Skeptics have argued that these essays are just another way for privileged students to pay for “help” in their college applications. (I know at least a few unscrupulous and unemployed Ph.D.s who’d be game.) But Backlund assures me Bard has accountability measures: Every incoming freshman takes a three-week workshop in “Language and Thinking” before school officially starts. “Everyone has to pass L+T to matriculate into the College,” she explains, and at the workshop, faculty will have successful Entrance Exam applicants’ essays in hand. “If, over the three weeks, it becomes obvious there is a real discrepancy” between their admissions essays and their work for L+T, “we can take appropriate action, and the student will not face ‘expulsion,’ as they will not have as yet ‘matriculated’ at the College.”
There are other schools in the U.S.—many, like Bard, elite small colleges—that don’t require the SAT or ACT. St. John’s College (you know, that “Great Books place,” where they all learn geometry in Greek or something) also requires a unique set of essays—but they still require the Common Application and view transcripts. Even my birthplace, Deep Springs College, possibly the most iconoclastic institution of higher learning ever, requires Board scores and transcripts.
But Bard seems to be the sole college of its caliber in the United States to give students the option to absolutely blow their high-school classes and still have a chance to be great in college. Since I find it preposterous to determine a young person’s entire future based on her choices as a 14-year-old, I couldn’t be happier that the BEE, as Backlund puts it, subverts the “the mad doggie-tail chase created by U.S. News and the Common App.” (However, Backlund does not begrudge any student who wishes to use the Common App: Bard still accepts it, after all.)
But why don’t more colleges offer alternatives to the traditional application—alternatives that acknowledge that many promising young people simply crash in high school because their lives are messes, or their families are falling apart, or because they just plain hate it? And why stop with essays (which, face it, are not the cup of tea of plenty of kids who might still excel in college)? What about submitting a spectacular and original science or math project? The detailed business model of a company you invented? I wish more American colleges and universities would stop asking students to jump through a series of increasingly privilege-reifying hoops (the current admissions process favors higher-income students) and start asking for applicants to show their real potential.
So, eccentric 15-year-olds of America: Keep skipping class to paint graffiti murals on the side of the abandoned White Castle! Quit that insincere volunteer work and get the part-time job you really need! And when some authoritarian tells you you’ll never get into a good college with behavior like that? You tell him you’re going to Bard.