A movement to change the ultra-competitive college application process

The ultra-competitive college admissions process is a maddening ordeal for many students and parents, but a movement to include indicators of character alongside the current reliance on test scores and academic achievement is changing the dynamic.

The New York Times recently reported that frustrations with the college admissions process center mostly on how schools define “merit,” a term that’s currently associated mostly with grades and test scores.

“Generally, nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades (plus strength of the high school curriculum) and ACT/SAT scores. With limited time and resources, those metrics offer a relatively quick way to predict who will succeed. But the measures have drawbacks. Grade inflation has complicated the task of evaluating achievements, and so has the variance in high school grading policies,” according to the Times.

“Standardized test scores correlate with family income; white and Asian-American students fare better than black and Hispanic students do. Also, when colleges talk about predicting ‘success,’ they usually mean first-year grades—a limited definition.”

The situation is prompting schools like Trinity College to incorporate other factors into the process, including things like curiosity, empathy, openness to change, and the ability to overcome diversity. Trinity admissions officers now use a drop-down box labeled “Predictors of Success” that allows them to highlight students who display “comfort in a minority of one,” “delayed gratification,” or “risk taking” among others gleaned from student applications.

Angel B. Perez, Trinity College’s vice president of enrollment, told the Times the school has also stopped requiring students to submit ACT or SAT scores with their applications, a move that’s boosted the numbers of low-income and first-generation students in recent years.

“I’m trying to increase the tools we have, and get beyond a system that is absolutely antiquated,” Perez said. “As the country becomes more diverse, as we learn more about the correlation between standardized test scores and wealth, we have to be a lot more creative in predicting for success in college.”

Other schools are using live in-person tryouts to assess positive qualities like collaboration and critical thinking that aren’t always obvious on paper.

At Olin College of Engineering, prospective students visit the campus for an intense two-day live audition where they’re arranged in teams and given tasks such as constructing a tower that can hold a certain weight or designing a building for the campus.

“It’s hard to nail down a student’s mind-set from the traditional elements of the application,” said Emily Roper-Doten, dean of admissions. “This allows us to see them in motion, in an educational moment.”

Larger schools without the means to offer in-person tryouts because of an overwhelming number of applications are instead turning to virtual demonstrations. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now includes an optional “Maker Portfolio” in its application that allows students to showcase major projects they’ve accomplished through short videos, images, or PDF files.

“It gives us a fuller picture of the student,” Stuart Schmill, M.I.T. dean of admissions, told the Times. “Without this, some applicants might not be able to fully get across how good a fit they are for us.”

Dozens of schools are following M.I.T.’s lead to make admissions more personal with a “virtual college locker” that students can use to upload materials, videos, and other work to showcase their talents, while other issues, such as preference for children of alumni and early admissions processes continue to tip the scales in favor of more affluent students.

An organized push to encourage colleges to incorporate more measures of character could help change that.

According to the Times:

A recent campaign called ‘Turning the Tide,’ a project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is urging admissions deans to rethink the qualities they consider in applicants. In a report signed by representatives of about 200 campuses, colleges are asked to promote ethical character and service to others through the admissions process.

Although some deans say they have no business assessing the character of still-maturing teenagers, the push has prompted a handful of institutions to tweak their applications. The University of North Carolina now emphasizes contributions to others when asking about extracurricular activities. M.I.T. added an essay question asking students to describe how they’ve helped people.

Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard, who leads the initiative, recommends that colleges define service in ways that might resonate with disadvantaged students. “Many students don’t have opportunities to do community service,” he said. “They’re taking care of their siblings, or they’re working part-time jobs to help their families. Colleges need to say, ‘That matters to us.’”

Including character in the measure of a “successful” student is essential to the health of our communities, according to James Davison Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In such a definition, parents, teachers, and, now, college recruiters are reinforcing what’s necessary to living a good life—not grades, achievement, or attainment only, but the content of graduates’ character.

In his book The Tragedy of Moral Education, Hunter argues:

For parents and other adults, the task of “saving our children” means, in large part, telling children what they are being saved for. The task of educating children means teaching them the larger designs that could give form and focus to their individual aspirations, so that they can come to understand not only how to be good buy why . . .