Yale’s new application questions give away the key things elite colleges want to see from students

Not necessarily artistic talent.
Not necessarily artistic talent.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
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Yale is making some changes to its freshman application. While high school students applying to the elite US university were previously given free rein on its secondary essay requirement (“Reflect on something you would like us to know about you”), applicants this year will face a set of newly specific questions:

  1. What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left.
  2. Reflect on a time in the last few years when you felt genuine excitement learning about something.
  3. Write about something that you love to do.

Students will be required to compose 200-word answers for two out of the three prompts, instead of being asked to write 500 words on a topic of their choice.

They may seem minor, but the updates are deeply telling: Yale’s new application questions come at the tail end of a heated, year-long debate on campuses across the country about class and race. The fact that one of the questions focuses on applicants’ sense of “community” reflects the Ivy League school’s renewed interest in boosting diversity and inclusion.

The new questions also reveal more about Yale’s admissions priorities than ever before.

“We’re looking for a passion,” Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan explains to Quartz. “And for civic engagement. We’ve been looking for these things for a long time, but we haven’t been explicitly been asking them. The previous essay question was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. We wanted to make specific prompts [this year] so we can be reviewing for these types of attributes.”

There you have it, high schoolers and parents: It pays not only to work hard, but to also demonstrate a keen interest in your community, and to make sure that a genuine passion—whether for an academic subject, a hobby, or whatever else—comes through in your application. Yale’s not the only selective university interested in highly enthusiastic students; more and more, admissions experts are advising teens to emphasize passions over accomplishments. (Research shows the former tend to imply the latter, anyway.)

But college applicants should remain wary of sending in responses that are too canned or commonplace—a mistake that’s easy to make with tight word limits, and also made far more often than you might think.

“One of the challenges is that students have to make sure they write personal and reflective answers, not just put something that’s cliché,” Quinlan says.