last year, Penn’s admissions officers could not realistically read three essays per candidate, or four in the case of applicants to Penn’s Coordinated Dual Degree programs.

The DP quotes an admissions coach to the effect that Penn probably did this in order to get more applications and boost its rankings. Now, everybody does seem to think Penn went “down” in the US News list this year (although UTB’s take was fairly sane), and I’ll admit that you can explain most of Penn’s actions in terms of reputation and money. But I’m not sure either of those bugbears has too much of a hand in this.

First of all, I fail to understand why a two-way tie for fifth is worse than a four-way tie for fourth. But of course, saying that Penn went up or down is much more exciting than saying, “yeah, we did about the same this year.” Secondly, I buy the volume of applications story: 27,000 is a large number. Wouldn’t we be better at encouraging true creativity, as opposed to gimmickry, if the admissions officers had more time to go over each application? But of course, saying that Penn has sacrificed the encouragement of creativity in order to juke the ratings makes better copy than saying that Penn had to tweak the application process in response to high volume.

I have more to say on the matter – mostly, I think the real story here is the Common App itself, and the standardization of college admissions. But my problem with the changes has nothing to do with Penn specifically, or with the US News rankings.

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  1. Ett September 24, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    I’m with you on the merits of the Common App and streamlining/standardizing admissions. Why is making it easier to apply to Penn necessarily a good thing? I don’t think prospective students deserve an easier time applying. I’m not sure the university benefits. Shouldn’t a rigorous school have a challenging application? Wouldn’t Penn want to weed out from the applicant pool those too unmotivated to write a supplemental essay?

    Do you think the trend will be for undergrad admissions to become more like med school where you just check boxes for where you’d like to be considered and hit send. Of course there are limits to this for undergrad because of course RISD is looking for radically different things from MIT, but maybe common apps for peer schools… Again, why do we care about convenience for the applicants?

  2. Ett September 24, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Why is my comment awaiting moderation? Is PPR trying to stifle debate? Has there been a rash of spam you’re responding to? I demand answers!

  3. John Gee September 26, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Yes, there was spam.

    From the point of view of the schools, it’s a prisoner’s dilemma. Every school wants applicants from the tier immediately up from it – even Penn wants to get the same applicants as Harvard Yale Princeton, which it might not necessarily get. The schools that don’t participate in a common application lose some of those applicants.

    From the point of view of The Common Application, Inc, their mission is to push “holistic evaluation” of applicants, which according to them promotes more equal access to higher education. Or at least, gives the appearance of doing so.

    If you made undergrad more like med school, there would be multiple rounds of application. Which could be interesting…Maybe the interview? But probably not worth making it more of a crapshoot.

    • Ett October 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

      By prisoner’s dilemma do you mean that the dominant strategy for any school is to make their application process easier so they will attract more high-talent students?
      My understanding was that Penn’s historical (last 20 years) big strategy to draw talented would-be applicants to HYP was binding early admissions where risk-averse high school seniors could either take there chances getting into HYP in the spring, or could have a better shot and lock it in with Penn in the winter. And since no one ever ruined their career by going to Penn, Penn drew a lot of talented students and the quality of undergrads has been going up ever since they instituted ED.
      So are we now saying that the difficulty or time consumption of a full on Penn app is a significant hurdle for the HYP types who might consider Penn if they just had to tick off a box? I’m not quite buying any story that isn’t “we’re just trying to get more applicants so we rise in the rankings.”

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