Admissions, grading scales, and happy holidays

Welcome back!  I’d like to say it’s been a restful holiday while the blog was on a brief seasonal hiatus, but we’ve been very busy processing the buckets of mail that come in during the holidays (note to self – discuss moving holidays to July when not as many colleges and universities have application deadlines – who would I see about that?). 

As soon as I got I found the questions the sitting in my in box: what else did we need to know about majors?  How do these deadlines work?  What really happens when you read applications?  Are you really the most entertaining dean of admissions, or is that all just an act?  When are you going to get stuff fixed around the house like you promised you would over the break? (that last one from my wife – she wasn’t crazy about the answer that I would get right on that once I got caught up on my blog…)

My plans for the next topic were detoured by a visit yesterday from the local news.  They were covering responses to an article in the Washington Post by my close personal acquaintance Jay Matthews about differences in grading scales for high schools in the D.C. area

The local ABC affiliate, WJLA, did a follow up story including a clip of a well informed expert (me).  Unfortunately they only had room for about 30 seconds of the 20 minute long answer I provided (I can’t imagine why).  ://  In that clip leaves you begging for more, a bit more detail:

Generally, grading scales don’t have a huge impact on admissions.  According to my colleagues in the area schools, they’ve done quite a bit on study on the grading topic.  Each time they have found the same thing- grade distribution doesn’t change much by grading scale.  In other words, whether you make an a start at 89, 90, 93, or 94, the same number of A’s, B’s and the rest end up being given out.  The assumption is that teachers tend to adjust grading to whatever scale they use – but it means that overall scales are unlikely to change outcomes too much. 

There’s also the issue of weighting grades, since a number of schools will give extra points for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Honors, etc.  This can get really out of hand – I have at least one school system from which I regularly review applications where students with a 3.6 on a 4.0 scale can be expected to have a fair number of C’s and D’s on their record.  Those same schools end up with students with higher than a 6.0 on a 4.0 school – ridiculous!!!  As I said in the report, most college and university admissions officers at schools as selective as Mason get to know grading and weighting scales very well.  Even if we don’t we usually get the details on a school profile with every transcript.  As a result, schools are able to put the grades into context and minimize the admissions impact of these differences.

That being said, there are exceptions. Some colleges and universities, especially those that are less competitive, may use less sophisticated admission review processes, and in those cases it’s possible that crazy weighted grades may work to a student’s advantage (or a lack of them to another student’s disadvantage), although in my experience that is not too common, and the greater the competition, the less likely to occur.

All of that information applies largely to admissions. The issues may change dramatically when it comes to scholarships.  At some schools the scholarships process is handled just like admissions, and the top students through that process get the awards.  At many schools, however, scholarships are viewed very differently.  Bear in mind that scholarships are, in essence, taking money away from one student (by charging full tuition) and giving it to another student (in a discount through a scholarship).  The justification for that may be based on an assessment of who is most qualified, but it is even more likely to be based on a calculation of which student is the most valuable to an institution, and these may not be the same things.  Of course, an applicant may be a highly ranked debater, a skilled player of a instrument vitally needed by the band director, or have a really sweet three-point shot.  Even just on academics, however, schools are often hoping that scholarships will help the school as much as they students.  This is often about raising “profile”.  Profile raising usually refers to a school trying to improve their placement on one ranking scale or another, or at least appear to be more competitive to prospective students (and therefore, presumably, more appealing).   As a result, high grades, rank-in-class, and GPA become more desirable, regardless of whether or not they are providing good information.

For instance: A university may know perfectly well that a student from one school has heavily weighted grades and that her 6.5 GPA is just plain silly, while another student did just as well at another school (that doesn’t weight) but has just a measly 4.0.  The scholarship may very well go to the 6.5, since that is of more use to the profile.  The same goes for rank, etc.

Of course, admission to college is a really bad way to make school policy.  The unfortunate perceived escalation of the importance of these issues on the college side (“we need a higher rank!” “they only care about a higher GPA/SAT/RANK!”) leads some to an arms rance in changing grading scales or ranking or weighting systems at the high school level. This makes for an awful situation for parents, students, and educators.

I can only offer slim comfort  – in most cases the influence of grading, ranking, and weighting systems is VERY small on the admissions process, and not too terribly large on the scholarship process.  Feel better?  No?  Go have some more of those leftover holiday cookies.  Then get back to finishing your essay.  Be seeing you.


