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David duKor-Jackson

Esse quam videri by David duKor-Jackson

To be, rather than to seem

As I find myself again, railing against something published in the New York Times about the college admissions process, it is hard for me to deny just how much of a curmudgeon I have become. I’m pretty sure that it is not simply a function of age, but rather a fundamental difference in perspective relating to what applying to college is supposed to be about.

As an admissions officer, I recognize that while the application process can be very competitive, it is not inherently a competition. This is a nuance that I don’t think that many students, parents and journalists appreciate. I have the luxury of being able to be a purist in this regard, and I acknowledge how radical my thinking might seem.

Recently, I have been putting my radical thinking into practice by regularly suggesting to potential applicants that they should avoid trying to get admitted.  In my mind, it makes perfect sense.  It is, at least initially though, nearly incomprehensible to the vast majority. I do explain that I am not discouraging them from applying for admission, but rather making a distinction between submitting an application and trying to manipulate the process in order to gain admission.

In case this distinction is not clear, applying for admission involves the submission of academic credentials and supporting documents from which a composite is formed that enables the admissions office to determine whether an applicant is a good match. Trying to get admitted, on the other hand, is essentially the exact opposite. A prospective student, based upon what they believe will create a “winning” application, works backwards to repackage themselves into their vision of the perfect applicant.

Sometimes students have wonderfully transformative experiences in situations like these, and even do a great deal of good along the way.  However, much of the time, students fail to connect with any underlying meaning, and merely end up with a contrived essay topic or an additional faux activity that frequently does more harm than good for their admission chances.

WARNING: You are about to encounter a mini-rant. Have you ever considered how community service became the de rigueur activity that everyone needed to do in order to look good for college? I imagine it went something like this. At the end of another very competitive admissions cycle, a journalist made calls to admissions offices fishing for an interesting bit of information that might make a good story. From that fishing expedition, an admissions officer recounted how there was this one kid that was really memorable, because she saw a need in her community and took action because somebody needed to. Her actions inspired others, and the community came together and made a significant difference. She wrote about her experiences in her college application essay because those experiences were a big part of who she had become. The journalist wrote a compelling story, which got picked up by a number of other outlets, because in addition to being a positive human-interest piece it also represented the discovery of a formula for success in the admissions process that could be replicated by virtually anyone.

Don’t get me wrong. I think kids doing community service is great, but if all they get from their experience is a tally of hours, or they have to travel half way around the world to discover that there are poor people, they are missing the point. If they can’t talk or write about their experiences with some level of introspection, and ponder questions like “Why are resources distributed in such a way that there are individuals in great need, whose very survival may depend upon the charitable assistance of others?” then something is lacking. Rather than creating an image that is unique and distinctive, they have simply completed an elaborate “paint by numbers,” that may be appealling at first glance, but is woefully short on substance. End of rant.

If you are wondering what my point is, it can be best summed up with a Latin phrase that I heard several months ago that has really stuck with me – Esse quam videri, which translates “To be, rather than to seem.”

Beyond the college admissions process, I would say that this is also a good core principle for life. Most of us want people in our lives who are what they seem. This is especially true for close friends. Most would also acknowledge that a relationship that is based upon being something that one is not, is destined for failure. Why then, would the college experience be any different? Of course, it is different because it involves multiple relationships, rather than a single one. And although, an undergraduate experience is finite (4 years for most), the relationships are anything but finite, as they continue throughout the course of one’s life.

The bottom line is this. If an institution doesn’t appreciate applicants for who they are, then the applicants will ultimately be much better off in places where they will be appreciated, particularly if they have the freedom to be themselves. If they want to have that freedom, they need to ensure that the central focus of the college search and application process is on who they are and what is right for them, rather than the prized offer of admission, from the big name universiy, that will impress their friends and family.

16 responses to “Esse quam videri”

  1. Brian says:

    Great article! As a current high school senior applying to colleges, I appreciate what you’re saying about the entire process NOT being a competition- I feel like that gets lost on most. I suppose the bottom line is that schools want to be filled with students, not “applicants”.

  2. parinaz_mkt says:

    I’m a student in chemichal engineering in Sharif university of technology in Iran. I really want to continue my educatin in MIT . I’m in my seccond year in my major. My ranking in entrance exam was 733 in country. I want to know what properties should I have to join your university in my ms education?
    and one more questin: do I have any chance to come to MIT?

  3. MIT Dad says:

    What a breath of fresh air! David, are you relatively new to MIT admissions? I feel like the spirit of Ben Jones is revisiting the blog site. I look forward to reading more of your musings.

  4. Emad T. '14 says:

    “Don’t get me wrong. I think kids doing community service is great, but if all they get from their experience is a tally of hours, or they have to travel half way around the world to discover that there are poor people, they are missing the point.”

    I completely agree. You phrased this impeccably, David.

  5. Ahem. And this is why Uncle D. IS. AWESOME.

  6. Chris Peterson SM '13 says:

    @Elizabeth –

    Was thinking about this yesterday. I think it’s “Old Man David” and then either Uncle Q or Grandpa Q, depending on whether he is being kindly and avuncular or whether he is talking to himself.

  7. anurag kumar shandilya says:

    Your thoughts are really nice. It was an interesting read.

  8. Kim says:

    This is why you’re my favorite guy at the admissions block! Keep showing your avuncular qualities!

  9. David duKor-Jackson says:

    I really specialize in undergraduate admissions, so I can’t tell you what you need to be admitted to an MS program. Admission at the grad level is decentralized, so you’re going to need to contact the department directly.

    @MIT Dad
    The spirit of Ben Jones… that’s high praise! I’m not especially new to MIT Admissions. I’m starting my third year in the office, but certainly I am new to the blogs. I didn’t think that I had anything to say, but apparently I’ve changed my mind.

    @Chris Peterson
    I’m good with Uncle D. Everybody has a crotchety old uncle and I prefer the more familial uncle over the decided less familiar old man. Apparently you have no dispute with my AWESOMEness though.

  10. Sami says:

    I love this entry!

    It’s encouraging to know that people in admissions can tell the difference between people doing their thing, then applying to college opposed to people doing their thing TO apply to college. Ahh this is a sweet article. YES.

  11. 1. I am pretty certain that all male staff members of the MIT Admissions Office possess avuncular qualities (additionally, all of the female staff are very aunt-like).

    2. Do not dispute Uncle D’s awesomeness, Uncle Petey. He will take record of it, send it to the North Pole and then you won’t get presents from Santa!

  12. Michael says:

    This post, among other blogs here, helps keep my morale up in this dismal admissions process. Thanks for taking the time to write about this. It really does help!

  13. Suyash Kumar says:

    This is awesome. Really awesome!

    It’s refreshing to see this ideal of ‘applicant actuality’ in well-written print! I love it. It certainly brings more comfort to the application process, and reminds me that yes, a genuine humanity still pervades though crazily competitive admissions procedures.
    I agree COMPLETELY with you.

    Thanks David (for writing this, and for keeping us applicants in proper high spirits)! I can’t wait ’till the 19th!

  14. Jennie says:

    What an excellent article! Thanks for putting into words what I was thinking about when I applied to MIT. I can’t wait to begin my adventures here in just a few days :DD

  15. David duKor-Jackson says:

    I’d say you’ve got it right… Keep doing your thing!

    You’re welcome, and I’m glad it helps.

  16. jukim says:

    I’ve been anxious about myself because some of my friends have been intentionally doing activities for their “perfect applications” created by their “consultants” but I don’t. And after reading this article, I am even more ready to present myself without any packaging or disguising. As a rising senior, I actually enjoy this college application process since I get to reflect myself much deeply.