New admissions process asks for writing samples and video message, replacing pandemic “lottery” system

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Andy Chen

Two writing samples and a video introduction are key aspects of the 2023 admissions process.

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Beginning with the graduating class of 2027, admissions to Townsend Harris High School will be determined by a mixture of classroom grades, the submission of two writing samples, and the creation of a video. Grades have a 40% weight on the applicant’s admission and the three screening pieces each have a 20% weight on applications. These standards will replace the previous lottery system instituted at the end of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, and the overall process will seek to reinstate a more selective system for THHS within the Department of Education’s (DOE) guidelines. 

Before the pandemic, students were screened through a mixture of state test scores, grades, and attendance. “[This criteria] produced a select group of students who are prepared to begin learning at the pace, depth and level of the way we do it here,” said Principal Brian Condon. However, after COVID hit, the DOE added restrictions to the types of screens that high schools are permitted to implement. With this, attendance and state test scores were no longer able to factor into admissions decisions. For THHS, this led to a lottery system based on grades and the Diversity in Admissions Initiative. Parent Coordinator Jodie Lasoff said that during last year’s cycle, “We ended up having approximately 9600 students apply and the Office of Student Enrollment originally offered seats to 367 ninth graders.”

The lottery system was implemented for both the graduating classes of 2025 and 2026, with the DOE entirely dictating the process and criteria for the class of 2026. “There was a level of dissatisfaction with students, parents, staff, and the community that this process had been changed with no authentic consultation,” said Mr. Condon. The lottery system also led to overpopulation at THHS. However, Mr. Condon said he does not believe that the new admissions process will resolve this issue. 

According to Mr. Condon, while the administration was considering what criteria could be established, they often compared THHS’s admissions process to that of Bard High School Early College, which also consists of writing two essays and creating a two minute video. Mr. Condon said he thought that if the DOE felt it was “good for Bard and [they] let Bard keep it, it should be good for us.” He and a set of active parents then contacted both the DOE and the superintendent about making this change to the admissions process. “[The superintendent] was extremely responsive and extremely helpful in understanding why we want this and helping us get it,” said Mr. Condon.

While the change was inspired by Bard’s admissions process, the actual writing prompts are identical to Bard’s prompts and the video prompt is similar (but with an Ephebic Oath twist). The first essay is a literary analysis piece written in response to a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The second piece relates to STEM and asks applicants to imagine and describe scenarios where they would apply scientific knowledge. The video piece asks students to record them introducing themselves and discussing how they would contribute to the THHS community and (along the lines of the Ephebic Oath) leave it greater than they found it. 

The Classic spoke to a small group of eighth grade applicants about the process. Their responses ranged in opinions. One student said they felt the process allowed them an opportunity to showcase their abilities. A second student considered the process unfair, particularly since current THHS students did not need to undergo it.

Mr. Condon said that he believes the writing/video samples are necessary because they will show a certain level of preparedness that is needed for success at THHS, noting that all students have to be ready to take courses at the college level as seniors due to the partnership THHS has with Queens College. “Three years after you walk in the door [of THHS], you go to Queens College. Whether you take the seminar or an elective, that experience is what we are aiming for.”

Through the online MySchools account that 8th graders use to rank their high school choices, they can access the criteria for the writing/video samples and make their submissions. 

A third eighth grader who spoke to The Classic said that their middle school helped them in the application by sending multiple emails to THHS about requirements and disseminating the responses to their student body.

The new admissions policy came with general encouragement from the parent community, according to Ms. Lasoff. “I don’t have a large enough data sample to be able to speak for all of our families, but from the limited amount of anecdotal evidence I have gathered, these are changes many THHS families support,” said Ms. Lasoff. 

Assistant Principal Ellen Fee said, “Having additional things to do when applying to high school weeds out the people that don’t really want to go to Townsend Harris.” She said she believes, like Mr. Condon and many faculty members, that the extended admissions requirements allow students to exhibit a level of preparation, effort, and passion that couldn’t be guaranteed in previous years.

Junior Carl Go said, “In my opinion the changes to the application process are an amazing addition to the school admissions because they ensure that those who enter our school community are well suited academically and behaviorally.” 

However, some students see the new admissions requirements in a different light. Sophomore Chloe Kavanagh said, “Personally, I think that it’s excessive for students to write two essays and a video. I think [that] one essay is enough.”  

Similarly, Freshman Sophia Lee said, “Everyone has different strengths. Some students may not be good essay writers and better at other academic work.”

Senior Gabriella Gurijan said, “I feel like the process is a lot for students. As I am applying to college, this is the criteria you would find for a university, not a high school.” 

Some have said that the process lends itself to academic dishonesty, allowing parents or other outside contacts to help the eighth grade applicant write stronger materials. According to Mr. Condon, the school considered having applicants write the essays in person at THHS, but thought that the process would be too difficult for the amount of applicants who would want to apply.

THHS teachers and administrators will grade the writing samples and video samples between now and mid-January, using a set rubric and a series of model essays standardized by THHS. The model essays show grades at each possible rubric level and will ensure consistency between graders, Mr. Condon said. He said he believes this process will be both fair and help root out any academic dishonesty that might appear: “[we] have been around long enough to know the difference between what a teenager writes and what an adult writes and we have the third verifying factor, which is the video.”

After scoring is done by the THHS faculty, the results go to the DOE to centrally rank the students and then admit them.

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