More chatter about the SAT

I thought I was pretty good at shameless plugs, but I was truly impressed by the awesome shamless plug that Wake Forest managed to give themselves in today’s Washington Post. They managed to get a letter from their president printed about their daring move to go SAT optional (two years after we did, 20 years after Bates – how daring!). Unfortunately, their president seems to see this purely as a diversity initiative. He notes that class rank is a better indicator of performance, but neglects to mention that class ranks are used less and less by secondary school systems. He cites a bunch of other criteria that work better, skipping over the fact that the SAT isn’t supposed to work better than other criteria…but it does increase predictive models when used WITH those other criteria. He doesn’t even cite a single piece of internal research to support a new system at Wake – just that he likes their new system better. Bravo!
As you might guess from my sarcasm, I think Wake just took advantage of a well-established trend to get a little spotlight (hey – over here – we’re in the “top thirty” – top twenty would be better!). I’m not one to scoff at some free PR, but it would be nice if their president actually explained some substantive data, and explained plainly how Wake’s admission process will change. If you’re going to take up space in a huge publication like the Post, you’d hope a college president could do something a little more…academic.
Or maybe I’m just jealous. Hey – are you listening to that Post? We did this before them, and we’re the biggest school in the country with a score optional process, and his opinion piece didn’t even LIST us among score optional schools! AND we’re the only score optional school in the market where your paper is published! Hello? Anyone? Be seeing you.


Guest Post: Is sending just one set of SAT scores really the best for you?

I just got done reading an article from the Los Angeles Times on June 21, 2008. The article is about how the College Board will begin allowing its test takers, starting with the class of 2010, to choose “which of their SAT scores to share with admissions officers and which to hide.”

In other words the College Board is going to allow you to decide to send your best test date score or the history of all of your scores. At first thought, I’m sure that the idea of only sending your best score will relieve some stress for you because you know us admissions folks won’t be seeing your lower scores. It also probably makes you feel more confident that we won’t see that you took the exam four, five, or even six times to ultimately get a score that you feel good about. (BTW, is anyone ever really happy with their score? Okay…maybe those 5 students that get a perfect 2400.)

Both of these thoughts are good ones, but to be honest I’m not that happy about the change because I think it will get many students to think it’s a great idea without realizing all of the consequences of not sending all of their scores.

Here’s what I mean. An overwhelming majority of admissions offices across the country do what my institution, the College of Charleston, does. We look at all of your scores and then we combine your best scores from each section to give you your best overall – even if those scores weren’t on the same test date. It is really a win-win for all students. By selecting to send us just one score you eliminate our ability to do that for you, and in essence you could be hurting your chances of being admitted. So if you decide you only want to send your best scores, make sure you send the test dates that show your highest score in each sub section (not just the score of your best test date).

Also consider, by not sending us all of your scores it stops an admissions office from seeing how you were able to improve your scores and the context in which you did it. Sometimes being able to see that is invaluable to a student’s record because it shows how hard the student worked to get those scores. That said, not all students are fortunate enough to take the exam multiple times because of cost. Is it really fair that some students can take the test several times and some can only afford to take it once or twice, but when it comes time to review those scores, admissions offices can’t see the advantage the more privileged student had? It’s a tough call.

What’s best for you? That’s for you to decide, but whatever your decision, make sure you educate yourself on the changes and how it could affect your applications.

International Students: Importance of Paying Attention to Deadlines

For most students the fact that deadlines are a very important part of the university admissions process goes without saying, but then there are some students who will call our office repeatedly at the last minute pleading for us to accept their application or missing documents late. They will give us a long list of excuses all of which they claim were unavoidable, make their situation unique, and deserve a special exception. Their story is almost always one we have heard before and the delay can be traced back to a lack of planning and attention to deadlines. We greatly appreciate everyone’s interest in our university and we want to do everything we can to help students succeed so let me start by providing a little more information on application deadlines and why they are important, especially for international students.

Universities either follow a specific set of application deadlines or a “rolling admissions” policy. Schools with strict deadlines will clearly have them listed in their brochures and on their web site well in advance. Some schools may have a little flexibility depending on the number of applications received and the competitiveness of their applicant pool that year, while other schools will not accept anything after 4:59 pm (the close of business) on the day of their deadline, no matter what.

Schools with a rolling admissions policy generally review applications and make decisions as they are received until all the spaces in their incoming class are filled. However, even schools with rolling admissions policies tend to have a final deadline date several weeks before classes start. Their admissions policy may be rolling but they will probably have a deadline for scholarship consideration. It is also important to keep in mind that admission is offered on a first come first serve basis so applying earlier improves your chances.

