Today I received an e-mail from a prospective student in China. I started to answer this with a quick e-mail, but decided that a) I had a lot to say on this subject and b) others might enjoy my rambling as well. So I decided to put my thoughts in a blog. The student essentially asked three questions:
1.Colleges all say that they want "diversity." What does that mean? 2.I can't change who I am so how do I become "diverse"? 3.Would you tell me what your two favorite movies are so I can use that as a gauge of the kind of things that you like as that might help me know what qualities you are looking for?
Diversity is not the result of any one or two students that we have at Oberlin, but rather the result of the integration of the unique perspectives of all of the students that we have on campus.
You indicate that you are Asian. That alone makes you different from many of our students, but it makes you similar to many others. Some students come from small towns while others come from some of the world's largest cities. Some Oberlin students (although admittedly not too many) come with very conservative political backgrounds while others come to campus thinking that the US Democratic party is too conservative. Some students couldn't imagine a better way to spend a weekend than in a science lab working shoulder to shoulder with their chemistry professor, while others will seek to find the most efficient way to complete their academic assignments so as to leave the maximum time to work on promoting environmental awareness. Some dance, some sing, and some play left tackle on the football field. One of my very favorite students from my days as a faculty member was married and had a child while at Oberlin. Others are outspoken members of Oberlin's gay community. World-class opera singers attend Oberlin as do students who would rather have their fingernails pulled out than sit through The Barber of Seville. We have white students, Latino/Latina students, black students, Asian-American students, and international students. We have students whose parents are affluent enough to build buildings at Oberlin and students who need application fee waivers. This heady mix of views enables all of our students to learn and challenges all of them to think about where their own views come from and whether some of their peers might have even more compelling ideas.
Borrowing the title of a 1998 book about the admission process written by Elizabeth Duffy and Idana Goldberg, admissions officers like to think of the selection process as "crafting a class." It is our job to sift through the many, many students who apply to our school who could thrive in Oberlin's challenging academic environment and accept the subset of those who bring as many different characteristics to Oberlin as possible.
Of course this is not a balancing act without constraints. Our varied residence halls have a limited capacity as do our classrooms. Without the small and intimate size that is one of the hallmarks of an Oberlin education, we wouldn't be the institution that we are. So we work with a fairly firm admission target. The College also has to remain financially sound. We cannot draw excessively off of our sizable endowment indefinitely. We cannot continue to attract such a capable faculty and staff unless we offer competitive salaries. So ultimately we have to be mindful of the overall financial aid budget as we admit students. We are constrained by the applications that we receive each year. In the end, the final diversity of the class is also determined by precisely which of the students we accept that ultimately choose to come to Oberlin.
As we travel in the fall, our primary task is to create as large and diverse a group of academically qualified applicants as we can. The larger is this pool, the more interesting perspectives we can bring to Oberlin. In the winter, as we read through the applications that represent the hopes and dreams of thousands of kids, it is our job to identify a great mix of students. Throughout the year, but especially in the month or so after we make our admissions offers, our task is to do our very best to yield the great and diverse students that we have admitted. When yield is high we are, by definition, getting exactly the students that we want to make Oberlin the most interesting place that we can make it.
Over the last decade, Oberlin has enjoyed substantial growth in our admission pool and our ability to yield the students that we select. When those two factors are combined with a more or less steady class size, our admit rate has fallen and we are able to choose an ever more selective class. The result of this can be seen in the steady increase in academic measures like SAT scores. Interestingly, though, the larger applicant pool has allowed us to maintain our diversity and our core values. Jill Medina in our offices looked through admissions records from the class that entered Oberlin in 1988 and the class that entered in 2008. She found that the proportion of students who had done significant community service was comparable. The proportions of high school newspaper editors and varsity athletes and everything else that she could think of to compare were similar.
Now that I've given you this long philosophical discussion on admission and diversity, I realize that I haven't really answered your two underlying questions, which are basically "what can I do to distinguish myself from all of the other applicants?" and "what can I do to make sure that I would be a good Obie?" I'm afraid that there really is only one, sadly non-useful answer to both of these questions. Be yourself. Craft your application in such a way that we know who you really are. As professionals we can then use our professional judgment to think about how you would fit in and add to the other students that we are considering.
As to your final question, I suspect that you aren't going to find my answer to that question all that illuminating either. I like my movies the same way that I like the admitted classes at Oberlin: I like them to be quite varied. I watch pretty much everything from "chick flicks" to documentaries to musicals to.... Last night I watched "Australia" with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. The night before that I watched a couple of episodes of "Queer as Folk." I'm eagerly awaiting the release of "Julie and Julia" August 8th, about a young woman who cooks and blogs her way through chef Julia Child's cookbook. But if I had to name my two favorite movies, I'd probably have to say "Casablanca" and "The Sting."