Some Unpretentious Bragging

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Published by Inside Higher Ed

Does promoting yourself as unpretentious make you, in fact, just the opposite?

Earlier this year, Whitman College rolled out a new one-sentence statement as part of its overhaul of admissions materials. And ever since, students and administrators have been wrestling with that question.


Students applying to college can face a dizzying number of choices, and for colleges, differentiation can be the key to attracting students. It's common for colleges to seize on a favorite attribute as a starting point for promotions, said David Strauss, a principal with Art & Science Group, a consulting firm. "You look into your navel, and more into your navel, and then really deeply into your navel, and you try to determine what it is you love about your institution," said Strauss, who did not consult on the Whitman campaign and did not comment on it specifically. "It ends up being nothing more than an exercise in self-congratulation."

To be successful, colleges need to emphasize a quality that matters to prospective students and others outside the institution, he said. And it needs to matter enough to affect their behavior.

The best campaigns, Strauss said, identify features that make a college special and then work to make those qualities even more prominent. He cited Brown University as an example. When Brown developed its open curriculum in 1969, allowing students to direct their own education, it took a quality the institution was known for -- a free-thinking atmosphere with few strict requirements -- and made it the centerpiece of the institution, and became more competitive in the process, Strauss said.

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