Sunday, December 16, 2012

An Enlightening Conversation at The University of Chicago

Last week I had the opportunity to visit some schools in the Chicago area while accompanying a group of students to a Model U.N. conference there. Since I had never been to The University of Chicago, I decided to drop by the Office of Admissions and ask a few questions. Anyone in the field of education knows the reputation of The University of Chicago and the level of excellence of its educational program. In order to better prepare my students not only for acceptance to but also for success in such a university, I wanted to find out exactly what the Office of Admissions looks for when culling through the mountains of applications each year.

In my meeting with the two admissions counselors, who gladly shared their time with me, I asked them directly, "What makes those students you accept different from those you do not? What, exactly, do you look for that differentiates top candidates from everyone else? What things in an applicant's background and application prove to be the biggest predictors of success in the University of Chicago program?" Interestingly, the admissions counselors gave the same answer for all three questions.

Here's what they said: "Clearly, academic success in terms of exceptional grades and test scores separate legitimate candidates from all others. From that pool, which always is much too large for our freshman class, we look for students who are exceptional independent learners with an intrinsic drive to learn. What we want to see is that a student has pursued learning independently in some way. It could be that a student has a passion for science and has persuaded his school to rearrange his schedule each year so he can take all science courses offered at his school. Additionally, this same student has found some interesting and unique way outside of school to pursue and explore that passion - perhaps through internships, summer experiential learning opportunities, family vacations centered on this passion, or maybe even through research of his own on his own time. It could be that a student has shown an interest in entrepreneurship and has started his own company. The bottom line is that we want to see that a student has developed a passion for something and has pursued that passion independently in a unique, interesting and innovative way. It goes without saying that all the student's transcripts, essays, recommendation letters and other application information should document not only the student's passion but also how he pursued it independently. These characteristics also are the common denominator for most of the students who are successful at The University of Chicago."

As the educational leader of a college prep school, I've been asking myself constantly since that meeting, "Is my school doing everything possible to promote and foster that kind of independent learning and curiosity?" I'm still working on the answer.

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