College Major and Admissions

There seems to be a lot of confusion about how the major you list on the application may influence your admission.

A few over-simplifications may help:

A handful of institutions give great weight in the admissions process to the major you select. These schools usually state up front that they have very different admission standards for their different “schools” or “colleges” or “majors” – all of which usually means that the major DOES make a big difference in the process.

Many institutions, however, say they don’t pay any attention to what major you list. This is not surprising as most experts say you’re likely to change your major at least twice before you graduate. In general those institutions, like Mason, follow this model, except:

1) Like many institutions, we have programs with “second gates” as well as programs with slightly different standards. Second gate programs (at Mason this includes business, nursing, and education) require you to attain particular grades, often in particular courses, in college before you are “really” in the major. As a result, these second gate programs don’t impact you at the time of application/admission, but you want to be aware of them before you pick your school.

2) Even at schools that don’t really look at major as a factor (like Mason) there may be a major or two that has some additional admission factors. At Mason, for instance, several engineering programs require higher levels of math courses and review focuses on math grades and scores. At most institutions not qualifying for such a major won’t trigger a denial, but may cause the school to offer you admission to an undeclared or undecided major, and then require a second gate (see number 2!).

3) Finally, even some of the institutions that SAY they don’t care about major aren’t being ENTIRELY honest. This is particularly true if a school is looking to grow a particular major, or needs to diversify enrollment in an area. For instance, nearly every institution needs more men in nursing, dance, and education, but needs more women in the sciences and engineering. That doesn’t necesarily mean they consider these issues in the admissions process (Mason doesn’t), but it means they might, so if you fall into one of those desirable categories (interest and talent for a major that isn’t overloaded by your gender), you may want to list that one on your application.

Also, if a school has a new major (like the amazing new Film and Media Studies major at Mason) they might (if they weren’t already flooded with interest like Mason) have more flexibility in admitting students targeting those majors. Of course, since none of the schools will tell you when this is going on (and since the admissions officers rarely know until they get a call from an academic Dean begging for more, or fewer, of some group) you really can’t do much about it.

Coming up – some insight on how picking/changing your major may impact how long you spend at the school before graduating (or not). Be seeing you.

Caution on use of wikis for admissions

As popular as they are, wikipedia and wikis are getting some bad press on the list serv of the National Association for Admissions Counseling.  The counselors and admissions officers on that list regularly trade advice (ie – which college has the best underwater co-ed luge team that also offers courses in mortuary science and has scholarships by zodiac sign?  anyone?).  I periodically post some here when amusing, but try to add the caveat that the lists are randomly reported, rarely comprehensive, and possibly downright mistaken.  Unfortunately, it appears a volume of these lists are appearing on wikis without any explanation of source.  Beware of any list of schools that isn’t backed up by a data source (and remember that Mason already has exactly what you want.  Our co-ed underwater luge team ROCKS!).  Be seeing you.

Shameless plug (but also free resource): Amazing History Site

Taking advantage of our D.C. area location, and an array of nationally prominent faculty, Mason has an incredible History department.  In addition to a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners, consultants to the Smithsonian, a faculty that has more than 100 books to his credit (and I assume he never sleeps), for many years Mason History faculty have run the Center for History and New Media ( Along with having some of the most amazing historical digital archives, they also have an array of tools for your history classes – a great advantage for that term paper you’ve been putting off until the holidays.  They even have provide access for faculty to post their material ( in a way that is getting national attention. 

How to judge an admissions/scholarship service web site

Between list servs and emails, I generally get two to twenty web sites each week encouraging me to encourage you to visit. These usually follow a similar script, saying they are providing free information to you regarding admissions or scholarships.

I’ll admit, I haven’t been working hard to review these sites…there are just too stinkin’ many of them to bother keeping track, kind of like all the blogs from admissions officers that keep popping up (I of course refer to other blogs – this one, as you know, is special. No really. Stop smirking.). As a general rule, I found most of these sites to provide reasonable information, and a few even offer something interesting. If I mention one here it’s either because:

A) I checked them out and was fascinated by the sophisticated and deeply insightful information and/or the incredibly helpful free service they provide or

B) They agreed to plug this blog and/or George Mason Univesity, and I am shamelessly self-promoting.

