This Year's Pomona Essay Questions Discourage Underrepresented Applicants

I graduated from Pomona College in 2014 and immediately moved home to work at my former high school as the College and Career Guide—I think I am required to note here that the views expressed here are entirely my own. The school is 85 percent Alaska Native, over 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the graduating senior class last year had 42 students, one of whom is now at Pomona (Hi Kate!). The students also know more about Pomona than just about any other students in the country.

Pomona is the perfect place for many high-achieving kids from my hometown. Sadly, the atrocious new supplemental essay questions are an unnecessary barrier to them even applying.

When I applied in 2010, I was asked what I did for fun. Now they are these:

"1) Pomona’s Critical Inquiry course is required of all first-year students, and is designed to be highly interdisciplinary and engaging. Recent class titles include: 'The Politics of Classical Art,' 'Seeing Science,' and 'The Theatre and Environmental Activism.' Imagine you were hired to design and teach a Critical Inquiry course. Describe the title of the class, its contents, and why you chose it.

2) Through the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, Pomona provides students up to $4,000 to conduct research with a Pomona professor on any topic in the arts and humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences. Imagine you received one of these grants. What would you research and why is this topic important to you? How would you know if you had been successful in your research?"

I could not have answered either of these questions as an applicant five years ago. Pomona gave me the skills to understand and properly respond in a meaningful way to prompts such as these. It is unrealistic to expect many high school seniors to have the wherewithal to invent an interdisciplinary class when most—at least most from public schools—have likely never taken a class that wasn't taken directly from a model provided by a textbook company, let alone an engaging, interdisciplinary course. Since the longest research paper I ever wrote in high school was a four-page biography of a basketball player, writing the second prompt would be a daunting prospect.

I say this even though both of the programs mentioned were crucial parts of my Pomona experience. I am not confident I would have graduated from college without Professor Ken Wolf destroying my soul and then slowly teaching me how to write in ID1. Doing a Summer Undergraduate Research Program with Professor David Menefee-Libey allowed me to develop one of my most meaningful relationships with a mentor in my life. I imagine I value both programs more than most. But the precise reason that we have these programs, as well as just about every other class at Pomona, is so that students can learn how to address these prompts.

Last week I watched a brilliant student, who has fought their way through more challenges and pain than just about anyone I have ever met, refuse to apply to Pomona because the questions are “too confusing.” This is a student who personally knows a current student and an alum and who, even when they had a discussion with me about what the questions are asking, still did not want to deal with them.

This is because, not only are the questions nearly impossible for most students coming from under-resourced schools to understand easily, the prompts project a high-minded pretentiousness that most people don’t want anything to do with. A main goal of the prompts seems to be to promote programs available by tacking on a question mark to the end of an excerpt from the guidebook. Whether intentional or not, this does not indicate a love of creativity or passion among the student body; rather, it points to an obsession with having the endowment to fund programs.     

I was attracted to Pomona because it offered rigorous academics without the added baggage of the cutthroat environment associated with many other top schools. I’m not sure I would have held that point of view had I been confronted by these prompts. This raises the question of whether, even among students with the educational background and resources to address these questions, Pomona is self-selecting for a new type of student. Perhaps the rebranding consultants that Pomona hired in 2013 told the school that these new prompts would make Pomona seem more serious, and perhaps the intention was to select a new type of student, but Pomona is special because of the people, not the money.

Regardless of the rebranding discussion—though I think that it is a crucial one to be had—the questions undercut Pomona’s continued assertions that we strive to be a place of learning for all who passionately embrace knowledge regardless of financial circumstances. The prompts put up unnecessary barriers that hurt the exact type of student we claim we want to attract. I honestly believe that the questions were not chosen for this purpose, and I believe that what they are trying to get at are important values, but the questions need to become more accessible. I say bring back the fun.

Chuck Arrsauyaq Herman PO '14 is from, and currently lives in, Bethel, Alaska. He majored in public policy analysis-sociology and now works as a college and career guide and moonlights as a city councilman.