February 8, 2011

Admitting the truth

The Office of College Admissions should emphasize what's special about the U of C

When I first visited the Maroon as a young, naive prospie, I made two promises to myself: If I attended UChicago, I would 1) become a columnist for the Maroon and 2) never write anything related to college admissions.

Even then, I noticed the Maroon’s predilection for publishing a piece on admissions trends at least two to three times a month. The articles, often enough on plummeting acceptance rates, were rarely illuminating, and seemed doomed to being overanalyzed and then dissected to utter meaninglessness by the likes of College Confidential—quite possibly the last place I would ever want anything I had written to end up.

But there’s a reason for this behavior, one that has taken me a long time to catch on to: The College is currently undergoing an identity crisis, one that has the potential to either propel U of C towards realizing its potential or, on the other hand, to more firmly cement its lamentable (and incorrect) reputation as a “wannabe.” As college students, we have a duty to care about where those elusive inhabitants of Rosenwald are taking our school.

I flew home from my visit as a prospective student wanting to attend here significantly less than when I left. If it weren’t for a deep-seated conviction that, despite the blandness I had experienced with admissions, UChicago still had something genuinely special to offer me, I wouldn’t be writing this right now; I’d be sitting in a dorm room in New York.

What happened? In my experience, the admissions office has two primary functions: to familiarize prospective students with the University and to present the school in the best possible light. As for the former, the office does a commendable job making information on any imaginable aspect of the school available. And the tours are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a tour.

In the end, the admissions office functions as our marketing department, one rigidly focused on smoothing out UChicago’s rough edges. As examples, here are the office’s “official” positions on a few relevant topics:

On Snow: Yeah, it’s kinda cold, but you get used to it. It’s pretty awesome.

On Asocial people: Yeah, we’re sorta quirky, but in a cool way. We’re all pretty awesome.

On Workload: Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s manageable. It’s pretty awesome.

Obvious exaggerations aside, what’s really wrong with these strategies? No one wants to attend a school he or she knows nothing about, and a few encouraging words never hurt anyone, even if they bend the truth.

Nothing’s wrong with them.

In fact, that’s what practically every other admissions office in the country does. So it can’t be that bad, right?

There’s a contradiction here. We pride ourselves in attending a school that marches, if awkwardly and hesitantly at times, to the beat of its own drum. But our admissions office paints us as just another school, a place to get an education instead of a place to make one.

So here’s my program: tone down the “familiarization" and “marketing" functions and focus on “defamiliarization.” and “unmarketing.”

Defamiliarization: There is no single, monolithic UChicago culture. When I stroll through the quads I don’t feel myself necessarily abducted into a “theoretical.” or “intellectual.” atmosphere but rather absorbed into a conversation that is both personal and external. The campus constantly asks me: “What are you going to make out of all of this?” or “What does this school really mean to you?”

College isn’t about being comfortable, or getting the right qualifications or recommendations. There are no limits to the number of different educational experiences a UChicago student can have, but one thing is certain: we don't want students who are willing to accept the soup du jour. If you really want to get anything out of your education, you better be willing to go into the kitchen and make it yourself. The admissions office desperately needs to do a better job showing, by example, the diversity of ways in which current students have made UChicago their own.

Unmarketing: Let’s tell the truth, not just some cutesy version of it:

On Snow: Yes, it’s bloody freezing! And we like it like that—it’s an externalization of our internal academic struggles, a tangible metaphor for what we think a challenging education should be like.

On Asocial people: Yes, most of us seem difficult or awkward to talk to at first! But so did Socrates. Students here will go far out of their way to talk, but only for intensely meaningful, challenging conversations. Don’t come here expecting small talk over cocktails.

On Workload: If it’s just “manageable,” you’re doing something wrong! When we’ve given it our all and still end up with an average grade, we know we’ve come to the right place.

As a prospie, I came here thinking UChicago was unique, and I left with nagging doubts. I can guarantee that there will be someone else who will prospie here in the next few months, who, like me, would be perfectly happy and productive here, but who will have the same disappointing experience I did. If the admissions office doesn’t sharpen its act, this student might not be as merciful as I was and just go elsewhere.

Tyler Lutz is a second-year in the College.