Tufts, Tufts, Tufts. I’ve always been fond of you. Perhaps it’s the cute little name — a tart monosyllable fading away into a soft fricative, leaving an image of uneven hair implants on balding comedians, or patches of grass on a sparse lawn. Perhaps it’s the University’s free digital library, the Perseus Project, which explains every word of almost every classical text. I always judge an entire university by the first person I’ve met. (The first Princetonian I met was an eating club officer, a cappella queen and double legacy, so my system seems fine.) The first Tufts student I encountered was a sweet-faced freshman, backpacking in Paris one summer, on his first trip outside the United States. “Just coming here, to Paris, has made me realize how much I take for granted in America”, he gushed. “I just thought, today, for the first time — somewhere like Africa, just having a plastic bottle to carry your water in, would be a really big, big exciting thing, but when I finish a Polar Spring bottle I just toss it away. I’d never thought about Africa before.”
So, Tufts, to me, you’ve always been innocent, sweet, but maybe a little sheltered. Maybe it’s this slight social naïveté that led your admissions office to encourage pre-frosh applicants to post YouTube videos of themselves, augmenting their written application with one-minute of manic, public self-promotion. So we now we and the rest of the world can be treated to montages of childhood photographs, prom dress fashions and teenage angst poems. One girl comments beside her video, “According to the cliche, ‘a pictures [sic] is worth a thousand words,’ this one minute long video is equal to thousands of words while if I wrote an essay, I would be limited to 400.” So she can do math. But I doubt the literature department will be impressed with her contempt for the power of text. Her grammar is creative too.
Many have already complained that the video option privileges those with performative personalities or high-tech video skills. (Tufts insists that it judges the content, not the form, of the videos, but maybe we can simplify 3,000 years of aesthetic theory and remind the university that form is always going to manipulate audience response.) As someone who loves the written word, I’m also saddened to see yet another example of the visual surpassing the textual. But I’m more worried by the complete lack of understanding of high school culture displayed by the admissions committee and the precedent it sets.
Applying to college is a time of intense competition, not just against the rest of the application pool, but within high schools. In environments where parents trade jibes about their offspring’s success and students face off with each other, allowing application videos to be posted online is toxic. Even if videos are optional and can be sent privately as DVDs (as is currently Tufts’ policy), at certain high schools, everyone will feel compelled to display their application personae to the world. And inevitably applicants will make videos knowing that they face scrutiny not only from admissions committees but also from the world at large.
The impossibility of selecting the audience is a problem not just for college applicants but for all of us as we manage our online lives. In our off-screen lives, we can constantly control the level of intimacy of a situation. We can have fluid identities. My problem with Facebook has always been that I must choose one version of my self-image — and one alone — to display to a diverse set of friends. To give a tangible example, we are brought up to be sensitive to our friends’ different financial situations — so I have many friends who never used to get shown my pictures of expensive family skiing holidays. Yet I also have friends who ski with me, and regularly tag me in uploaded photos of us all having a jolly good time in a clearly privileged private school environment. I used to keep my conservative political friends separate from my lefty, theater friends. Now I try to keep different aspects of my personality on different networks — I tweet comments and links to news articles to a circle of British political journalistic types on Twitter, while Facebook is purely for social procrastination and keeping in touch with my friends’ travel news.
College applications are obvious examples of situations in which we aim to present a particular aspect of ourselves to a particular audience. A good college admissions team should be able to look further, and appreciate the hidden potential, or the flaws we haven’t articulated. Furthermore, they should be interested in the academic, an aspect that doesn’t lend itself well to video. I’ve just sent in an application to graduate school, and although it’s scrupulously truthful, I’d probably have made it rather different if I knew the whole of my high school class would be reading it, pointing and laughing.
I sure hope that my assessors won’t be looking at me as the world sees me. I hope they’ll be looking at me with the eyes of a critical scholar, not a Mean Girl.
Kate Maltby is a senior in Saybrook College.