By Yifei Zhang
“One of the fascinating qualities of Grinnell College is the diversity of its student body. Grinnell students come from around the world and from innumerable socioeconomic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. What place, people, or culture would you like to know better and why?” This is the Grinnell-specific supplement essay prompt to which I responded for admission over two years ago. Even before I began to brainstorm which of my qualities I wanted the admission staff to know, this prompt first demonstrated to me that Grinnell was a diverse and inclusive place, which helped consolidate my commitment to Grinnell by alleviating my fear of alienation. When one Grinnell applicant for Fall 2014 from my high school told me that Grinnell had taken out the supplement essay from the application, I was genuinely shocked.
According to Gregory Sneed, Director of Admission at Grinnell, the Office of Admission eliminated the supplement essay primarily because it made little difference in selecting the most qualified applicants. “We weren’t using it enough in the admission process,” said Mr. Sneed, “so we took it out to lessen the burden of the busy applicants.” The Office of Admission also hypothesized that the supplement essay might have barred many high-achieving students from applying to Grinnell, so its removal had the potential power to encourage these students to submit their applications. These arguments are compelling, but I was confounded that, as a school renowned for academic rigor and whose Mission includes preparing its graduates to become persuasive writers, Grinnell does not even want to challenge its prospective students to compose a 250-word essay.
I do not claim to know better than the admission staff about how to choose the most suitable applicants, nor do I aim to downplay the benefits that a streamlined admission process has brought to Grinnell. But I do want to propose the re-introduction of the supplement essay to the application process because it is one of the most effective methods to help prospective students reflect upon their values in relation to the values of the college and help Grinnell determine each applicant’s level of interest and suitability.
One of the main functions of the supplement essay is to help the college know its applicants more comprehensively beyond what is gleaned in quantitative data and a generic 650-word long essay sent to all colleges to which they apply. Although the main essay on the Common App may shed meaningful light on the applicants’ qualities and personalities, the supplement essay directly addresses how they will fit into Grinnell by providing them an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of Grinnell’s mission, culture, and values. Therefore, the supplement essay can broaden the context for evaluating the students’ quantitative data and determining their level of preparation for study at a place like Grinnell.
Furthermore, a sophisticated supplement essay prompt not only gives an applicant an opportunity to present their understanding of Grinnell, but it also conveys Grinnell’s mission and values to the applicants. For many years, Grinnell has been special in refusing to ask the question “Why us?” and instead crafting thoughtful prompts that would encourage its applicants to think about the college’s specific values. For example, the prompt in 2008 was “Grinnell College is a place where students come to be part of a distinctive community. Tell us what makes you an individual and what you could bring to Grinnell, but also tell us about what you wish to take away from Grinnell College.” Taking the prompt I responded to in 2012 as a more detailed example, many minority and international students, including me, feared being alienated on campus, and the Grinnell-specific supplement essay prompt delivered the message that this small and remote liberal college in central Iowa was a diverse and inclusive place. I had also been a fervent listener to hip-hop and rap for many years, and this supplement essay prompt assured me that I could communicate and interact with a significant number of African-American students to learn more about their culture, which convinced me Grinnell was the most suitable college for me. Thus, by posing a thought-provoking question, Grinnell can prompt its applicants to think more deeply about their suitability for Grinnell.
However, one may argue that removing the supplement essay simplifies the arduous admission process, which in turn helps attract more applicants. Here I do not intend to contest the simple logic that everybody will apply to this prestigious college if there is neither an application fee nor a supplement essay (Grinnell waives the $60 application fee as long as the applicants use the Common App). In fact, the number of applications Grinnell received for matriculation of fall 2014, when the supplement essay was first removed, was 52.2% more than that of the previous year. Grinnell is also not the only college that has benefitted from the economical application process. According to an article written by Janet Lorin for the BloombergBusiness, Grinnell’s peer institutions, such as Bucknell University, Colby College, and Franklin & Marshall College, saw their number of applications soar 30% to 50% when they took out the supplement essay and reduced their admission fees. Many institutions that still require their applicants to submit the supplement essay, for example Haverford College, worry the tide is against them. Since a college could only accept a limited number of applicants, a larger number of applicants necessarily lower the admission rate. This helps the college in various college ranking systems, which consider selectivity as a key criterion.
