It begins with a seemingly typical admissions information session: A young admissions officer smiles as he answers prospective students' and parents' rather mundane questions about the University.
But as a new Yale new admissions video continues, the unexpected happens.
A young woman in the back row, looking a bit perplexed, pointedly asks the admissions officer, "Why did you choose Yale?" Piano music begins to play, and the admissions officer's eyes light up. He begins to sing.
"When I was a senior in high school, colleges called out my name," he serenades. "Every day I debate where to matriculate, but every place seemed the same. Yet after I went through the options, only one choice remained. I wanted to hail from a college called Yale."
"That's Why I Chose Yale"
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"That's Why I Chose Yale"
A more upbeat tempo ensues, and the admissions officer is transported onto Old Campus, where he dances as he sings the praises of his alma mater's residential college system and "first-rate education." Before long, Yale students join in or take over, and for the remainder of the 16-minute video, they highlight — entirely through song — all that Yale has to offer, including its myriad extracurricular activities, its more than 2,000 classes, opportunities for scientific research and study abroad, its libraries and dining halls, and more.
Publicly premiered on campus on Jan. 15 and then posted on YouTube and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions' website, Yale's new musical admissions video — titled "That's Why I Chose Yale" — has been garnering attention ever since. It's been featured on a New York Times blog and in the Washington Post, among other media outlets, and less than a week after its debut, had received almost 200,000 hits on YouTube.
The video is the brainchild of Andrew Johnson '06, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions, who wrote the musical score and co-wrote the script with student filmmaker Ethan Kuperberg '11. Aside from the admissions officer character - played by New York-based actor Kobi Libii '07 — and a cameo appearance by NBC News anchor Brian Williams (whose daughter Allison is a Yale senior and a singer in the video), the cast is made up entirely of Yale students, faculty and staff, more than 200 in all. Kuperberg directed the video; Kurt Schneider '10 served as the sound editor and associate producer; and Streeter Phillips '10 is the videographer.
Johnson and his team created "That's Why I Chose Yale" in the search for a fresh way to present the college to today's applicants. Discovering that the cost of a new professionally made video would be "exorbitant," Johnson proposed to Undergraduate Admissions Director Jeff Brenzel that he and current Yale students create their own — a musical. Johnson, who majored in music at Yale, says he thought such a format could be a novel, entertaining and effective way to introduce prospective students to Yale.
Brenzel gave Johnson the go-ahead, with the understanding that it might or might not join the arsenal of video, print and online recruitment tools.
"I turned Andrew and the students loose," recalls Brenzel. "I figured the worst case would be a low-cost ‘nice try.' The outcome went beyond the best case I could imagine. It's campy, clever and extremely entertaining, especially when you consider that the audience for it is generally subjected to an unending parade of admissions videos that all look the same. Since it was posted on YouTube, the Web has been lighting up with commentary. The vast majority of the audience is getting that our students were having fun with the idea of making the thing, while also conveying a spirited sense of what makes Yale a great place."
Johnson and Kuperberg say they set out to create an admissions video that didn't pretend to be un-staged.
"We wanted it to be a tad hokey and a little cheesy, not for the sake of that but for the sake of showing that we realize that prospective students have probably been to one too many of these admissions sessions and seen one too many of these videos," Johnson explains. "We realize that they often happen to be boring."
Johnson and Kuperberg knew of several students who they wanted to take part in the project, including Schneider (who also performed all of the live music), Sam Tsui '11, whose innovative covers of Michael Jackson tunes on YouTube has earned him national attention, and members of the comedy improvisation group Just Add Water, to which Johnson and Libii belonged as undergraduates.
"As the only musical improvisation comedy group on campus, they have experience singing and making up lines on the spot," says Johnson. "We cast almost every single member of that group, because we didn't have to train them."
While many of the student actors in the video lip-synch their lines, some 20 of them, including Tsui, actually sang the lyrics that accompanied their appearances. They recorded their songs at Yale's Digital Media Center for the Arts.
In addition to students, members of the cast include, among others, Morse College master Frank Keil, Ezra Stiles dean Jennifer Wood, and English and theater studies professor Murray Biggs, playing themselves; and admissions officers Harry Levit and Deb Johns, portraying parents of prospective students. The video also features numerous performance groups, the Anti-Gravity Society jugglers and members of the women's cross country and men's basketball teams.
Most of the cast members took part with little advance notice, says Johnson.
"Sometimes, we'd just send out an e-mail the night before a shoot and just hope that people would just show up," he says. Near the end of the video, some 200 Yale students are seen dancing in front of the Sterling Memorial Library. Johnson and Kuperberg invited students passing by to participate in the scene. All were quickly taught the dance moves.
"If some of them had to leave to go to lunch during the shoot, we'd just move others forward," says Johnson.
The video was filmed over the course of 10 days during the start of this academic year with video equipment whose cost of rental comprised about the entire budget for the enterprise.
Johnson says "Why I Chose Yale" is meant to present one lighthearted take on student life at Yale, to go alongside many other kinds of outreach effort. "We don't really expect anyone to choose his or her college based on a single 15-minute video,"?he emphasizes. "In fact, the best way to learn about Yale is to visit and to talk with students."
Nevertheless, Johnson says that he and Kuperberg did try to capture what is real about Yale - its "incredible academic and extracurricular opportunities," he says.
"As campy as the video is, we didn't want to trivialize that fact," adds Johnson. "We want people laughing with us, about the whole genre of admissions videos, but not at the material, about the things that do make Yale special."
While "Why I Chose Yale" has been compared in the media to the popular television movie "High School Musical" and the television program "Glee," the Yale script for the video was complete before Johnson had ever seen those television productions.
"The video is not based on anything we've seen," he comments.
However, there is one musical that does get some attention in "Why I Chose Yale." The last scene of the video shows the admissions officer — his singing over — back before his audience of prospective students and their parents. He adjusts his tie and looks out over the crowd. His stone-faced audience sits silent for a moment before it begins to clap, then to give him a standing ovation. Nonetheless, one young man leans toward a parent and states matter-of-factly, "‘Cats' was better."
"We wanted the perfect punch line, and my admissions office co-worker, Mark Dunn'07, came up with that," Johnson says. "We figured that if anyone doubted whether the whole video is tongue-in-cheek, that line would clinch it."
Johnson and other members of the admissions staff look forward to showing the video at upcoming information sessions for prospective students who haven't yet seen it.
"I'm definitely curious to see their reaction," says Johnson, noting that the video was very enthusiastically received at its campus premiere.
"We use many other fine and informative ways of presenting Yale and all of the world-class resources here — in print, in video, online and so forth," says Brenzel. "I think it's safe to say, though, that the admissions musical is an unexpected and sensational hit addition to the more typical ways we reach out to students. Remember, we thought the only people seeing it would be high school students coming for a campus visit. And, who knows, it might spark a revolution. I've had about 15 admissions deans tell me so far that their students are clamoring to make their next videos."
— By Susan Gonzalez