Mitchell Moran-Kaplan did the usual drill for most of his college applications. But for Goucher College, the 18-year-old grabbed a digital camera last fall and went for a drive, gathering footage for a two-minute video that aimed to explain what he’s all about.
The private liberal arts college in Baltimore County did not ask for his SAT scores, a personal essay or a transcript. It just wanted the video, a graded writing assignment and one other sample of work from his high school years.
Through his “video app,” the student from Bowie, Md., joined an experiment that offers a radical, lower-stress option in the college-admissions craze.
Goucher President José Antonio Bowen said there is “a hunger” across the country for new ways to apply to college. “We will be seeing more alternative applications,” he said. “The system is broken.”
Video, he said, is how teens raised on social media communicate. And they don’t need to hire tutors and consultants to make one. “It’s appealing,” Bowen said. “More people can do this. Not only the rich, not only the privileged.”
The hope is that it provides a more authentic glimpse of the typical college-bound student than heavily edited and polished personal essays.
“I wanted to show you this to show you that I’m driven,” Moran-Kaplan says into the camera as the bearded teenager stands outside a small house from his childhood in the Virginia mountains. “I want to succeed at whatever I do — at my career, at sports, at school — because I don’t want to wind up back here, at a place like this.”
Here’s Moran-Kaplan at his synagogue in Annapolis: “Hopefully I would like to be the one who brokers peace between Palestine and Israel. So you know, my major, I want to do international studies, with a minor in Arabic and a minor in Hebrew.”
Here he is with the Eleanor Roosevelt High School rugby squad: “I’m the captain this year. So we’re just ending practice now. I know Goucher doesn’t have a rugby team, but I figured I could start a rugby team there.” The closing shot: a tight huddle with his teammates and a roar of “Raiders!”
It worked. Goucher accepted him without knowing his grade-point average or the rigor of his course schedule. He was one of 49 students admitted this way, out of 64 who sent in videos.
Skeptics dismiss the videos as a gimmick, demonstrating little else than the elasticity of one quirky college’s admission standards.
The Common Application, a Web portal, processes 3.45 million applications a year to more than 500 selective colleges. There is virtually no chance that the Goucher video app, or anything like it, will displace the Common Application or other pillars of the admissions industry anytime soon. Goucher, with about 2,100 students, also uses the Common Application and has no plans to stop.
But the experiment has helped Bowen, a jazz musician who joined Goucher last year, draw attention to his college in a crowded market.
U.S. News and World Report ranks Goucher 105th among national liberal arts schools, tied with Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Washington College in Maryland and four others.
Some colleges solicit and accept videos as part of an application package, and videos have long been essential for schools that recruit performing artists.
In 2010, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., launched an option for general undergraduate applicants to submit supplemental videos. In 2013, Babson College in Massachusetts started allowing applicants to submit a one-minute video instead of a one-page essay.
Tufts University allowed video submissions for a few years, but a spokeswoman said the Massachusetts school ended that experiment because the videos “weren’t adding substantially to what candidates were telling us about themselves through other means.”
Bowen’s version of the idea — pushing aside test scores and transcripts — goes much further. A growing number of schools don’t require test scores, but it is highly unusual for a selective college to not require a transcript, even one with an admission rate, like Goucher’s, in the range of 70 percent.
Two dozen of Goucher’s video applicants sent transcripts to be considered for merit scholarships. But Christopher Wild, an admissions counselor, said none of the transcripts was reviewed before admissions decisions were made.
Three professors joined Wild in December to screen the video apps. They scored the high school works first because they didn’t want to be influenced by images from the videos. Then they rated the videos on content/thoughtfulness, structure/organization and clarity/effectiveness. Applicants who received at least 23 points out of a possible 35 were admitted.
Nina Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science who participated, acknowledged that it was risky. She said she had concerns about how much information could be learned through a video. “I was pretty scared not to have the safety net of a transcript,” she said. Would the students she admitted be ready for college work? Was Goucher doing something unethical?
But Kasniunas said she was reassured by the quality of the assignments students submitted and by the personality that came through in the videos.
Moran-Kaplan said he also applied to the University of Maryland, Emory University, Columbia University and the University of Rochester. One day last fall, while he was working on the Common Application, he decided to “try something different.” So he put together the Goucher video using an old camera and the iMovie program.
“It was more fun than sitting down and writing a story about who you are or what you would do in this situation,” he said. “It let me take a chance to show who I am and change it up a bit.”
He’s waiting to find out if there are other acceptances before deciding where he wants to attend college.
Marissa de La Viez, 17, of Frederick, Md., said she sent Goucher an app because she loves to edit video. “That's my thing,” she said. “It’s my calling. When I thought about it, I was like, ‘That’s perfect for me.’ Who wants to look ‘normal’ when you apply? You want to stand out.”
She put a camera in a windowsill in her poster-bedecked bedroom, sat on a chair and narrated her story: honor society memberships, academic excellence awards, fundraising to fight non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple sclerosis, dancing on the Linganore High School poms squad, student journalism.
“I really hope you guys would consider me,” she says in the video. “I think I’d be a great addition. I love the campus. I love the atmosphere. It’s just incredible. It’s my top school, honestly.”
Goucher admitted her. But de La Viez said she also is weighing offers from hometown Hood College, Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and Towson University, near Goucher. She said she does well in school, but she was grateful to apply to a college that cared about who she is outside of A’s and B’s.
“I’m not just a grade,” she said. “I’m a person.”
Ja’Marc Allen-Henderson, 18, of San Francisco, said he is “not a big social media person” and had never before produced a video of himself. He sent one to Goucher anyway.
“It took a couple months to mentally prepare for it,” he said. “I was kind of camera shy.” His video explains his work as an intern at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, working in exhibits with penguins and sea stars. He got into Goucher but is considering several other colleges.
Another student filmed her video with a friend’s help in a costume closet at her high school’s theater. Oceane Caiveau, 17, of Westfield, N.J., told Goucher that she is the co-head of costumes for school plays and said it is “so cool” that there is an agriculture cooperative on Goucher’s campus.
“I am an avid reader, a lover of all things plantlike and a huge theater fan,” she said to the camera.
As a comedic touch, Caiveau’s friend placed a stuffed alligator at random spots in the backdrop of the video. The gator appears over Caiveau’s shoulder at the end of the video as she proudly demonstrates her goofy gopher face, a nod to the Goucher mascot. She got in, and she accepted.
Caiveau said she probably wouldn’t have applied to Goucher without the video option. Too often, she said, college admissions seems like a numbers game.
“We’re a system based a lot on grades,” she said. “And I don’t think you can represent the entirety of a child’s high school career based on a grade or a number.”