When I started working in college admission in the early 1990’s I recall that one of the items we requested as part of the application was a photograph of the applicant. Most of the time the photograph of the 17-year old applicant matched the story told in the application, but there were exceptions. We’ve all heard the adage “a picture conveys one-thousand words,” and a picture included along with a college application in my experience frequently reinforced this.
However, somewhere along the way, we ceased asking for a photograph to accompany the application. (We’d still occasionally receive grainy black and white photos on transcripts—these often would go back as far as sixth grade through high school and were always of great interest). While I cannot recall the exact justification or rationale we applied when we quit asking for pictures, I imagine it had to do with the argument that the photos could be used to discriminate (which is a real issue) or we’d seek to admit only the “pretty people.” However, it might have been the very practical argument of matching and processing.
Honestly, I cannot remember and have not thought about it at all until today.
Why am I thinking about it today?
I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s terrific book, “To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others.” (I highly recommend the book—especially for college admissions folks). Near the end of the book he describes a fascinating experiment completed by a radiologists named Yehonatan Turner.
The experiment involved providing radiologists with photos of patients when given the computed tomography (CT) scan to diagnose and analyze. Typically, a radiologists gets the CT scan and that’s all. The photos of the patients represents the twist here. All of the radiologists reported having more empathy toward the patients for whom they had photos. While interesting, it’s not what Turner was really looking for, according to Pink.
As Pink describes it, a great radiologists, in addition to identifying an injury they are told to look for, will make “incidental findings.” These incidental findings are discoveries of additional problems and sometimes are life-saving.
Turner’s purpose was more complex that finding out if a photo led to greater empathy. Three months after the original experiment, he provided a sample of scans from the original study, in which radiologists had found incidental findings to the same group of doctors. However, he did not include the photograph of the patient sand did not disclose that the radiologist had seen the scan previously. Turner discovered that 80% of the incidental findings were not discovered!
The photo and the personalization it provided made a difference in the diagnoses, not just the empathy.
You might be asking, why am I writing about radiologists and describing this passage from Pink’s book? It’s a fair question. College admissions is not radiology. However, both jobs, particularly this time of year for admissions officers, can be very mechanical and isolating. Given the expanding applicant pools at colleges and universities and the pressures to make speedy (but good) decision, I can’t help but wonder if every applicant is getting the full attention they deserve?
I cannot help but think about college admissions and how important it is to make it personal when reviewing application.
Making it personal is one of Pink’s main themes and is clearly something that it crucially important in college admission, too.The passage in Pink’s book also got me wondering out loud if going back to a day of asking for a photograph to accompany the application would help us be more personal? Would seeing a picture that communicates 1,000 words help us become more effective champions for certain applicants? Would a photo help us understand and then communicate a story that helps shape the impression of the admissions committee? Would we see things that we are missing because we are speedily diagnosing what we are to diagnose, rather than taking it personally and finding an incidental diagnosis that leads to an offer of admission for a student who is a great match? Would a photo attached to an application personalize the review of an application to create a sense of empathy that ensures everyone gets our full attention and advocacy.
I don’t know the answers to these questions and don’t know the feasibility of reintroducing the picture, but I do know that sometimes and applicant is just that—an applicant.
(I did write this to remind myself about the work of a college admissions officer. But, I also want to think out loud about how a photo might serve as a good management tool and/or inspiration for personalization).
What do you think? How would you feel about a photograph as an application requirement?
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission
(This post was updated on January 19, 2013)