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bard collegeBard College is "declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions," reports Ariel Kaminer in The New York Times (4/9/14). As an alternative to the usual "measures like grade-point average, test scores, extracurricular activities and teacher recommendations," Bard offered prospective freshmen the option of writing "four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics … like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders."

"The questions, along with relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totalling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student was in." The idea is "to turn a tiresome chore into an actual learning experience." It doubles as "a clever marketing tool, a way for Bard to separate itself from the herd of colleges vying for attention." Ultimately, just 50 students opted to apply by writing essays.

Among them was Helen Chen, who wrote essays on "game theory, a painting by Kazimir Malevich, and the evolving history of the Constitution. She also composed the music for a new national anthem using the opening text of the Declaration of Independence." "I thought about other colleges," says Helen, "but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed." She was one of 17 essay-writing students admitted to Bard, "an acceptance rate that turned out to be just a few percentage points lower than the college’s overall rate."