Pomona’s Admissions Essay Prompts: Separating Intent from Effect

I was fortunate enough to work as an intern for the Pomona College office of admissions over summer 2013. The upcoming fall application cycle dominated the discussion at the office, from rising high school seniors and their families to other admissions officers to interns like myself.

While at the office one day, I heard a couple of admissions officers discussing possible prompts for Pomona’s supplemental essay to the Common Application. The main concern the officers voiced with the essays they received was that students wrote too much about a topic important to the student but not enough about the student themselves. I took it upon myself to think of possible essay prompts in my own time, outside of work, and soon afterwards I gave several prompts to an admissions officer. One of those is now the first prompt in this fall’s supplement application.

The prompt currently reads:

“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.”

When I originally gave my prompt to the admissions office, it was not worded this way. The prompt I wrote made it clear that the emphasis of the responding essay should be about the individual and not about the course. It was my intention to empower applicants to write about topics that were important to them while also having them share insights about themselves. That is something reasonable to ask a high-achieving high school student to write about. Designing a collegiate-level course is not.

It is important to note that the spring before I worked at admissions was the spring Pomona made its rebranding efforts public, headlined by the work done by consultant Mark Neustadt. The administration has tried full-force to display a new image and a new Pomona to the world since then, much to the dismay of many students and alums like myself.

I started this piece by sharing my role in this prompt because, to me, there is a clear difference in intention and effect. As someone who currently works in the consulting industry, I know that there is a significant difference between what information consultants find and what the client does with that information.  

Fellow alumnus Chuck Herman wrote in an opinions piece last issue that these prompts may discourage high school students from applying, and I agree. In last week's piece, he says that these topics raise “the question of whether … Pomona is self-selecting for a new type of student.” As much as current students and alumni care about our peers and campus culture, it only matters as much as who the new students who apply and are admitted the following year are. If the admissions office starts to shape the student body, then all of the work that current students put into creating the campus culture will hit a glass ceiling.

At a time when fellow students across Sixth Street are fighting the notion that their administration should sponsor a “mold” for the student body, it is important to realize that the student body starts at the doorstep of the admissions office. From external reasons (the Forbes ranking) to internal reasons (the administration’s rebranding effort), I do worry about what Pomona’s student body may look like in the future. I’m not saying that I’m not happy with the Forbes ranking or with people knowing my alma mater. I am saying that there is a nuance that needs to be taken into account when looking towards the future.

I fear Pomona—as an institution and as shaped by the admissions office—is pushing itself toward a mold for the student body, and it starts in very subtle ways, such as shaping who applies to Pomona College. Many colleges attract a particular type of individual (i.e. an academic focus at the college). However, the admissions office should not be discouraging high school students from applying because they do not fit its “mold” for the student body. And if a college were to have a “mold,” it should not be up the college to decide what that mold is.

Rishi Sangani PO’15 is a proud alumnus.

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