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Are You All So Common?
Lukas Halim • No fanfare for the Common Application
January 2001

Many people here cannot explain exactly why they decided to come to Yale. It was a feeling, a sense of atmosphere, a vague attraction to the architecture. But somehow they sensed that Yale was different from the other schools on their list.

It’s interesting to note that students still have this sense, however vaguely, since Yale itself seems to have lost it. The admissions office’s recent decision to go on the common application is a sign of this loss. The decision sends a signal: We’re more like the other schools than we are different. In doing so, Yale rejected its identity as a school for leaders. 

The admissions office plans to begin using the common application exclusively with the class of 2006.  The idea is that this will lead to more applications, and perhaps help the university to attract more students from underprivileged backgrounds.   The application process is often stressful and exhausting, but the common application can reduce this workload.

The common application can assess academic ability in terms of grade point average and board scores, but makes it far more difficult to assess the fit between the student and the particular university they are applying to.  Standardizing the application process makes it easier for applicants to forget that Yale is looking for a specific type of student.  It starts to seem as though schools simply try to get the students with the best quantifiable characteristics, without making any attempt to seek out those who share in the specific educational goals of the institution.  

Of course, it is nice to save time and avoid stress.  But at least if you listen to Richard Shaw, the director of undergraduate admissions, the motivation for moving to the common application is not so much empathy but rather condescension.  

Shaw explained to the Yale Daily News that moving to the common application will encourage more students from rural areas to apply.  This implies that students in rural areas are somehow incapable of writing an extra essay and filling out a few different forms.  If students are not interested enough in Yale that they are willing to fill out a separate application, they probably should not be here.  Even if we made the patronizing assumption that students in rural areas are lazy, the solution should not be to custom tailor the application process to their laziness.  Doing so sends a message that students in rural areas cannot help but be lazy, or that you don’t need to love Yale to be a Yale student.

The admissions office’s inability to understand Yale’s character is further highlighted in the current application.  The first essay asks the student to write about something important to him, and the second essay asks him to write the essay he would have written for the first essay, had he not so concerned with impressing the admissions committee.  In other words, answering both essays requires admitting that the first essay was really just an attempt to please the admissions committee.  

It’s unclear if they were trying to be cute or Heideggerian, but it was definitely one of the two.  The impression the essay questions give is that Yale seeks students willing to admit that they are just trying to please the admissions committee when the admissions committee points this out, and once it is pointed out they should go on to express their true selves.

It is self-aggrandizing for the admissions committee to require such kowtowing, and it is ridiculous to ask students to write an admissions essay without trying to impress the admissions committee.  Conservatives realize that the liberal vision of the “true self” is really the undisciplined-state-of-nature-egocentric self.  If it is authentic to give in to whim by expressing whatever comes to mind, then authenticity is a character flaw.  Perhaps a student really likes WWF wrestling, but that is something that should be fought against rather than cultivated.  Given that the current essay questions are ironic and cynical, perhaps Yale would be better off with the common application.

But there is another possibility.  The current application is quirky solely in order to be unique, not in order to express the school’s character.  Yale could attempt to present a specific vision, or it could ask students to explain what they see as Yale’s vision of the educated man.  Yale should seeking to produce people not so much distinguished by their intelligence but by ability to set an example and to lead.  Leadership is the ability to present, both intellectually and personally, a vision capable of changing others.  It is the opposite of demagoguery, which tries to provide for people those things they already want.  The University of Chicago produces professors, Brown produces freaks, Harvard produces successes, Cal Tech produces scientists and engineers, but Yale produces leaders.

This mission could be captured in any of the following questions:

•Write about a Yale alumnus and explain how this person stands for or against your idea of an educated person.
•Explain what you hope to gain from attending college.
•Write about a book that made you do something, rather than simply think something.
•Name and describe five classes that you would like to see offered at Yale.

Many other possible questions would do the same work. 

Too often people will admit that they are taking a class in order to be more equipped to make conversation at cocktail parties.  The goal of cocktail parties is, of course, to tell other people those things that they already want to hear.  Any university that seeks to promote leadership cannot see intellectual development simply as a tool used in social situations.  

Many believe that arguments about politics or religion are impolite in public, and perhaps they are. Deep convictions topics don’t lend themselves well to chitchat. But leaders are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable — changing one’s beliefs is generally uncomfortable, particularly when it is done through persuasion rather than sophistry.  Sophistry shuts down the mind and makes others lead without thinking, whereas persuasion encourages consideration. If Yale is to produce leaders, it must teach its students to persuade rather than to propagandize. And it will need to use persuasion, itself, to convince students that it is different from their other Ivy choices.
Yale must stand for something, or it will become just another high-quality school, distinguished only by its architecture and its location.  The admissions committee must take a stand by rejecting the common application and creating an application that reflects the unique mission of Yale.

Lukas Halim is a junior in Trumbull College

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