Why the SAT’s just may be all that

A couple of days ago I was ranting about how little the SAT’s matter, and all the reasons they end up being used anyway, leading to some questions about how they DO get used. There are three basic uses in admissions – unfortunately only one has any statistical validity, and even that can be pretty suspect.

Perhaps the worst use of standardized test scores happens when colleges set a minimum score for admission or scholarship. This is commonly called having a “cut-off” score. The practice is so widely understood to be a lousy practice that even the schools that do so generally won’t admit it. These institutions may not even bother to have a human review any applicants with scores below some set level. Unfortunately, those minimum scores tend to be very arbitrary, at least from a data standpoint. Test scores have fairly wide standard deviations, and only gain what little predictive strength they might have when used in conjunction with academic records. In other words, using them by themselves, which is what schools are inherently doing when they use a cut off, is entirely unjustifiable from an educational standpoint.

Another way that colleges use the scores unreasonably is to use very small score differences to pick among candidates. As I mentioned before, this is a big time saver, but using tiny score changes to decide between applicants has no statistical validity. Conveniently, evidence that this is a terrible use of scores AND that it goes on anyhow is detailed in a new report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, so it’s not just my paranoid delusions (my therapist will be SO relieved). As mentioned in the report, this is a huge boon to the testing industry (motto: you are your scores – and you can afford to be better!), and obviously advantages anyone with the cash.

Probably the best use of scores is as a comparison point with applicants’ academic records, and this is most helpful when a student has demonstrated some academic potential suitable for the school and has even stronger test scores. There is some (SOME, not much) evidence that in some cases this can work in reverse – that students with reasonable academic records for a particular school but weaker test scores might be less likely to succeed. (I’ve found in my own research, however, that academic performance in college of applicants with really strong high school records doesn’t change with test scores, at least at Mason. More on that soon).

Bear in mind the information I posted a few days ago – the reality that the first two are statistically invalid doesn’t mean even very reputable schools won’t use them in these ways. Admissions offices are just as, if not more, likely to be using them for marketing purposes and/or to save time as they are to be using them as valid evaluative tools.

All that being said, the scores are still WAY less important than the media, or eve the report cited above, would tend to lead families to believe. In every survey and study conducted on the subject, high school academic records (for freshman) and college academic records (for transfers) are WAY (WAY WAY WAY) more important in admissions decisions than test scores. Way. Be seeing you.

Why the SAT’s aren’t “all that”

I was interviewed this week by a reporter for Voice of America (kind of weird thinking about how my humor might be perceived in Pakistan, where the interview is scheduled to broadcast). She had a slew of questions about standardized tests, especially the SAT. As usual for the press, parents, and a plethora of people claiming to be admissions experts (despite zero experience reviewing applications), she assumed that the SAT’s (or ACT’s) were at least as important, if not more so, than academic record in the admission process.


Before I get into all the reasons why standardized tests aren’t that important, let me concede why they ARE somewhat important. It’s crazy to think that admissions officers don’t use them – we do. In a few cases we use them because it tells us something useful about a student – more on that later. But first, time to admit the REAL reason most schools can’t break the BIG TEST habit:
1) it saves time (and therefore money)
2) marketing

These are pretty easy to understand. Colleges get thousands of applications. You all know that there are teachers in your school that give our high grades for minimal effort, and I’m sure you also have at least one dreaded teacher that glories in seeing just how miserable students can become when having almost no chance to get a decent grade. It’s reasonably possible that such teachers might even teach the same subject, and either by device or chance your GPA can be wildly different depending on which you get. Now multiply that effect across every school. Now add in different grading scales, grade calculation policies, and different opportunities/competitive levels within schools. In other words, it’s a hot mess.

Admissions offices get all these grades and do the best job possible of trying to tease out from all that information a reasonable level of comparison on academic record. That, however, can be time consuming and requires a large amount of data and experience.

Scores, on the other hand, are easy. They may not be telling us much, but hey – it’s a number we can easily understand.

So scores save time for admissions officers – LOTS of time. Unfortunately, prospective students also like to use scores to save time. If you look at most of the college rankings you’ll find they rely heavily on average SAT and/or ACT scores, and the number one question college representatives get at college fairs is “what’s your average SAT/ACT score”. In other words, you use scores to judge schools.

Of course, that makes no sense. You know that the scores don’t have much to do with who YOU are, so how can they possibly have much to do with how right a college or university might be for you. However, since colleges KNOW you’re going to ask the question and use the rankings, we tend to be over-concerned about the scores of our incoming students. To put it simply, the higher your scores the better we look, so magically through the power of the marketplace, scores have gained their own intrinsic value, even though independently they tell us very little about students. This is a great boost to the testing industry (motto: Tests are good – don’t think about it, just take them again).

Now that you know why we use them, next up a dose of reality about HOW we use them…which is a lot less than you think, despite the reasons above. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug – Founder of AOL at graduation

One of the best parts of my job is seeing students I recruited go through graduation (plus I get to wear those robes that make me, according to my seven-year-old son, look like I’m in Harry Potter). It’s especially nice when the graduation speaker is entertaining. Yesterday Steve Case, founder of American Online and former CEO of AOL/Time Warner was the speaker. This is a guy who started telling people that intereactive media and user generated content would be a dominate factor in media when most people didn’t even have a PC! I hope to get him next year as the lead off speaker for the Washington Journalism and Media Conference. It doesn’t hurt prospects for him as a speaker that his former and current companies are based right down the street and that he LOVES Mason – clearly a visionary with taste.