But a lower admission rate that results from what can be called “application inflation” does not accurately reflect the college’s selectivity and can potentially damage the college’s reputation. Glenn Kessler, a correspondent for the Washington Post, excoriates a prestigious private research university for “even shamelessly promote[ing] the fact that, unlike most selective colleges, it requires no supplemental essays beyond the basic Common App.” Although Grinnell might not have intended to inflate its applicant pool by removing the supplement essay, the admission statistics nevertheless suggest that this worrying effect has already occurred. For instance, the number of binding Early Decision applicants dropped more than 16.8% from 333 for the class of 2017 to 277 for that of 2018. This suggests that fewer students were committed to Grinnell when they applied, and the surge in the number of applications mainly came from the Regular Decision pool, where the student’s level of commitment was, at best, unknown. One ominous consequence of this dramatic growth in the number of Regular Decision applications is a 5% reduction in yield—the proportion of students who accepted Grinnell’s offer. This indicates Grinnell might have become one of the many institutions, as Ms. Lorin phrases, that “end up with applicants who have no interest in attending.” Consequently, although Grinnell seemed to have become more selective, the worth of its offer was definitely depreciated.
But Grinnell’s Director of Admission, Mr. Sneed, indicated that it is only possible to convince the high-achieving students to attend Grinnell if they do apply in the first place. Bryan Gross, associate vice president for enrollment management at St. John’s University, in an article published in the TIME magazine, presented a similar argument. “If we can eliminate as many barriers as possible, students are much more likely to apply,” said Mr. Gross, “We find if we can get someone to apply who might not otherwise, we get a chance to send marketing messages to convey to them the benefits of attending our school.” I will not disagree with Mr. Sneed or Mr. Gross that the college must first attract the best students to apply in order to compete for them, but I disagree that eliminating the supplement essay is the most strategic move, especially considering that Grinnell is already doing the right thing to make the high-achieving students interested. For instance, Grinnell sponsors admission staff to travel both domestically and internationally to publicize the college and has successfully convinced many students to apply. Coming to know Grinnell from the U.S. News and World Report, I became committed to Grinnell after scheduling a face-to-face interview with Jonathan Edwards, the Associate Director of Admission, who was visiting Singapore at the time to promote the college. The elimination of the supplement essay can attract many frivolous students to apply, but other marketing strategies like travelling recruiters are what make the students apply with interest or commitment as desired by the Office of Admission.
I acknowledge that re-implementing the supplement essay may cost Grinnell some applications, but its effect is not always grave. As an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reported back in 2013, Boston College added a supplement essay to its admission process. Although the college experienced a 26% decrease in applications that year because of the extra essay, its director of undergraduate admissions, John Mahoney, pointed out that this reduction in the number of applications did not cost the college many of the most competitive students. He is definitely visionary to see the supplement essay not only as an evaluative tool but also one way to suppress frivolous applications. “It seems that we’ve lost the ‘Why Not?’ applicant,” said Mr. Mahoney. Boston College has implemented the supplement essay with little impact on the quality of its application pool, so why can’t Grinnell do the same?
To conclude, Grinnell must bring back the supplement essay because it helps both the applicants and the college to determine whether they suit each other. Although this may potentially cause Grinnell to lose some applications, its effect will be offset by Grinnell’s other marketing strategies. The supplement essay requirement will also filter out those “why not?” applicants and help garner a more interested and committed pool of applicants. It is neither fair nor prudent to offer a place to a student who can be discouraged from applying simply by a short, carefully drafted, and Grinnell-specific essay.