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There are certain questions that most colleges require applicants to respond to as part of their application. These questions aim to gauge the applicant’s academic abilities, personal characteristics, extracurricular involvement and fit with the college’s community and values.

Colleges typically ask for a personal statement, a broad, open-ended question that asks applicants to share their story, background or significant experiences that have shaped who they are, in order to give the admissions office insight into the applicant’s personality, values and goals.

Applicants are often asked to explain why they are interested in attending the specific college or university, including what aspects of the institution’s program, community or values appeal to them in order to assess fit and how seriously they have researched the institution.

Then there are questions about the applicant’s academic interests, their intended majors, specific courses or research opportunities the applicant is interested in exploring, as well as their future goals and aspirations and how they plan to make a difference in a particular field or community. These questions help admissions officers assess the applicant’s ambition, vision and potential impact.

Many colleges ask applicants to describe their involvement in extracurricular activities, leadership roles, volunteer work or other interests outside the classroom, to help the admissions committee understand the applicant’s passions, commitments and potential contributions to campus life.

Many institutions ask applicants about the challenges, obstacles or failures they have faced and how they overcame them. These questions aim to reveal an applicant’s resilience, problem-solving skills, personal growth and distance traveled. They might also ask about the applicant’s experiences with diversity, their understanding of inclusion and how they have contributed to or learned from diverse communities.

Finally, there might be a question that prompts applicants to think outside the box—for example, asking them to describe an invention they wish existed, their favorite book and why, or what superhero power they would choose to have.

There’s nothing wrong with such questions. But if it were within my power, I’d ask two additional questions.

The first has to do with free speech and academic freedom: “How would you respond to a classmate who expressed an opinion in or outside of class that you found offensive or potentially harmful or if an instructor presented material in a manner that was intentionally provocative or seemed to promote a specific ideological or political perspective? How would you balance the importance of free speech and academic freedom with the need for a respectful and inclusive learning environment?”

The second question involves the value of the humanities at a moment when student interest in this area of study is declining: “How do you believe studying the humanities, including literature, history, philosophy and the arts, can contribute to your personal development and your ability to address contemporary societal challenges? Draw on your own experiences to articulate your view of the value of the humanities in education and society.”

Both questions are open-ended. Neither is meant to be rhetorical. Yet both questions are purpose-driven.

The applicants’ responses to the question about free speech and academic freedom can reveal how they balance respect for diversity and inclusivity with the right to free expression, a crucial consideration in today’s multicultural and ideologically diverse and divided academic environments. It offers a way to gauge applicants’ understanding and appreciation of these fundamental democratic principles. It can also offer insights into applicants’ conflict-resolution skills, empathy and ability to engage constructively with challenging viewpoints. This can indicate their potential to contribute positively to the campus community and to navigate complex social dynamics.

The question about the value of the humanities assesses applicants’ recognition of the broader purposes of higher education beyond vocational training. It reveals their capacity to see education as a means for personal development, ethical reasoning and engaging with societal issues, reflecting a holistic view of learning.

Both questions require applicants to think critically and articulate reasoned arguments. Their responses can demonstrate their analytical skills, ability to synthesize diverse information, deploy evidence and examples and engage in reflective thinking, all of which are important for academic success and informed and engaged citizenship.

For institutions that prioritize diversity, inclusivity and a well-rounded liberal arts education, these questions can help identify applicants whose personal values and educational goals align with those of the college or university. This alignment is important for fostering a cohesive campus culture and supporting the institution’s mission.

By offering insights into applicants’ intellectual and moral frameworks, these questions can help identify students who are not only academically capable but who are poised to contribute to a vibrant, respectful and dynamic campus community.

Certainly, some applicants might regard such questions as an ideological or political litmus test—as a way to exclude candidates with strongly held political opinions or a passionate commitment to activism. I disagree. Such questions seek to identify applicants who have wrestled seriously with the biggest challenges that today’s campuses confront: cultivating an environment that is truly safe for intellectual and cultural diversity and that values a holistic liberal education that prioritizes well-rounded intellectual, cultural, social and ethical development.

I was struck, when I taught at Columbia, by the number of undergraduates who regarded the institution as a generic elite university that happened to be located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side rather than as a campus uniquely committed to a curriculum that required every undergrad to engage with identical core courses on moral and political philosophy; masterworks of literature, art and music; and the frontiers of science, including brain and behavioral science, biodiversity, cosmology, global climate change, and relativity.

I felt, at the time, that Columbia would do well to require applicants to reflect on THE university’s distinctive core curriculum and ask them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the institution’s idiosyncratic approach. After all, the Columbia core ensures that all students that all share a common intellectual foundation, even as it reduces flexibility and choice and may well run the risk of cultural bias by potentially downplaying non-Western perspectives and contributions even as it grapples with timeless and enduring questions about beauty, democracy, ethics, justice and the nature of the good life.

Why not admit students who buy in to your campus’s distinctive mission and identity even at the risk of reducing the number of applications?

I understand full well why colleges and universities are reluctant to embrace a distinctive mission and identity that differs in any significant way from their peers’. After all, acting outside the box might well place their reputation and financial stability at risk, narrowing their appeal and inadvertently excluding applicants who do not fully align with the institution’s core values or areas of focus and might reduce the campus’s intellectual and demographic diversity.

Such concerns are not unfounded. Many of the campuses that have been in trouble are those with the most unique identities, especially those with religious identities, but also many arts schools, military academies and more experimental institutions. Still, there’s something to be said for a clear, distinctive mission. These campuses can more effectively attract students who are passionate about the same values and interests, leading to a more engaged and cohesive student body.

A unique mission and identity can help an institution stand out in the crowded higher education landscape, making it more attractive to potential students, faculty members and donors who are seeking what that institution specifically offers. It can also allow for more strategic allocation of resources toward programs, research and initiatives that align with the institution’s core identity and goals, potentially contributing to excellence in those areas. In addition, institutions with a clear identity often have a stronger sense of community and culture, which can enhance student and faculty satisfaction, loyalty, and a sense of belonging.

Regardless, I feel strongly that campuses need to reaffirm the value of open debate and the free exchange of ideas, where students feel free to explore, discuss and challenge ideas without fear of censorship or reprisal. They also need to uphold the value of a well-rounded liberal education, which seeks to promote student development across all vectors, cognitive, cultural, moral, social and especially intrapersonal: self-awareness, self-reflection, emotional self-regulation and a capacity for independent thought. Intrapersonal skills are critical for personal development, allowing individuals to understand and manage their emotions, motivations and behaviors effectively. These skills are essential for goal setting, personal growth and the ability to navigate one’s internal landscape, contributing to mental health and overall well-being.

In his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”

“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

Ask yourself: Is your campus truly encouraging intellectual independence? Is it fostering intrapersonal growth? If it isn’t, it’s not doing college’s most important job. That’s not to award a job credential or prepare graduates for a career, but to nurture the kind of growth and development that we associate with the Jesuit notion of educating the whole person and the German idea of Bildung.

Those philosophies emphasize moral, spiritual and cultural growth alongside intellectual development. They offer a more integrated approach to education with a goal of producing thoughtful, ethically grounded, culturally literate and socially responsible members of society. These philosophies contrast with the typically more specialized, training- and career-oriented focus typical of American education.

Let’s send applicants a powerful message: that in addition to preparing them for a vocation, we really do want to help them become well-rounded adults who truly are capable of flourishing in diverse cultural and ideological environments.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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