Forget your underpaid high school counselors. Ignore the new army of independent “collegiate consultants.” And especially avoid the idiot know-nothing laymen who offer unfounded advice on CollegeConfidential.com. There’s a new rubric in the college admissions business, and it’s unlike anything any pro has ever seen. Here’s what you need to know.
College admissions offices have been tweaking their admissions algorithms over the past decade after finding the old way of doing things didn’t produce the best results. After all, if a college wants to survive, they need money. Not just tuition, government grants, and merchandising fees — but post-sale money from happy graduate donors. Great donors tend to be societally active, well-rounded individuals with several like-minded friends. They’ll gladly send you a check, wear your sweaters, and brag about your school to countless future prospects in an effort to look cool. Colleges have finally found that the smartest kid in the room with the perfect SAT score may become a wonderful success in life, but he or she is most likely an introverted bookworm who won’t give your school another look – or dollar – after graduation.
So begins the end of SAT and ACT scores being mandatory for admissions. Today, nearly 200 of the roughly 2,968 degree-granting four-year colleges in the U.S. no longer require inclusion of your SAT or the ACT score with your college application. Those ranks include Bates and Smith, the University of Arizona, Montclair State in New Jersey, and Weber State in Utah. Hundreds more have diminished their role in the admission process, and that number is growing. “People make too much of test-score differences,” says William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions. “People with the very highest test scores coming into Harvard do a little better than those with the lowest test scores, but they don’t do a lot better.”
If test scores are no longer the holy grail, what’s the new secret to getting admitted?
Time Magazine’s @elizalgray found that “rigor and curriculum” in high school classes were more important indicators of success. According to an anonymous admissions officer I spoke with at a popular Florida university recently, getting good grades in tough classes is the epitome of impressing the admissions department. “If there was an AP course available for the course you took, and you took it and got a B, we’ll look at that much more favorably than an A in a non-advanced class. We don’t really care what you get in the AP test either – we’d rather you take the real course here.”
“Their grades, their GPA, the strength of the curriculum and the strength of the course work in the field they were interested in is the best predictor (of college success),” writes Kedra Ishop, an admissions officer at the University of Michigan. “If there were two AP courses available and you didn’t take them, that’s going to be looked at more closely than 20 points on the SAT.” Many colleges rely on a “rubric,” an algorithm that spits out a ranking calculated from GPA, test scores and extra points to represent things like AP courses. The weight of each factor in the rubric depends on the college.
In 2014, William Hiss, a former Bates College admissions dean, and researcher Valerie Franks published results of a study of 123,000 student records from 33 colleges with test-optional admission policies, analyzing the high school GPAs and the graduation rates of the two groups: matriculants who had supplied an entrance-exam score and those who had opted not to. Their conclusion was that high school GPA–even at poor high schools with easy curriculums–was better at predicting success in college than any standardized test.
There is no longer any one-size-fits-all solution that applies to all schools. Your best bet? Call the admissions office at the school of your choice as early as possible, and ask them outright what they prefer to see. They’ll tell you. Then call again in a few months to see if the landscape has changed. Follow their preferences to the letter. We visited Gainesville when our daughter was a sophomore in high school, followed up with several phone calls and e-mails, and are adjusting choices and applying their prescribed formula.
One undisclosed factor that all colleges seem to prefer and weigh heavily is the number of extra-curricular activities you’re involved with. Not just sports – they want to see clubs, groups, organizations, and especially volunteer activities. Many scholarship programs require a minimum number of volunteer hours during the four years of high school. Think about that for a moment – if you performed the minimum number of required hours, and the next applicant shows ten times that number, which is not as far-fetched as you might think, who would you pick? Leadership positions in any of those activities will probably get you a multiplier in the admissions algorithm, so don’t be afraid to shine and brag about it like a boss.
And here’s another secret – take as many dual-enrollment classes as you can handle. Two reasons why this is beneficial. One, these are free and real college credits you won’t have to pay for at a four-year school. There is no AP test or score to worry about. Pass the course, and the credit it yours. Additionally, as many as 1 in 3 first-year college students won’t return for sophomore year. Family problems, loneliness, academic struggles, a lack of money, pregnancy, injuries from hazing, overdoses, whatever — life happens. It’s much easier to get admitted to any school as a sophomore or even a junior if you have enough transferrable college credits under your belt. A school may get 50,000 applicants for freshman spots, but sophomore applications are typically much more lean. Check with your dream school to find which dual-enrollment credits they’re more apt to accept.
Meanwhile, college admissions officials are still searching for better tools to understand applicants. Two years ago, the MIT admissions office started soliciting something it calls a “maker portfolio,” a method for talented students to submit videos showing off things they’ve created – from computer software and robots to glow-in-the-dark socks. As Dawn Wendell, a mechanical-engineering lecturer at MIT who worked in the school’s admissions office, said in a recent presentation, “We recognize that you are not fully captured in the numbers, so we are looking at you as a whole person.” Schools like MIT particularly want more evaluations that they consider open-ended – that is, exercises for which there is no single precise right answer and which can’t be distilled to any multiple-choice question. This is one reason that students’ Advanced Placement tests results are coveted by some admission officers. AP tests are highly open-ended, and require people to grade the answers. In that regard, AP essays may be a better indicator than the results of any standardized test.
Singapore, which topped the most recent global school rankings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, uses a government-run test for college-bound students. The unique test requires students to complete a group project over several weeks that is meant to measure their ability to collaborate, apply knowledge and communicate. Ironically, these are skills both American educators and employers say are critical for the future economy. Look for this evaluation method coming to a school near you sometime soon. Even if it’s not required just yet, think how good that would that look on the extracurricular activities section of your college application…
Most of this opinionated blog post borrows heavily from an amazing Time Magazine piece by Eliza Gray at http://time.com/4057309/standardized-testing/ Well done, Eliza. Best Time reporting I’ve seen in months.
Here are the colleges who are already SAT/ACT optional: http://time.com/money/4002269/best-value-test-optional-colleges/
Check to see which of your schools bleed freshmen: http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/freshmen-least-most-likely-return