Puzzles scare me

Last weekend I read an application that contained the following notation from the first reader: “This applicant is a puzzle, and puzzles scare me.” And thus I was presented with a perfect opportunity to really beat the metaphor from my last post right into the ground. Previously I said that all applications are jigsaw puzzles—but sometimes, those puzzles have missing pieces. And those are the puzzles that admissions officers find scary.

No one, presumably, intends to submit an application that is mystifying. I can conceive of various explanations for the mysteries—e.g., the benign-neglect explanation, where the applicant just didn’t realize that anyone would care about some element of his or her past, or the more worrisome mens rea explanation, that the mystery results from a deliberate effort to cover up something sketchy. But whatever the cause, it’s a problem; admissions officers want to know what they’re getting when they admit someone. A lack of assurance is likely to lead to moving on to the next application.

Sometimes of course, we’ll try to clear something up, but only if (1) the mystery is pretty clearcut (“You graduated six months ago; what have you been doing in the interim?”) and (2) we have found enough else to admire in the application to make us predict that we might want to make an offer of admission once light is shed. But there are two puzzle categories where we are unlikely to seek an explanation.

The first is when someone fails to submit a coherent application. An application is a rhetorical exercise; you’re telling your story to a stranger, and your job is to make it hang together in a clear, and with luck, engaging, fashion. You submit an essay stating your desire to be an environmental lawyer—but you say that without showing it in the essay, and your extracurricular activities, your jobs, your course selections, your recommenders are all silent on the subject of the environment. There is absolutely no indication that your interest in environmental law predates the compilation of your admissions materials. Voila; you have failed the most fundamental aspect of the application process because you’ve presented yourself as a puzzle with a lot of pieces missing. That’s almost impossible to overcome.

The second category is broader, and presents an entirely different problem: we simply don’t know what to make of you, and one possible interpretation is good, and one possible interpretation is bad. Loads of personal characteristics are coins with two sides. I recently wrote this note on a comment sheet: “Tenacious good or tenacious crazy?” I.e., is the applicant tenacious in the way of overcoming obstacles, pushing onward in the face of adversity, demonstrating resilience, or tenacious in the way of not perceiving when an endeavor is wholly futile, perhaps repeatedly failing to accurately assess situations. The personal statement made me think the candidate was one or the other, but I couldn’t decide which. If your application materials sow that sort of uncertainty, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine what sort of evidence could be presented to clear it up definitively. And it’s even harder to imagine how I would frame the question in the first place–admissions officers are no fonder than anyone else of giving offense to strangers.

-Dean Z. Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions