Are They Ready For Their Closeups?

Image via Tom Rydquist on Flickr.

There’s been a lot of talk within the college counseling community recently about student video submissions as a part of the college application process. First came the NYT article about Tufts, followed by some “ahem”ing by folks familiar with similar efforts at George Mason, Vassar, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Many of the initial responses from counselors have been cautionary in tone. Some counselors are concerned about the inherently public nature of such submissions (at least as they’ve so far been configured). Others wonder about a possible opportunity gap… won’t videos from students with access to more professional equipment and software give those students an unfair advantage? (For a different perspective, those folks might want to listen to S. Craig Watkins‘ recent keynote at the Diversifying Participation conference at UCSD, entitled “Living on the Digital Margins: How Black and Latino Youth are Remaking the Participation Gap.”)

Here’s what I think.

Part of why we worry so much about the possible downside of applicants posting away on YouTube is that we know deep down that we’re not teaching them the skills they’d need to be more savvy users of the available channels of communication with admissions offices. How many students know how to de-couple their “approved for admissions consideration” content from their “this is is messing around last Friday” content? More importantly, how many of the students who had that knowledge would think to deploy it at the critical moment? How many high school students have access to mentors or coursework that address the challenges and opportunities of digital storytelling?

Some of the adult concern about students’ work in these digital environments also stems from the cultural divide that exists between those of us who are learning what it’s like to live our lives in digitally permeable ways, and those of use who have never known anything else. If you’re an American high school junior right now, you don’t really remember a time before the internet. Your cellphone is your lifeline; you spend more time listening to music, playing games, and watching TV on your cell phones than you spend talking on it.

No school that I know of is requiring video submissions for its general undergraduate admissions review. (There are of course film programs that have been requiring video submissions for some time.) And video as a part of the admissions process is not new in and of itself; we frequently received VHS tapes from candidates back when I was reading applications in the ’90’s. What’s different now is that schools are inviting these submissions, and that some of them are living online, rather than in a padded envelope in a pile in the admissions office’s mailroom.

When I worked in admissions, I used to say that every question a college asked in its application served a dual purpose. It was what it seemed to be, a request for information. But it was also a message, communicating to the student some element of the institution’s self-concept.

So what message are colleges that invite video submissions sending? Ben Jones (Oberlin College Vice President for Communications and former Director of Communications for MIT Admissions) discussed the evolution of social media in a recent keynote address at the 2010 EdSocialMedia conference. In his address, he references the idea that you need to meet people where they are, sharing an image of how, when you’re throwing a party, no matter how hard you try to get people to hang out in the living room, the party always gravitates to the kitchen, “where the guacamole is.” I have a friend whose intuitive understanding of this law of human attraction has led him to tear down the wall between his kitchen and dining room in every house he’s lived in as an adult, usually before he moved in.

Colleges inviting video submissions might be seen to be saying, “We value your ability to create meaningful, shareable digital content.” Students might also be hearing, “We understand that you want to be seen as more than just a test score. And we also know that online is where you live.”

So do I think colleges should keep thinking about the best ways to find and connect with the kinds of students they’re looking for? Absolutely. And do I think that video should be part of the mix? Sure thing. After all, some of those students might grow up to be rock stars…

(Hat tip to @ben_jones, @scraigwatkins, @henryjenkins,
my partner-in-counseling Sherry Riggi,
and the folks at colleges and universities who are
tearing down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room.)
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Posted on March 2, 2010, in big picture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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