I have wonderful news for all you stressed-out parents of kindergartners whose school play was canceled to focus your 5-year-olds on college and career. Good news, as well, for you anxious 11th-graders, terrified that the Boone’s Farm you drank instead of writing a five-paragraph report on The Red Badge of Courage will ruin your future forever. Fantastic news for anyone who, like a certain friend of mine named “me,” choked on the SAT. And great, great news for anyone apprehensive about the Common Application and its reputation for glitchiness.
Bard College, a highly selective liberal-arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is about to enter the second year of a revolutionary college-admissions experiment: four wickedly challenging essays, 2,500 words each, reviewed by Bard faculty (who, I assume, enjoy grading papers). All four essays get a B+ or higher? You’re in, period. No standardized test, no GPA, no CV inflated with disingenuous volunteer work. Last year, 41 students completed what the college is calling the Bard Entrance Exam—and 17 scored high enough to be admitted. This coming fall, that number may be substantially larger, as the country’s only true alternative application to an elite school gains publicity. I’m certainly doing my part to push it, because the idea is genius.
The ramped-up pressures of admission, especially to elite schools, are very apparent to any Gen Xer (or older) who spends time with millennial college students. There is no way, for example, that 1994-era me would nowadays be admitted to my own alma mater, Vassar College. Today, perfection is the bare minimum: 4.0 and co-valedictorian, perfect Board scores, spotless extracurriculars, 30 hours a week of volunteering you don’t enjoy, a perfectly platitudinous essay about the Challenges In Your Life That Have Made You a Better Person—and then you might make the first cut. Don’t get me wrong—I love a high school goody two-shoes. But are they really the only people who deserve to go to a great college? Does an entire school full of imagination-bereft perfection not result in the sad demise of collegiate fun?
The Bard Entrance Exam aims for exactly the kind of student who, for any number of reasons, doesn’t fit inside that infernal perfection cage—who is instead, as Bard’s Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Admissions Mary Backlund told me, “someone who really likes learning,” but perhaps “couldn’t be bothered with what they saw as the ‘busy work’ of high school, and instead invested themselves in things not perceived as ‘academic’ in some places, like music or the arts—or just reading on their own.” For these students, Backlund tells me, “this option is a ‘twofer’: They get to apply and do what they love—researching and thinking—all at the same time.”
Granted, many stress-addled seniors don’t research for kicks, and for them, the Common Application is a timesaver—although how does a young person memorize her own Social Security number nowadays, if she’s not made to write it by hand into seven different applications in a row? Granted, many universities require supplementary essays—such as Tufts’ infamous prompt about #YOLO. But the Common App, which acts as a clearinghouse for everything from a student’s name and address to her GPA, extracurriculars, and recommendation dossiers, may still strike artsy or angsty students as poorly indicative of what they have to offer. Its emphasis on the usual prestige-suspects also disadvantages students with more eccentric résumés. But for almost every school in the country, there is no alternative. Except at Bard.
The genius in Bard’s method is that while it might be simpler in construction than the Common Application, it is substantially more difficult. Students have 21 essays to choose from, in three subject areas: social science, history, and philosophy; arts and literature; science and mathematics. “The faculty had a lot of fun” designing the essays, Backlund says, “not to be hard, but to be engaging and open, so that the applicants had something real to chew on and show their thinking abilities.” All require substantial amounts of original research (all sources are available on the portal) and close reading. Last year’s questions included this one:
In his 1963 lecture on gravity (you can also see the video here), Richard Feynman mentions that the “weird” behavior of Uranus led to the discovery of a new planet. More precisely, the fact that Uranus's movement did not fit what was predicted by the then-current understanding of planetary motion could be explained by the existence of a not-yet-observed planet—and the planet was then observed right where predicted. Suppose that observatories had looked at the indicated position and had not actually found the predicted planet. What then? What new questions would this outcome pose for the scientific community? How could they test other explanations for the unexpected motion of Uranus?
Personally, I think any kid that manages to write 2,500 words without joking about “the unexpected motion of Uranus” deserves automatic admission—but seriously, that essay doesn’t mess around. It’s a fascinating hypothetical; it takes into account astronomy, physics, and math, but also the philosophy of science and the thrill of the unknown that research confronts. Plus, a healthy dose of Feynman! I’ve seen this year’s questions released June 2, by creating an application myself that, sheesh, no way will I finish. They are just as tough.
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