What is a Discussion-Based Application?

As higher education grapples with the complexities of modern admissions practices and the evolving landscape of diversity considerations, St. John’s College has embarked on an innovative journey in its approach to the application process. In a recent announcement, the private liberal arts institution located in Annapolis, Md., unveiled a groundbreaking “discussion-based” application option. This novel pathway, set to debut this fall, offers applicants an alternative to the traditional submission process. Instead of essays or standardized test scores, students can opt for a comprehensive evaluation conducted predominantly through face-to-face interactions. This evaluation includes interviews with admissions counselors and faculty members, as well as active participation in a college seminar.

St. John’s decision to reimagine its admissions process is consistent with its unconventional educational philosophy. The college, which boasts a 300-year history, eschews traditional majors in favor of a unified interdisciplinary curriculum centered around 200 “great books” spanning from Plato’s Republic to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Embracing spirited debate and intellectual exploration, St. John’s has earned a reputation as the “most contrarian college in America,” a label it wears proudly.

Benjamin Baum, Director of Admissions at St. John’s, emphasizes that this innovative application option aligns seamlessly with the college’s distinctive assessment principles. Grounded in robust in-class discussions, the new process aims to attract students who resonate with St. John’s distinctive educational ethos.

While this initiative represents a departure from conventional norms, it reflects a broader trend within higher education to prioritize personalized, high-contact evaluation methods. Amidst ongoing uncertainties surrounding admissions criteria and the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, institutions are increasingly exploring alternative approaches to identify and assess prospective students.

The introduction of St. John’s discussion-based application option addresses concerns about the impersonal nature of traditional admissions processes. By providing a platform for face-to-face interactions, the college seeks to humanize the evaluation process, offering a dynamic and engaging experience for applicants.

Susan Hartley-Brisson, Dean of Admissions at Olin College, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the value of in-person interactions in assessing prospective students. Olin College, a small engineering institution in Needham, Mass., has long championed a high-contact admissions approach, inviting applicants to campus for immersive experiences during Candidates Weekend.

The shift towards high-contact admissions practices also underscores a commitment to equity and inclusion. Baum emphasizes that the discussion-based option aims to reach underrepresented students who may face barriers in navigating the traditional application process. By providing a platform for genuine dialogue, St. John’s hopes to unlock the potential of students who may not shine through conventional written essays.

While challenges remain, including logistical considerations and ensuring equitable access, the move towards high-contact admissions practices signals a broader shift in the higher education landscape. As colleges grapple with the imperative to foster diversity and equity, innovative approaches like St. John’s discussion-based option offer a promising path forward in reimagining the admissions process.