Fair warning that many of these sites are funded from three sources: 1) the site is owned by an organization that lends students money, and wants to lend you money; 2) the site sells advertising from companies that want to lend you money, or sell you something else and/or; 3) the site will sell you name anywhere and everywhere it can.

Now if you’re like me, you really don’t care about your name being sold as long as there’s not enough information to steal your identity (I am also safe as no one else wants to be me). Many of these sites also offer “opt outs” from having your name released, sold, and written on bathroom walls, but some make these options hard to find. If you would prefer not to have your name distributed to whichever credit card companies, lenders, testing agencies, and marital aid salespeople are purchasing lists, be a bit wary of these registration processes and look for opportunities to limit their ability to use your name before you hit submit.

Since I’ve had so many questions about these sites, I’ll try to check out at least one a week and add it to the blog roll and maybe write a bit about it (perhaps refuting what they claim as college admission advice just for fun). If you’re worried about privacy, however, no need to hit the posted links. This site, of course, remains gloriously free from data collection and the only “cookies” we serve are my crumbs of wisdom, so to speak, as long as you can stand my fanatical allegiance to the George Mason University. Also, did I mention how great Mason is today? Be seeing you.

Update on use of ACT scores in admissions

Heath Einstein, Director of College Counseling at Solomon Schechter School, posted an update to the list serv of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling of the colleges and universities that say they are using the best ACT subscores to calculate new  (higher) composite scores for applicants.  He notes that he checked with each school.   He didn’t call us, but after careful consideration (Careful = checked that ACT is ok with it, checked that it would make Mason look better in the rankings, discussed with my assistant dean…total time, maybe five minutes), I’ve decided you can add Mason to the list!

Amherst College; University of Arkansas – Fayetteville; Birmingham Southern College; University of Colorado – Boulder; University of Dayton; Eckerd College; Elon University; Florida Atlantic University; Florida State University; George Mason University; University of Georgia; Kalamazoo College; Lawrence University; University of Louisiana – Lafayette; University of Miami; Northeastern University; Pepperdine University; Regis University; University of South Florida; University of Tennessee – Knoxville; Washington and Lee University; Washington University – St. Louis

So, now you can take the SAT just as many times as the ACT – what fun for you!!! Be seeing you.

What if you and your parents disagree about college?

I received this question from the folks at COLLEGEdata, asking for my comments.  The question (with answers) will appear in the next CollegeINSIGHT newsletter. You can check out the current version at

Researchers (and by that I mean a few articles I’ve read online recently) agree that high school students now get along with their parents better than ever before.  They use as evidence the high level of involvement and influence parents have in the college search process, in the admissions process (reminder – please don’t let mom or dad fill out your application for you!), and how often students continue to chat/email/text with mom and dad after heading to college (3-4 times per DAY!).

It seems likely with all that involvement that even the most solid familial dynamic is going to be strained if mom is seeking Ivy League U while junior wants Snowboarding with Awesome Parties College, and dad wants either his alma mater (that’s Latin for, “I want me and my kid to wear matching sweatshirts”) or Really Inexpensive And Possibly Illegitimate Online Program. 

This starts with the regular misconception that there is a RIGHT answer to the question of which college to attend.  My strong recommendation (and again, I am so often right it would amaze you) is that you should, with over 4,000 institutions from which to choose, be able to find multiple schools that the whole family could love.  Mom, dad and junior should all bear in mind that there is no perfect school (with the possible exception of Mason, of course, an institution on which all can agree!), and that there are always going to be some tradoffs in the things you want and what you will find (not at Mason – you will have it all here!).

I realize this may be easier said than done, but that’s why I’m the blogger and you’re the parent/applicant/surfer who thought you were going to find cool information about the latest Britney Spears episode.  The truth is that you can have a wonderful experience. make fantastic friends, and increase your chances of success at pretty much any school that feels like a good match to you, if you just get excited about it and make a solid effort.  And mom and dad should know it’s the same for them – they will find things to brag about at parties no matter where you go.  (Of course, at Mason you will have the best experience, make the best friends, and have the best chance of success, while your parents will have endless bragging potential…but that’s just if you want to make the RIGHT choice…).  Be seeing you.