“Bloodied and haggard, he slumped onto the cell’s charcoal floor, a cigarette dangling from lips swollen and oozing something awful. His shirt— the candy-striped stamp of a man hunted and harried—rebelled against the bleakness surrounding him. It was the only remaining evidence of his life on the lam.” (This is our attempt to answer “Where’s Waldo, Really?” one of the University of Chicago’s 2012 application questions.)
The offbeat essay prompt is emblematic of the growing tendency among colleges to plumb the creative potential of prospective students as a way to overcome the limitations of standardized admissions criteria that suffocate uniqueness and discourage risk-taking. Universities from Wake Forest to Brandeis have adopted wacky essay questions in an attempt to gain a more nuanced understanding of their applicants and unearth those students who promise to improve the university through both academic skill and imaginative might.
The questions a university asks its applicants indicate, to a certain extent, the university’s priorities, the likely composition of the student body and the tenor of the campus culture. Duke, breaking from its pattern of quickly adopting trends set by other top-tier universities, has so far resisted off-the-wall essay questions. As it has for years, the supplementary application’s optional essay asks students only to “discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you.” Although Duke brims with creative students, the University’s sober inquiry into its applicants’ collegiate preferences speaks to its self-image as a school specializing not in the imaginative arts but in equipping students with practical knowledge.
As other universities have discovered, the chief benefit of creative prompts lies in their ability to account for the variety of ways in which individuals express intelligence. It allows applicants who identify themselves as creative, but who may not excel according to traditional metrics, to showcase their talent and curiosity. For an applicant whose intellectual capacities manifest themselves in other ways, the creative essay can serve as a test of writing competency and trace an outline of the applicant’s personality.
As essay questions become zanier, however, they introduce more play into an already subjective process, allowing biases—conscious and unconscious—to seep into and color admission decisions. Creativity is not only incredibly difficult to judge, but it is also culturally constructed and understood, and placing too much emphasis on originality risks privileging applicants whose conceptions of creativity happen to align with those held by application readers. Moreover, as readers confront greater variability in applicants’ essays, they may have to depend more on culturally informed and freighted guidelines to make consequential admissions decisions. Relying on imperfect human beings to assess creativity—and determine how much it ought to count—threatens the fairness of the process. Admittedly, this threat is part of any holistic approach to college admissions. As the process comes to rely less on standardized criteria, admissions officers trade the ability to clearly discriminate between applicants for the promise of filling the university with students ranging in their talents and preferences.
For the most part, Duke has balanced this tradeoff well, but mounting pressure to afford more weight to originality may have Duke searching for more creative applicants. In turn, Duke may have applicants searching for Waldo.