Home » Admission Staff Development » New blog post: Want the fairest shake in #college #admissions? Send a photo.#highered

New blog post: Want the fairest shake in #college #admissions? Send a photo.#highered



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.


This is a photo of me from my junior year at Gering High School, Gering, Nebraska

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)


  1. localfoodWV says:

    If you started requesting photos again, would you suggest a candid shot instead of the classic school photo? It might be one more way to get a glimpse into the student’s character and life choices?

    • bowtieadmission says:

      I think candid photos would be cool. We already offer a neat program through which we ask for photos. Google Good Fit T-shirt + Augustana and you will see examples. If I were not traveling now, I’d have included a candid of myself in a sweatshirt that said “we are in high school and we can do anything we want.”

  2. Zachary George says:

    I think it’s an interesting idea to return to. Some high schools that I work with include photos on the transcript. While it doesn’t sway my decision (consciously, at least), there is an element of “hey, it’s ME you’re talking about right now. Those are MY grades”. I do use the student directory when reviewing applicants for our tour guide program, just to be reminded if ive seen them around, interviewed them before. Perhaps that is the “newest buzz” about using Facebook for job applicants. The difference is the large amount of content we can glean from a Facebook that is irrelevant to what exactly we are looking for. You’re absolutely right that the high brow, who may not understand why we are trying to connect the dots or put a face to an applicant (it’s why we interview!), will raise the biggest stink regarding discrimination in the process, without understanding that we do it with the most sincere intentions.

  3. I’m a former admissions office that remembers having photos be a portions of the application. Personalizing the review process was a part of the effect of having a photo. However, I don’t recall being able to “see” the applicant had an affect on our acceptance decision (worked at a selective college). We did strongly encourage a personal interview. Now THAT sometimes did affect the decision, both in a positive and negative way.

    I suspect that requiring a photo these days would somehow be viewed as discriminatory. A quick review of the applicant’s Facebook page would offer more insight into the “character traits” of the applicant than most letters of recommendation. The photos and posts provide an effective window into what is important to the applicant.

    In the changing world of admissions and applicant review, i.e. standardized tests scores becoming optional at a growing number of schools, portfolio submissions, home school graduates, fewer schools providing class rank, growing grade inflation, etc, the admissions offices continue to search for new tools to provide a more affective method of diagnoses for student success.

    If a n admissions office may not be in a position to require a personal interview, Skype and Facetime are options, also video interview such as this tool http://career.likelive.com/Home.aspx may be an option.

    The goal is to help ensure a maturing of ethics, academic success and social integration for the applicant. Despite a growing legal or social barrier preventing the admissions office from knowing more than the basics about an applicant, fortunately, technology continues to provide unconventional methods (compared to the traditional application folder review) of getting to know the applicant as a person rather than as a test sore or GPA.

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