In Defense of an Academically Rigorous Image of Pomona

Two weeks ago, TSL published an opinion piece by Chuck Herman PO '14 decrying Pomona College's most recent batch of application essay prompts. According to Herman, these essay questions—focusing on Pomona's academic offerings, such as ID1 seminars and the Summer Undergraduate Research Program—gives unfair advantage to those from more privileged backgrounds in Pomona's admissions process.

This may be true. It certainly is plausible that a student who had never heard of interdisciplinary seminars or summer research programs would have a more difficult time responding to these essay prompts than someone who took an interdisciplinary seminar in high school and did research over the summer. For that reason, it may be necessary for Pomona's admissions office to reconsider next year's essay prompts.

However, throughout his article, Herman argues that these essays prompts are misguided not only because they ask questions that applicants from marginalized backgrounds may have difficulty answering, but because they project an image of Pomona's culture that is distasteful to these applicants. According to Herman, the perception that he, as a college applicant, had of Pomona was that it had rigorous academics without being “cutthroat,” and this year's essay prompts would have undercut that perception of Pomona for him because of their “high-minded pretentiousness.” I take issue with this argument for a variety of reasons, the most important being that Herman's argument plays into a toxic narrative that presents Pomona as a place of ease and uninterrupted happiness.

Criticism of Pomona's representation of itself as “the happiest place on earth” is nothing new. The fact that Pomona's U.S. News & World Report blurb elects to mention Ski-Beach day over the college's academic or extracurricular offerings is both misleading to prospective Pomona students and deleterious to the many students that are actually here. Many Pomona students will find themselves overwhelmed by a combination of the academic workload and the socioemotional rigors of late adolescence at some point in their time here, and the false idea that Pomona is a place where nobody works hard makes life even harder for these already-struggling students.

One of these critics of Pomona's self-perception as a laid-back place is Mark Neustadt, the consultant whose firm was hired to reassess Pomona's brand in 2013. Herman's article raises the question of whether Pomona has decided to select for a “more serious” type of student on Neustadt’s advice. In fact, Pomona underwent rebranding in large part in order to attract more students of color and first-generation students—students that Herman argued are more likely to be put off by essay questions that portray Pomona as a more serious place. According to Neustadt's research, Pomona's “narrative of ease” contributed to a divide between more focused students and more relaxed students, a divide that had a particularly negative effect on students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds.

Not only did the narrative of ease negatively contribute to the experiences of students of color and first-generation students at Pomona, Neustadt's study also provided evidence that prospective students of color were less likely to choose Pomona over comparable schools in part because of the narrative of ease. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to feel the need to push themselves in college, because they have much more to lose if they don't end up succeeding after graduation.

Nobody wants to go to a school that is cutthroat and competitive, but as it turns out, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be comfortable in a high-pressure environment than a laid-back one. Even if the current essay questions are too obscure to be accessible to these students, Pomona's admissions process needs to emphasize the school's more serious qualities if it is to succeed in becoming a more diversely-populated and equitable institution. When I applied to Pomona, there was a choice between two essay prompts—one which was more traditional and 'fun,' and one which emphasized the school's academic offerings.

An essay prompt like that is perhaps the best way to portray Pomona as an academically-serious place while avoiding privileging students from educationally-advantaged backgrounds in the admissions process. As Herman argued in his article, students who are not able to answer questions about interdisciplinary seminars or summer research may wish to go to a school where they can learn to answer such questions. But, in order to get these students to apply, Pomona needs to assure them that it is a place where academics are taken seriously. Herman's criticism of this year's essay questions may hit the mark in some places, but his exhortation to “bring back the fun” is deeply misguided.

William Schumacher PO '18 is majoring in Philosophy and Computer Science. He is interested in literature and the politics of technology.

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