The Goucher College video app is a terrible idea

Back in the early 1990s, while I was in the middle of a long business career, I recall reading that the University of Pennsylvania had decided to add an unusual essay requirement for their undergraduate applicants. Specifically, the students were asked to submit “Page 217” of their 300-page autobiography. Remember now, these budding autobiographers were all of 17 years old.

Although my memory is getting a little hazy, I believe I remember reading at the time that the Penn admissions department came up with this idea during a department retreat at the shore, while walking on the beach after dinner. I don’t recall any mention of wine being served at dinner, or how much, but I would not be surprised if this was part of the creative process.

At any rate, I thought at the time that it was a ridiculous idea, and my assessment hasn’t changed. Fortunately, Penn decided to lay this requirement to rest a few years ago, but only after a two-decade run.

A few weeks ago, just when I thought it was safe, along comes Goucher College with an even more cockeyed idea — to allow student applicants to submit a 2-minute video instead of a high school transcript. This is in addition to the College’s existing policy to not require standardized test scores.

To be fair, Goucher is trying this as an experiment, and maintains the traditional admission protocol for students that would prefer not to go the video application route. Even Goucher President Jose Bowen says that it is an experiment, and “there may be plenty of reasonable objections.”

But a closer look at this experiment indicates an even more surprising departure from the traditional process. Goucher’s standard application requires not only a high school transcript, but also a letter of recommendation from the student’s high school guidance counselor and a second letter from one of the applicant’s subject matter teachers.

The video application, on the other hand, requires none of these — just the video, a graded writing sample, and one “stellar academic work.”

Goucher states on its website that “access to higher education should be about potential, not just previous achievement.” Moreover, the Goucher video application provides “another opportunity for students to show us what makes them unique, why they would flourish at Goucher, and how they will fit into our community of learners.”

This sounds nice, but in my opinion it represents a giant step backward in the college exercising its critical role to provide competent graduates to take their places as the leaders of the future.

Although there may be some out there, I could not find another example of a college or university accepting a video in lieu of a high school transcript. Tuft’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Lee Coffin, attracted some attention in a February 2010 New York Times article when he said he looked at a YouTube student video somebody had sent him, and remarked of the student: “If this kid applied to Tufts, I’d admit him in a minute, without anything else.”

Mr. Coffin has apparently backed off; Tufts accepts a video only as a supplement, primarily for arts students. Yale also accepts videos as a supplement, and cautions that these should only be submitted if they demonstrate high quality artistic achievement. The same holds true for Drexel’s Westphal College of Media and Design.

George Mason and St. Mary’s College will accept a video in lieu of an essay, but it seems that the high school transcript is still very much a fixture across the land, rendering the Goucher initiative an experiment indeed.

Although I viewed the Penn “Page 217” essay at the time strictly with the eyes of a businessperson, I react to the Goucher decision with the additional perspective of someone who has been teaching at the college level for the last dozen years.

One of the most costly mistakes a company can make is to hire the wrong person. The employee’s poor performance necessitates coverage from colleagues already over-extended with their own duties, hours of management coaching and counseling, and more.

Given that downside, what do organizations seek in college graduates? Regardless of the student’s major, companies seek intelligent individuals who are perceptive, good communicators, and able to positively engage with the hundreds of internal and external stakeholders that they’ll deal with.

How can a company recruiter gauge whether or not a given college graduate fits these requirements? Some of the assessment comes though in the personal interview, where we assess the applicant’s ability to think logically, speak coherently, make eye contact, dress appropriately, and demonstrate that he or she has researched the company.

But beyond those personal traits that show in an interview, how can the hiring manager be sure that the applicant is also an achiever, organized in his or her work habits, able to anticipate deadlines, to complete assignments on time, and to operate independently?

For that we refer to the applicant’s track record — college courses taken, grade-point average, published papers. The transcript and the resume are the windows into past performance. As stockbrokers say, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but in the case of assessing an individual, it’s usually pretty accurate.

That said, let’s consider what a college should look for in assessing students.

Really, it’s no different from what the hiring company seeks.

The admissions staff needs a sense of the individual’s ability to present positively, to relate to others, to voice aspirations. The personal interview provides much of the basis upon which to make that assessment. In that regard, the Goucher video probably isn’t a bad idea. Presumably, students who wouldn’t shine in a video will choose the standard application process.

What concerns me are the students (and we’ve all had some of them in class) who are personable, facile, engaging, funny — and lazy. They hope to cover their lack of academic output with engaging personalities.

That’s why I think that using a video to replace any consideration of the applicant’s high school transcript is a terrible idea. The transcript is the primary way college officials can assess a student’s drive, determination and ability to achieve results. If we admit students strictly on the basis of potential and creativity, we only see half of the picture, at most.

I shudder to think what may happen at Goucher in the future, as it admits more students possessing creativity, quirkiness or whatever else shows through in a two-minute video, but relatively fewer with the demonstrated ability to read thoughtfully, write cogently, synthesize complex issues, and simply get things done.