University Admissions Officers are looking for students who are not only academically qualified but also well-rounded individuals. Submitting your documents on time or early shows us that you are a serious student who is genuinely interested in our university. By fulfilling all of our application requirements and meeting our deadlines, we can see that you are diligently planning for your future. This planning is also apparent in the visa application process. If you show up at the Embassy two days before classes start, the Consular Officer is going to wonder if you really are serious about studying in the U.S.

In addition, we understand that you may still be finishing your final year of secondary school or you may not have taken your national exams by our application deadline. That is ok. We can make a provisional decision based on your academic record up to the time you submit your application, and you can send your exam results or final transcripts when they are available.

Finally, the sooner you send your application the sooner the weight of the application process is lifted off your shoulders. Once all of your documents have been submitted, you can sit back and wait for the universities to make a decision and you can begin planning the next steps in the process.

Graduate School: Does my goals statement/personal statement matter?

Your goals statement may be the most important part of your graduate application. While there’s not much you can do to affect your undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, or resume, you have unlimited control over what you choose to submit for your goals statement. This statement is your one and only opportunity to explain your personal and professional background, motivation for study, and knowledge of the academic field within which you hope to earn a graduate degree.

Each university to which you apply will ask for slightly different things to be included in your statement, but most admissions committees are looking for a few key points:

Prior Knowledge – It’s important to demonstrate familiarity with the field to which you’re applying. Applications may not specifically ask you to address prior knowledge, but committees can evaluate this based on what you say about your background, your use of relevant terms, and how clear your understanding of the degree program appears to be.

Motivation – Why are you planning on getting this degree? Admissions committees want to know that you’re committed to finishing what you start. If you can explain why you want a career in your field convincingly, committees are more likely to believe you’re ready to commit yourself to the years of work needed to finish your degree.

Relevant Personal Experience – Sometimes a personal story can highlight why you’re passionate about your field; sometimes it can distract the reader. Saving a life might have convinced you to become a nurse or working on an exciting campaign might have pushed you into political science. If you have a personal story which can provide key insight into your decision to enter your chosen field you may want to include it as part of your statement, but if it has little to do with your degree field, you may want to think about leaving it out.

What Else? – Your personal statement is your only opportunity to tell the admissions committee about yourself, so make sure you use the opportunity. Transcripts speak to your academic potential and letters of recommendation highlight your character, but the goals statement is your one chance to tell the admissions committee about your background and qualifications using your own words.

In the rush to submit an application to graduate school, many applicants dismiss the goals statement as unimportant and write it quickly the night before the application deadline – don’t make this mistake! This statement may make or break your admission. Take time to make sure you’ve addressed all the points you need to in a clear and concise way. A well written goals statement could be your ticket to graduate school!

Does the college admissions process reduce creativity?

This past weekend as part of the Mason Arts Festival I had the chance to have several conversations with award-winning television and movie writer, producer, and director Marshall Herskovitz. Among the things he shared with me was a great concern (and this is my paraphrasing of his point) that students with creative passion are less and less likely to pursue their artistic dreams because we measure success so narrowly, usually by the size of one’s paycheck.

This got me thinking a lot about the college admissions process and how much we focus our recruitment on convincing you that there is only one right school you can attend. Usually this has a vague threat attached – that if you go to the “wrong” school you won’t be as successful as you might otherwise be. And, I’m ashamed to say, for the most part we seem to view that success as, you guessed it, the size of your paycheck after you graduate.

I’m fortunate that Mason has a vast array of arts majors, including dance and creative writing programs, that are among the most competitive in the world. I say that not just as my usual shameless plug, but because it gives me a chance, on a nearly daily basis, to be among people who judge their success by a standard other than the number of dollars produced. The artistic merit of their product is, by and large, far more important to them than any monetary value estimate that society may make. Perhaps that concept needs to be carried more deeply into the college recruitment process.

My friend Lloyd Thacker is a huge risk taker, of the type I most admire, who advocates this concept. He abandoned a very successful career in admissions and college counseling to try to bring some rationality to our profession. His Education Conservancy is dedicated to decreasing the hype around college admissions, and especially to lowering the marketing mentality of higher education in general.
One of Lloyd’s big concerns is that we spend far too much time judging colleges by their rankings, especially in US News’ College Rankings, and that those rankings add to the sense that college is a commodity with high-stakes stress involved. While I’m not as opposed to the rankings as Lloyd (and think they can be helpful when used in context – more on that soon), like many of my colleagues I much prefer the more rational approach of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which provides information on student satisfaction rates.

