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November 07, 2007

How one college recruits by politics

The faculty at many colleges and universities tilts heavily leftward, as you know. But there's still a possibility that some admitted students won't share that political outlook. Here's how one college, with an excess of qualified applicants, tries to winnow out for admission those who see the world from the left.

According to this article in the New York Times's Education Life section, which Mrs. Attila pointed out to me, Tufts University offers applicants a chance to write an optional essay:

Tufts has a problem shared by most competitive universities: After it rejects the weak and admits the geniuses, too many decent applicants remain — about three for every spot. Recommendations and polished essays “all pretty much say the same things,” says Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions.

So for the second year, Tufts is inviting applicants to write an optional essay to help admissions officers pinpoint qualities the university values — practical intelligence, analytical ability, creativity and wisdom. These attributes make students intellectual leaders, according to Tufts’s dean of arts and sciences, Robert J. Sternberg, a psychologist whose work on measuring intelligence inspired the experiment. Applicants choose one of eight unlabeled questions, each designed to home in on a different attribute. Questions will change every year.
Now, just in case you're saying to yourself, "Hey, practical intelligence, analytical ability, creativity, and wisdom are all great, non-political qualities for an applicant to possess," the article disabuses you of that notion. Here's a good example of what I mean -- practicality. Note well what's a "good answer."

Tufts’s Definition Can implement an idea — gather the necessary resources, attract others to the cause and lead them to a solution.

Question Describe a moment in which you took a risk and achieved an unexpected goal. How did you persuade others to follow your lead? What lessons do you draw from this experience?

Good Answer My family owns a vacant town home, so at our weekly family meeting I suggested we offer it to a Katrina family. When my father contacted the homeowners’ association, we received a certified letter from them stating that a Katrina family was prohibited from living in our town home because the bylaws prohibit “transients.” ... I called the local newspaper and talked to a reporter about the Katrina family. ... When the board considered their racist position being printed in the newspaper, the morality of the issue was forced on them.

What Tufts Said She does not sit back and watch life go by. Academically, she is not the strongest applicant from this school, but she has very compelling personal qualities, initiative and drive.
Coincidence? I think not. Here are questions and "good answers" for analytical ability and wisdom:
Question An American adage states that “curiosity killed the cat.” If that is correct, why do we celebrate people like Galileo, Lincoln and Gandhi, individuals who imagined longstanding problems in new ways or who defied conventional thinking to achieve great results?

Good answer While we celebrate the great thinkers who challenged predominant beliefs in the past, we hypocritically criticize those who do the same today. Gay marriage advocates are criticized today as threatening the institution of marriage. ...This ironic situation emanates from the fact that human nature finds comfort in conformity.


Question A high school curriculum does not always afford much intellectual freedom. Describe one of your unsatisfied intellectual passions. How might you apply this interest to serve the common good and make a difference in society?

Good answer I love Shakespeare not only for the deliciousness of language, but for its applicability to current events. Political instability and rapidly changing leadership in the Congo? Macbeth draws shocking parallels. Race relations in South Africa causing unrest? Sounds like Othello. Since many people in India, and Africa, and Latin America can’t afford to read or attend plays, I want to take Shakespeare to them.
And I discovered again today that the kind of training that this writing reflects begins in high school.

In an article in the Rockville Gazette, entitled "B-CC students hit trail to activism," there's a description of a course given at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in which students are required to become "activists."
Danny McCarty and Mimi Ray are high school students who assumed nobody would heed their opinions — not when it came to politically divisive issues like mass transit, development and the environment.

But a class assignment in their Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School’s national, state and local government class converted them into energetic activists for a cause they barely knew about a few months ago. It tossed them into the middle of an effort to keep the Capital Crescent Trail unobstructed by Bethesda’s commercial growth and mass transit.

"It definitely has opened my eyes to take up any issue that I feel strongly about, to take initiative and do something about it," McCarty said.
Fine, and all that, but in school? For credit? As part of a class requirement?

And just why was this done? Ask the teacher: "The class’s teacher, Nathan Herchenroeder, said his motive was to convince students that citizen participation is necessary to a democracy."

It happens that I agree with their position on the Capital Crescent Trail, which remains a beauty of open space in our rapidly growing county that needs to stay open. I also oppose the Purple Line completely, which is a pet project of the anti-car left. But I hate the idea of some goofball high school teacher using class time to get kids to advocate for this.
"I said every kid had to take five public actions," like sending e-mails to local policymakers, interest groups or Gov. Martin O’Malley, Herchenroeder said. Some students interviewed walkers, joggers and bikers using the trail. Others made fliers or posters.
So for those of our kids who plan to apply to Tufts, never fear. You'll get good experience in becoming the right kind of thinker in high school.