College introduces 'discussion-based' applications

St. John's College's new discussion-based application contains five components: a short application form, two interview sessions, a seminar, and an essay.

This follows a trend of schools both finding ways to circumvent the rulings and lowering expectations for students.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article implied that the new application may have been a potential workaround to the June Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in college admissions. St. John’s Director of Communications Sara Luell clarified post-publication that the new application “was not created in response to the recent Supreme Court decision” and that St. John’s “has never used race-conscious admissions.”

St. John’s College (SJC), has added a discussion-based application process for prospective students. 

The liberal arts school, located in both Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, will roll out the alternative application process in addition to the traditional application. The process is designed to assess prospective students’ ability to “engage in thoughtful, sustained conversation.”

The discussion-based application contains five components: a short application form, two interview sessions, a seminar, and an essay. 

The application form asks for information that may qualify a student for financial aid, such as whether or not students are the first in their family to attend college. In addition, it asks for students’ ethnicities, though it states that such information “will not be shared with the Admissions Committee.”

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The two interview sessions involve students meeting first with their personal admissions counselors, then with a St. John’s tutor. Students will then have the option to sit in on a seminar, which can be done through a Summer Academy program or a free, open-to-the-public Saturday Seminar.

Finally, students are required to send in an analytical essay from their junior or senior years of high school.

Students are not required to apply through the discussion-based process and may instead opt for a traditional written application.

St. John’s Director of Communications Sara Luell told Campus Reform that the new application is “different, not easier” than the traditional application.

”While applicants using the Discussion-Based Application won’t write essays, especially for the application, they will submit a writing sample from high school, and they will be required to interview one-on-one with our faculty and participate in a faculty-led prospective student seminar,” said Luell. 

”In both settings, we’ll be assessing potential to succeed at St. John’s, which includes showcasing depth and dexterity of thought with strong speaking, listening, and conversation skills. These skills are central to success at St. John’s, where being open to listening and responding to different perspectives is essential to academic success.”

Luell says that the school hopes that the new format will attract “students who feel they can better represent their skills in discussion than in writing,” but that “doesn’t make one application less rigorous than the other.”

In fact, she says the discussion-based version has a factor that “may, in fact, make it more rigorous than most traditional college applications”– it eliminates the possibility of inauthentic AI-generated or private counselor-coached essays, which see notes “disproportionately advantages wealthy students at elite high schools.”

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St. John’s College touts a seminar curriculum based on classical Western literature, religious texts, and foundational American texts, including key Supreme Court decisions. Faculty members are not known as professors or lecturers but instead as “tutors,” as they guide discussions instead of acting as experts.

The college also offers a non-traditional grading process. Students are evaluated on their performance in the mostly discussion-based courses in a process known as a don rag, in which they sit down with tutors and discuss their performance.

The new application comes months after SJC was one of multiple colleges that responded on social media to the Supreme Court’s decision against race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision will not change our commitment to ensuring that St. John’s College remains a diverse and inclusive community of learning,” a statement on the college’s Instagram page reads.

“Our admissions and financial aid teams are dedicated to employing every tool at our disposal so that qualified students of all races experience this transformative college experience, and we honor our mission to provide an education for all.”