Didn’t ace the SAT? Just design microbe transplant research

New York Times News ServiceOctober 1, 2013 

— High school seniors with poor grades and even worse SAT scores, you may be just what one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges is looking for.

You need not be president of the debate club or captain of the track team. No glowing teacher recommendations are required. You just need to be smart, curious and motivated, and prove it with words - 10,000 words, in the form of four, 2,500-word research papers.

The research topics are formidable and include the cardinal virtue of ren in Confucius’ “The Analects,” “the origin of chirality (or handedness) in a prebiotic life,” Ezra Pound’s view of the “Canterbury Tales,” and how to design a research trial using microbes transplanted from the human biome. If professors deem the papers to be worthy of a B+ or better by the college’s standards, you are in.

The college is Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and it says the new option, which has not previously been announced but is to begin this fall, is an attempt to return the application process to its fundamental goal: rewarding the best candidates, rather than just those who are best able to market themselves to admissions committees.

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Dr. Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview. Saying the prevailing system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning,” he hailed the new approach as a “return to basics, to common sense. You ask the young person: Are they prepared to do university-level work?”

Botstein said he was not just out to change admissions at Bard, but to “start a debate about the kind of dishonesty that prevails” in college admissions.

His timing is propitious.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has called on colleges to consider eliminating the SAT and the ACT from their admissions requirements (as Bard, among other colleges, has done), saying the exams underrepresent the abilities of some students, in particular minorities, while favoring those who can afford coaching.

Over recent decades, Bard, which charges $45,730 for tuition, has developed a reputation as a college proudly out of step with the times. In an era when many institutions are promoting professional training, Bard encourages broad intellectual experimentation. Its faculty attracts a slew of celebrated scholars and artists, foremost among them Botstein himself, who when not consumed with his work as a president or a scholar has traveled the world as an orchestral conductor.

This is not Bard’s first attempt to shake up the admissions process. In 1978 it began inviting applicants to campus, for a day of academic seminars and meetings with admissions officers. Within two days, the students, who must also submit standard application materials, are informed of their fate. That avenue will remain in place, as will the common application, a more conventional form used by more than 400 colleges. There is no set number of how many students will be admitted through each method.

Jim Rawlins, who just ended his tenure as president of the admissions counselors group, said many colleges experimented with the admissions formula, but few quite this dramatically.

“I really do think we’ve heard about every scenario,” he said. “But every once in a while we go, ‘Wow, haven’t heard that one before.’”

Bard’s audition is open book: Along with the menu of 17 questions, the college’s website will provide all the relevant source materials - from a Nobel lecture about prion disorders to the U.N. Charter to an Aeschylus play - with which to address them. (Additional research is permitted if properly documented.)

Mary Backlund, Bard’s director of admission, said that access would place students who may not have encountered the subjects in school or do not have good local libraries on equal footing with those who attended elite high schools.

To participate, students will have to sign a pledge that the work is their own. If they are accepted, they will be asked to provide a character reference from their school. As to the possibility that some applicants might violate their pledge, Botstein has decided not to dwell on it.

“Why not show a measure of trust?” he said. “Go the other direction, not assume the kid is going to cheat on you. Let’s take the high road.”

A bigger obstacle may be the sheer effort that this assignment entails. Students will be expected to write essays totaling 10,000 words - about one-sixth the length of many novels.

“You could probably do it in a weekend,” Backlund said. “Let’s say a week, without disrupting your personal life too much.”

Yao Wen, 17, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, had a different assessment: “Four research papers consume a lot of time. I think three months,” the time between the posting of the questions and the deadline, “is not enough.”

An English teacher at Stuyvesant, Walter Gern, noted that one essay question concerned a 1633 poem by George Herbert, which by chance he taught in class Friday. For students whose schools do not expose them to that poem - or to German philosophers or Russian novelists - he said, “I can’t imagine a kid doing it on his or her own.”

But Caspar Lant, 17, a senior at Stuyvesant who said he did not have the best grades, said the new option would be “really attractive to a student like me.”

Botstein acknowledged that the workload might be impractical for some applicants, but he finds a virtue in it, too.

“The great thing is anyone who completes it is better for it. No one,” he said, “is better for having taken the College Board.”


Sample topics for applicants’ research papers

Bard College is offering applicants a way to get in without sending transcripts, SAT scores or recommendations: Write four, 2,500-word research papers that earn a B+ or better from Bard professors. Applicants must pick one topic from each of three categories, and a fourth from any category. Here are some of this year’s choices:

CATEGORY A (SOCIAL SCIENCE, HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY)

— In “The Analects,” Confucius identifies the cardinal virtue of ren (variously translated as goodness, humanity, benevolence) with many different attitudes and behaviors. Yet Confucius also says, “There is one thread that runs through my doctrines.” Commentators differ about what that one thread is. What, in your opinion, could that one thread be? How does that one thread tie together the wide range of moral values that Confucius celebrates in “The Analects”? Support your answer by interpreting specific passages from the text.

— In 1919, historian and sociologist Max Weber delivered two influential speeches to German university students who were trying to make sense of the German defeat in World War I. The lectures, “Politics as a Vocation” and “Science as a Vocation,” address the nature of learning, scholarship and political action. Read these lectures and write an essay that focuses on an aspect of Weber’s argument with which you either agree or disagree. You may want to consider one lecture or to compare the two. In what ways are Weber’s views relevant today, nearly a century after they were delivered?

CATEGORY B (ARTS AND LITERATURE)

— “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.” - Ezra Pound, “ABC of Reading”

Read “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Construct an argument in favor of or against Pound’s statement. In writing your answer, refer to at least one other text from the period, for example, Langland’s “Piers Plowman” or “The Song of Roland.”

— Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” is best known for its influence in popular culture through many film adaptations. It is in fact, however, one of the great novels of ideas. Write an essay that discusses in what sense you think it is a novel of ideas. What are its claims about human reason and human nature?

CATEGORY C (SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS)

— Consider the following two-player game, Don’t Be Greedier, which involves players’ taking alternate turns removing pebbles from one pile of pebbles, subject to the following rules: 1. The player to remove the last pebble or pebbles from the pile wins the game. 2. On the very first move of the game, the player to play is not allowed to remove all the pebbles and win immediately (that would be greedy). 3. After the first move, the number of pebbles removed can’t be more than the number of pebbles removed in the turn immediately prior (that would be greedier). That is, the sequence of numbers of pebbles removed on each turn is a monotonically nonincreasing sequence. Starting with a pile of 12 pebbles, which player would win a game of Don’t Be Greedier, assuming optimal play?

— Read this article on the use of fecal transplants to cure Clostridium difficile or obesity, “Duodenal Infusion of Donor Feces for Recurrent Clostridium difficile,” from the New England Journal of Medicine. Design a research trial to test whether another disease may be cured using microbes from the human biome.

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