Regardless of approach, rankings or no rankings, there is little doubt in my mind that the materials that my colleagues and I send you tend to add to an unfortunate sense of lmiited options and heightened panic. I have this sentiment reinforced as I present seminars across the country. The questions I’m most often asked regard how a student can game the admission system. I’m asked to ponder how many AP classes should be crammed into a year, whether a particular club or sport is more advantageous, and even whether clubs or sports should be abandoned in favor of grades. All in the name of “winning” this admissions game we have developed.

I think it’s worth asking what prizes are being won in this game. Admission to a particular college, according to every study conducted, does little to change your eventual salary (especially when compared with the current income level of your parents, how you’ve done in school so far, and how you perform in college). And is that even the right question to be asked? At what point are you asked to consider what INTERESTS you, what MOTIVATES you?

Marshall was asking me (again, my paraphrase) whether we could really expect to solve the world’s greatest problems and generate the next wave of great art with a generation raised to think first about profit margins and lastly about personal passion and societal need. I have to admit that I tend towards optimism on this point – the students I encounter are so incredibly creative, so deeply caring, so ridiculously brilliant, that my hopes for them fixing the mess we have created is rather unshakable. But I worry that the emails, mailings, IM, text messages and all the rest I am sending are doing little to contribute to that lofty goal – and may in fact be standing in the way.
Our university relations department developed a tag line that I rather like (although it seems out of order to me, it sounds best in that order) – Think, learn, succeed – as I’m partial to the idea of thinking and learning first. But maybe we need to change that part about succeed, or at least clarify our definition. Maybe another way to state it might be Learn, think, change the world. And maybe we need to think about how our admissions process, from recruitment to decisions, should reflect that ideal. Be seeing you.

New data on the SAT – or why the writing test still stinks

The Collegeboard (that great organization that brings you the SAT, among other things) released a study of their new writing section, and, SURPRISE, found it to be very useful. There’s a very balanced article on the topic in today’s Inside Higher Education e-newsletter.

The College board found the new test, with the more expensive writing test that makes the whole thing a lot longer has the same predictive value as the old test. It’s no better, mind you, but at least no worse. They admit, however, that the test is far worse at predicting performance than high school academic records, and that there continue to be the same problematic disparities (which various researchers peg to gender, race, income, etc.) even among students that perform equally well in college. In other words, if you’re not a white, male, upper-middle class test taker, there’s a good chance your score on the SAT underestimates your performance in college.

What they don’t mention, and I doubt they’ll study, is whether adding the test improved (or decreased) the ability to predict college performance when used WITH high school record. That’s how all colleges use the SAT anyhow, and the only way that it’s really useful. I agree with the MIT professor cited in the article – I think the era of timed writing drills is long over and poorly prepares students for what they need to do in graduate school and the workforce. Since Mason, MIT, and a handful of others that have (shameless plug) the highest rated Writing Across the Curriculum Programs in the nation (no really, US News rates them – no idea how they can do that), I suspect at those schools, if not all, the writing test will actually decrease predictive ability when sued with college grades.

Also, the Collegeboard wisely only compared the new test to the old test. They didn’t do a more rational comparison – of using just the current math and English sections compared to using them with the writing section. That’s because they want to avoid any ammunition for ACT, which quite rationally offers the writing test as an OPTION. Maybe the SAT would make a lot less money if they did that! Nah – that would be a really bad reason to force all students to take the writing section. Right?

Did I mention Mason is the largest institution in the United States with a score optional admissions policy? I thought I might have. Be seeing you.

Shameless plug – go Hollywood at the Mason Arts Festival this weekend!

Wanted to let you know about this opportunity to meet Hollywood producer Marshall Herskovitz and attend a FREE screening of his newest work!

Friday, June 20: Distinguished Emmy-award winning Hollywood writer, director, and producer Marshall Herskovitz (movies: Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall; television’s My So-Called Life, thritysomething, Once and Again) visits Mason for a 7:30 p.m. special FREE screening of quarterlife, the ongoing web series about a group of artists coming of age in the digital generation. The Friday screening is free in the Johnson Center Cinema on the Fairfax, VA campus of George Mason University.

Email for reservations. Directions are at

Visit the Mason Festival online – lots of cool stuff to see.

Hope to see you there!