“YOLO” admissions question sparks controversy
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 01:09
This summer, after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions released its college supplement questions for the class of 2018, one prompt in particular ignited a frenzy in the media, among publications including the Huffington Post, Good Morning America, The Atlantic and TIME Newsfeed.
Suggested by a freshman, one of the six options for applicants’ third supplement essay asks: “What does #YOLO mean to you?” quoting hip-hop artist Drake’s song, “The Motto.”
Tufts is known among applicants for its unusual essay questions. According to the Huffington Post’s article published in July, the question is “encouraging applicants to have some fun when they introduce themselves to Tufts.”
The Atlantic Wire’s writer Alexander Nazaryan, however, was more critical of the quirky essay question.
“Setting itself up for certain mockery, Tufts University is plopping face-first into the shallows of contemporary culture with an essay question that is revealing, more than anything, of the state of academia today,” Nazaryan wrote in July. “The question is an obvious instance of pandering, of Tufts announcing that it is cool, that its admission officers get it, unlike those fusty Ivy League colleges.”
The Twittersphere blew up with comments as well, and support for and opposition against the question came in a storm. Many poked fun by posting other essay question ideas including “Describe a moment when you had to make a difficult decision: Team Edward or Team Jacob?” and, “If Justin Bieber could meet one person living or dead, who would you want it to be?”
Proud members of the Tufts community on Twitter appreciated the continued “quirkiness” vibe at Tufts, while others condemned the school for “trying too hard to target teenage applicants.” There were multiple complaints that college essays have become “pointless,” and that the school is not taking the college application process seriously, according to Twitter feeds.
Some of the most cutting words were written by one of Tufts’ own just a month ago when Garrett Gilmore (LA ’12) posted on Vice.com. He highlighted what many articles have dubbed the “cool dad” phenomenon, which describes the attempt to seem cool in the eyes of a younger generation by making references to current pop culture.
“Stuff like this is little more than an appeal to the desire of upper-class white applicants to feel like they’re being considered as something other than a collection of test scores and financial data,” Gilmore wrote.
Sophomore Mel Goldberg, agreeing with Gilmore to an extent, said that Tufts is using the Drake quote to try to appeal to the current generation of applicants.
“I certainly feel like the question itself is just mindless pandering to young people. I don’t think it’s intentional cultural appropriation,” Goldberg said. “I think they’re trying to appeal to what the demographic of their potential applicants are interested in.”
Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions, sees the question differently. Coffin said all six choices for the third supplement essay seek insight in the applicant’s self-identity, and the point is to make Tufts accessible.
“Our goal as admissions officers is to be as universal as we can be,” he said. “A good question allows an applicant to showcase another part of their personality that may not have been captured in the other parts of the application.”
Admissions provides multiple other essay options from which to choose, if the “YOLO” question is not to an applicant’s taste. This year’s application choices range from celebrating your nerdy side to celebrating the role sports play in your life.
“We try to imagine questions that different kinds of students from different backgrounds can see and say ‘I can be creative,’” Coffin said.
Sophomore Ben Weilerstein found that the question accomplished what Admissions had hoped it would.
“I don’t think [the question] is inappropriate at all,” he said. “The university is allowed to make an attempt to relate to the students. It’s their job to get students to like Tufts.”
Gilmore also brought up a deeper issue that was not addressed in other major media sources: race relations on campus.
“I’m mad because Tufts isn’t being criticized for admission and administrative practices that deserve scorn, practices that are a toxic mixture of profiteering and systemic racism and classism that are symptomatic of higher education as gestalt,” he said.
According to Gilmore, by asking this question, Tufts indicated that it is an institution that encourages students to seize the day and says ‘you only live once,’ — YOLO — when faced with adversity. Gilmore said, though, that the university has not always supported — and has even stifled — students’ right to speak for what they believe in once enrolled at Tufts.
“Asking your applicants what #YOLO means to them doesn’t amount to anything when you stop listening to what they have to say after they reach their 250 word limit,” he wrote. “It’s okay to goofily expound upon a term that a famous black person coined, Tufts seems to say, but having students of color discuss their negative experiences at the university might scare rich white applicants away.”
Coffin responded to this complaint by addressing the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ efforts to ensure the questions would not be insulting.
“There are members of our staff who work on diversity recruitment who evaluate these questions. We would never include a question on the application that would offend students.”
Coffin clarified that the question is about the applicant expressing him- or herself.