Could YouTube Be the New Essay in College Applications?

Colleges’ soliciting of video in applications causes questions over economic divides and privacy.

By + More

The Flight of Jumbo stars a remote-controlled blue elephant helicopter created and flown by a high school student as an homage to Tufts University's school mascot. Whereas, GMU Song features a student singing an original song along with her ukulele about why she belongs at George Mason University. Then there's Math Dances, starring an energetic high schooler performing interpretive math dances for Tufts. The videos were part of these high school students' applications to the college of their choice, and they have received thousands of views on YouTube. Welcome to what could be the future of college applications.

George Mason, Tufts, and St. Mary's College of Maryland are the first colleges to accept videos as part of their applications for admission. George Mason and St. Mary's accept the videos as a supplement or in lieu of a written essay, while Tufts currently accepts them only as a supplement to the application. Other schools have accepted videos as supplements to applications over the years, but these three schools are among the first to solicit them specifically in their applications. While George Mason and Tufts both officially began accepting videos as part of their undergraduate applications in the fall of 2009, St. Mary's began accepting them in the fall of 2008. Tufts received more than 700 videos from its nearly 15,500 applicants, while George Mason received about 120 videos from its 20,000 applicants and St. Mary's received between 200 and 300 videos from its 2,500 applicants in 2009.

Andrew Flagel, George Mason's dean of admissions, says the reason the school added videos to its application was to provide another outlet for students to add personality to their application. The school also accepted the videos as a way to cut down on the expense and time tied to conducting student interviews, he says.

While many of the videos feature high-quality production and animation, quite a few look very homemade. "From our standpoint, we're not looking for the best film producer or best video equipment," Flagel says. "What we are really looking for is energy, enthusiasm, and leadership; someone who would make the best George Mason student." He says that so far he hasn't seen any of the students' videos work against them in the process, adding that the admissions officers view the applications holistically, with the most weight focused on the student's academic record.

Richard Edgar, the St. Mary's director of admissions, says the school added a video as an essay to see another side of a student. "It's so important for us to understand who they are," he says. "The essay should be able to share about the soul of the teenager."

Hayley Fremuth, a high school senior from Ellicott City, Md., was accepted early admission to St. Mary's for this fall. She created a video to show the college her many talents. "Your résumé is supposed to show what you've done, and the essay is supposed to show who you are," she says. "The visual effect you get from a person in a video is different from their writing style. I wanted to show them who I was when I wasn't on a piece of paper."

The Common Application, which is currently accepted by 389 member schools, has solicited videos on its arts supplement for the past two years, and it will be accepting videos in the athletic supplements next year, says Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application. "Other than that, we have no plans to encourage or solicit video or other multimedia submissions from common applicants," Killion says. By contrast, the Universal College Application, which currently has 86 member schools, began allowing students to submit optional multimedia through its main application form during the fall of 2008, says Joshua Reiter, the president of ApplicationsOnline, which creates this consortium application.

While colleges are becoming more receptive to videos as part of an application, there are still mixed opinions among high school counselors. Some counselors worry about privacy issues surrounding videos on YouTube and their possible negative effects when students apply for jobs. There are also concerns about a socioeconomic disparity between students who can afford to make videos and those who can't. "If accepting videos becomes commonplace, it will increase the divide between haves and have-nots," says Jim Jump, the director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va., and the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "I also worry about an 'arms race' where students feel like they have to outdo each other, where production values and packaging become more important than substance."

Tufts University
George Mason University
college admissions