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What Can a 2-Minute Video Say About the Next 4 Years?

Ever since George Mason University started inviting prospective students to send in videos as part of their application materials, Matthew P. Boyce, the interim admissions director there, has seen applicants try to prove their mettle in some odd ways.

One young man wrote and performed a rap about why he wanted to go to the university, featuring a cameo by his grandma. Mr. Boyce recently watched footage of another candidate biting into an Indian “ghost pepper,” one of the world’s spiciest varieties. The footage was presented as evidence of the applicant’s resiliency. “It was kind of goofy,” says the admissions director, though certainly memorable.

George Mason is one of a handful of universities that, several years ago, gave prospective students the option of submitting short “video essays” as part of their applications.

The videos were meant only as supplements to the required materials, which include standardized-test scores, grade-point averages, and recommendation letters. “It’s never going to make or break their admission to Mason,” says Mr. Boyce of the videos.

Last week Goucher College announced that it was taking video submissions to the next level. Prospective students will have the option of making two-minute videos the centerpiece of an application to Goucher. If they submit a video, plus two samples of academic work, then they will not be required to send in a transcript or letter of recommendation.

In light of Goucher’s move, we decided to check in with other colleges that have incorporated videos into the application process.

Videos have not gotten traction at those institutions. At George Mason, videos play a negligible role in the admissions process; out of 22,000 applicants last year, only about 100 sent in videos, according to Mr. Boyce. Two other colleges, Tufts University and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, have stopped soliciting videos from applicants.

“It wasn’t really giving us what we needed to evaluate them for an honors liberal-arts college,” says Michael J. Cummings, director of admissions at St. Mary’s.

José Antonio Bowen, Goucher’s recently appointed president, acknowledges that the move risks depriving his admissions officers of potentially helpful information. “There are trade-offs,” says Mr. Bowen. But he is convinced that the possible benefits of the new policy outweigh the risks.

Let’s break it down. What exactly can a two-minute video, plus a pair of high-school papers, tell Goucher’s admissions counselors? And what could nixing the transcript and recommendation requirements take away from them?

What They Gain

“Authenticity.” Students can fake passion or enthusiasm in any medium, but it’s harder to do so in a video, according to Christopher Wild, an admissions counselor at Goucher. “Video is inherently easier to read” for authenticity, he says, citing nonverbal cues like “body language, posture, voice tone.”

Students theoretically can get coaching, write scripts, and perform multiple takes, but Mr. Wild thinks affectation is harder to disguise on camera. “It’s easier to fake in prose,” he says. Interviews give officials a chance to size up some applicants in person, but Goucher interviewed only 17 percent of students it accepted this year. For most applicants, the college had to rely solely on how students looked on paper.

More applications. As a general rule, admissions officers want to look at prospective students from as many angles as possible, says Mr. Boyce at George Mason. That is why his university did not jettison any of the traditional requirements when it started soliciting videos. A plausible reason for stripping away the transcript and recommendation requirements would be to get more people to apply, says Mr. Boyce.

Goucher’s president, Mr. Bowen, says he does expect more applications as a result of the change. (“My prediction is hundreds, not thousands,” he says.) More applications would also mean a lower acceptance rate, which could raise the college’s selectivity rating.

Higher yield. Mr. Bowen has a theory: Giving students the option of making their case with something that is both easy to create and Goucher-specific will attract more students who actually want to go there.

“The metric I want to see out of this is a higher affinity—an applicant pool that is applying to Goucher, not a bunch of colleges of which Goucher is one,” he says. “If affinity goes up, that will hopefully increase yield.”

Timid but talented students. The Goucher president says the change was a direct response to “undermatching,” a phenomenon in which students decline to apply to selective colleges despite being well qualified. Mr. Bowen believes that making transcripts and recommendations optional and soliciting more casual materials will make the application process less intimidating.

“They’re confused because it’s complicated,” he says. “So we were looking primarily for simple—and to start a conversation.”

What They Lose

The big picture. Transcripts give admissions officials a flyover view of a prospective student’s academic life during high school. They might lack humanity, but they provide scope. Two examples of academic work might give a snapshot of a student at her best, says Mr. Cummings, the St. Mary’s admissions director, but they would not supply as much evidence on whether a student can hack it at the college for four years.

“We want to look at the individual classes,” he says. “For that, it’s really important. We need to see AP courses, honors courses, something to show that students challenged themselves and were successful.”

Mr. Boyce agrees. “Without that transcript,” he says, “we’d have a harder time making a strong assessment of a student’s academic progress and ability.”

Third-party perspective. Admissions officials admit that endorsements from teachers, coaches, and counselors are not necessarily insightful. But letters of recommendation should not be dismissed as pro forma fluff, says Mr. Cummings. “I have seen recommendations push a student both ways,” he says.

Students are not always articulate or forthcoming when talking about themselves, says the St. Mary’s admissions director, especially when it comes to their struggles. An educator’s perspective can illuminate characteristics that don’t always come through in a transcript or an essay.

“If you’re a researcher or a journalist, you’re taught to triangulate the data, right?” says Mr. Cummings. “So this is another piece of information.”

Red flags. Goucher’s new policy might open a side door to applicants whose strengths are not so apparent on paper, but a video and a couple of graded assignments might not show if a student is ill prepared for college work.

“By losing the transcript,” Mr. Wild admits, he and his Goucher colleagues might lose sight of “the big red flag that waves when nobody’s talking about it.”

Students are welcome to address any shortcomings in the videos, but they are not required to do so. “If you’re not asking them to do it,” says Mr. Cummings, “they can very easily hide that.”

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