Admissions officers: keeping the process clear as mud

In a few of the threads you’ll find a number of readers asking how a particular combination of GPA and SAT score, or a GPA from a particularly hard (or easy) high school, or grades in some particular course are likely to impact admission. Most of all they want to know if they will be admitted, some to a particular school (often Mason, which at least shows good taste). Unfortunately my answer is nearly always: It depends. This is a standard answer for admissions officers. If you read the guidebooks, admissions sections of catalogs, or transcripts of any presentation by a particular college you tend to find VERY little useful information. I’ve heard parents and students suggest that perhaps this is intentional, perhaps there is a massive conspiracy of admissions officers all seeking to keep information on admission standards as obscure as possible as part of their evil scheme to take over the world!

Well, they’re right. Not about the take over the world part (which I thought of while watching an old rerun of Pinky and the Brain with my son this morning), at least not most of us, and maybe not strictly a conspiracy, but no doubt about the obscurity. Three big reasons.

The nicest view of this shortage of detail is…honesty. As I keep saying over and over and over (and over) again, admissions isn’t just about a particular GPA and score. It can be VERY numeric, but those numbers are very complex, involving looking at particular courses, schools, etc. The more competitive the school, the more likely you are to have other factors, from the need for oboe players to essay quality confound these numeric factors.

A less nice reason is the marketing aspect. Admissions officers not only select students, we also recruit them. Details on admissions standards make this job much harder. Let’s say, for example, that I explain that my school is really looking for a particular GPA and a specific test score. If you have below this score, you may be less likely to apply, even if you are just the kind of special case we might want to stretch to admit, since it turns out your dad is prepared to donate enough to have his name splashed all over some buildings and you can hit the jump shot from way out in three point range. Even worse, if you have a higher score you might decide you’re WAY too smart for that school. By being vague we at least have the chance to recruit both students. That’s why you tend to hear, “We’re very competitive and looking for students with great grades. We also look at test scores, but those are less important, because you are more than a number.”

This leads to reason for obscurity number three: Colleges and universities don’t want to be a number any more than you do. Despite a great deal of logic to the contrary, admissions officers like to believe that each and every one of their schools is truly unique, offering you UNRIVALED opportunity to ACHIEVE YOUR POTENTIAL. (This is, of course, true about Mason, but some of our competitors are clearly delusional). Anyhow, savvy admissions officers learned long ago that the minute you share a specific GPA and test score students and parents pretty much stop listening to everything else. Never mind the phenomenal location just outside Washington, D.C. or the incredible residence halls or that President Obama started his campaign on campus AND delivered his first major economic address here as well – that’s just not interesting once those numbers have been stated.

This combination, honesty, marketing, and a nutty desire to avoid being “just a number”, keeps admissions officers fully participatory in the “conspiracy.” It also leads us to over-use words like, “holistic review.” If you don’t believe me, just ask an admissions officer. I’m confident in their ability to impress you with an array of amazing information while nimbly dodging your question. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: The Drumline!!

In case you missed it from some other posts, I love music. I played in bands most of my life, and paid for my masters program as a DJ in D.C. clubs. I would have a huge music career if not for my stunning lack of talent. Fortunately, I get to have a career that keeps me close to music and to spectacularly talented musicians. Mason’s Music department is among the best in country. In particular, I love working with our incredible University Band, the Green Machine. I had the privilege of speaking at their banquet this year, and hearing about the incredible success of our fairly new drumline and winter guard competition squads. The D.C. area is a great place for musicians in general, and there’s no better university for music in the region than Mason!

Admissions: it’s all about the grades

While published last year, this post got a slew of views and a few comments, so back to the top it goes:

As an admissions officer, I love hearing about all the SECRET WAYS TO GET INTO COLLEGE. These generally focus on some lame way to send your application, or some special club you can join, or worst of all some company that you pay a fortune. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than a story about somebody who got in at some point by sending in their application that way, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this): It’s all about your grades.

That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record. To start with, colleges are much more interested in grades in your core academic courses: Math, science, English, social studies, and/or foreign language. Every time I say that someone asks, “but what about band.” I usually say, yeah, maybe, if you’re seeking admission to a music conservatory…but mostly it’s the core academic courses. Usually the same kid (or more often, parent) jumps up and says, “but it’s HONORS band!” Yes, I get it, and no I’m not picking on band, since the question is just as often about debate, art, or a few dozen other courses that I’m sure are very rewarding and interesting. What they aren’t is your core academic courses, which is what admissions offices use. (Updated note: when I originally posted this I got some nifty hate mail from band members – that’s not the term I used, but whatever. For the record – I was in bands, lots of bands. Played the drums. Marched in the Macy’s Parade, won some trophies. Clearly, I’m not hating on band – but, also for the record, that doesn’t mean I don’t think having classes in Band labled “Honors” – and even worse given extra weighting on the grading scale – isn’t silly. Let the new round of messages from angry band members begin!)

To get an idea of your overall academic potential, still generally focusing on those core subjects, we look at trends in your grades (up is better, although best of course is to have stayed up all the way through), the quality of your courses, where you rank, the quality of your high school, etc. etc. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

Of course we know that not all grades/high schools/courses are the same, so I’ll go into detail about that in a few days (or so). Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Eating healthier…at least for the planet

I finally had a chance to eat in the incredible Southside Dining on campus in one of our new residence halls. Yes, the food was incredible, particularly when I flash back to what I remember of residence hall food during my college years. Even better, I enjoyed the unusual experience of feeling good about my meal’s impact (or lack thereof) on the environment. Mason’s on-campus housing places somewhere among the top 100 largest University residence communities in the U.S., and with our freshman class growing and housing guaranteed for all four years, we’re expecting to climb into the top 50 in the next three years. It’s especially important to us that we do so in a way that isn’t detrimental to the environment, so I was especially proud when a staff member forwarded an article in Time Magazine highlighting the way Southside has been designed to have nearly 0% waste!