YouTubing the Admissions River

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Cloning afghans (the dog not the blanket), building half-mile high buildings, teaching chickens to count–we just don’t need em. The same is true, I think, for inviting students to submit YouTube-style videos as part of their college applications, as Tufts and as at least one other college have done in the last few days.
There’s no question that the challenge of creating a video, even a simple one, can be exciting for someone who has grown up with pocket-sized video cameras and iMovie. Capabilities and equipment that were once confined to studios and labs have become commonplace and people have taken full advantage of them, sometimes to great effect. It’s useless to pretend they don’t exist or that students haven’t grown up with them.
But is it appropriate to invite YouTube-style videos as part of a college application? 
Well, why not? Will it give better-heeled applicants an advantage? Probably. Will it induce migraines and binge drinking in admission officers who have to watch them? Definitely. But the big question is, what will the criteria for evaluation be? I’ve already read one comment that said an under-produced video seemed more authentic, and therefore more credible, than a slick one. Is that fair to the slick one? And wouldn’t USC or NYU see the situation quite differently? Is a slick clip the equivalent of an essay that’s been worked over by Joyce Carol Oates? Or is it just evidence of a real talent that could energize a campus? Does a student who uses a production crew get points for leadership or slammed for having others do his work for him?
I don’t buy the argument that students may one day regret sending a clip into a college. They have grown up watching people, famous and ordinary, voluntarily humiliate themselves–sometimes as part of “rehabbing” their careers–in ways that we could only speculate about before. It’s a hallmark of every reality show, from “American Idol” to “Jersey Shore” and shows no sign of abating. (Who’s the breakout star of “Shore?” Snookie, the most embarrassing member of the group, who now makes highly anticipated appearances seemingly everywhere, and is planning her own handbag line.) It seems normal to confess egregious thoughts and behaviors to millions–think “Hoarders” or “Celebrity Rehab.” And to think that only yesterday we were wondering if admission officers trolled social internet sites for dirt about applicants. Why go through that trouble when they’ll send it themselves?
People are perfectly capable of humiliating or even incriminating themselves if there’s a chance they’ll be stars. (Recently in Chicago a group of students filmed themselves beating up another student and posted it on YouTube. What’s the thought process there?) And who knows, there may be some pretty interesting things to come out of a video, but my guess is more often than not, not. When I was at Amherst in the far away 90s a transfer applicant sent in a 6-minute VHS videotape (remember them?) of himself in jacket and tie seated behind a desk telling us why he thought he was a good candidate. His final line was “And by the way, I’m not wearing any pants.” This might have been amusing except for the fact that when he got up to turn off the camera, he was wearing pants. So, double fault. Presumably, kids are better editors today.
Students have been sending tapes of their auditions, their dance recitals, and other performances as part of their applications for a long time, so maybe YouTubing is just the next incarnation, with the problematic addition of self-conscious production values instead of dad’s shaky and unfocused videography of an actual deed. The big difference is that the latter is a record of something; the former is of supposed value in and of itself. We’re in an age where “broadcasting yourself” makes everyone a potential star, but is that what it all comes down to in a college application?

I don’t see any reason not to look if students send a video (shouldn’t we call it something else now? Or do we and I just don’t know it?), but I’d exercise caution before making it even an optional part of a college application. At a College Board Forum session I attended last weekend here in Chicago about using new media to communicate with students, YouTubing wasn’t even mentioned. If it does become a fixture, I hope at least that admission committees will figure out just what they’ll be looking for first.

A version of this post also appears on the NACAC blog, Admitted.

2 thoughts on “YouTubing the Admissions River

  1. I just hope students play to their strengths in the videos e.g. if they aren't naturally funny, don't try to use humor as a device. It may hurt more than help.


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