Answering Life’s Greatest Questions

I want to share this article from The Atlantic: Applying to College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions.

Author Julia Ryan includes a number of elite school’s application essay questions, like:
French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know? (Brown University)
How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy. (University of Chicago)
What makes you happy? (Tufts)

Ryan argues that colleges give applicants conflicting advice: be genuine, but pretend to be something you are not. “It’s not reasonable,” she writes, “to tell a 17-year-old kid to ‘Be yourself!’ while asking him to evaluate the meaning of knowledge in the 21st century or to discuss philosophical theories.”

I’m conflicted about this. On one hand, there’s clearly much to be desired in the college admissions process as a whole, and its tendency to force applicants to try to “game the system”. (Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in his book Outliersthat schools are being dishonest when they say they can really differentiate between basically identical applicants. He and psychologist Barry Schwartz propose that colleges separate applicants into two categories: “good enough”, and “not good enough”, and then have a lottery for those in the “good enough” category.)

On the other hand, why shouldn’t we ask young people to struggle with life’s greatest questions? Surely the University of Chicago does not have a “correct” answer in mind when asking how to compare apples and oranges, but rather wants evidence that a student is willing and able to think. Isn’t that who colleges should want?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.