Consider the Mona Lisa, simply because it is one of the more famous paintings in history. If I were to review the Mona Lisa, I could take one of two paths. On the one hand, I might spend hours scrutinizing every facet of da Vinci’s iconic painting, from the most minute of brushstrokes, to the dramatic scenery in the distance, to the posture and gaze of the woman herself. No pattern of cloth, curl of hair, or suggestion of fidelity would be lost in my meticulous appraisal.
The alternative actually requires much more time and study, though its focus is broader and its study cumulative. This second path would require intimate knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci’s entire surviving corpus, a familiarity with the Italian Renaissance and its many expressions, the broad context of the 15th and 16th centuries in which da Vinci’s life and work are framed, and a comprehension of oil and wood panels as media. From this broad context, the beauties of the Mona Lisa are readily apparent. With even a cursory glance, the viewer is captured by the women’s expression. The imaginary landscape stands the more poignant, and the subtle nuances of the woman’s hands, cloak, hair and smile race to the fore. The charm of this approach is that each new piece I analyze adds to my knowledge and context for the next! Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Annunciation, Virgin of the Rocks, and Last Supper are the more unique and appreciable because of my newfound familiarity with Mona Lisa. Moreover, other artists and their work come into sharper focus as well. Michelangelo, Verrocchio, and Raphael become framed by and distinguished from da Vinci, and each respective work then begins to take on an enriched character and significance.
Such is the path of the Admission Officer, by analogy. Though I am woefully ignorant of the world of art criticism, I am similarly tasked with reviewing an applicant’s file for all of the rich strokes, subtle nuances, and characteristic choices they might employ. I began reading files in much the way that I first outlined above – and the investment of time and energy into each file as a stand-alone entity was monumental! What’s worse, at first I carried little from one application to the next, which meant I hardly ever left square one. As my experience grew, and the sheer volume of applications demanded I spend less then several hours per application, I began to see similarities, harmonies, and contrasts.
Now when I open an application, I spend just a few minutes gathering all the vital contextual clues. I want to know who you are as a person, so that I can frame your academics, essays, and activities with who you see yourself as. I begin with biological points such as gender, age, and ethnicity. I want to know if and to what extent your nationality, religious preferences, political ideology or sexual orientation might be informing your application as you write it, so that it can similarly inform my reading of it. Questions of culture, class, and even what city or high school you are writing from often impact your responses and essays dramatically. For example, the kind of high school you attend matters when we consider your unweighted grade point average. Are you a first generation college student? How familiar are you with Whitman? Do students from your high school usually go to four-year colleges? Once I get a broad sense for the angle from which you are coming and the perspective and life experiences that might be informing your application, I can read your transcript, teacher recommendations, and essays for all they are worth. It’s not just about static data, but how you view yourself. The joy is in the discovery of all that you are and love and want to be – which makes your writing in particular a highlight for this “critic.”