Interview rant and advice

I received a slew of questions about an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on use of interviews in the admissions process. The main points of the VERY long article are:
1) Most interviews are really a sales pitch – a chance for the college or university to improve their chances of getting you to enroll
2) Some interviews do have an impact on the decision, but usually only at the margins
3) There’s no way to know which kind of interview you are getting – the sales pitch or the admissions impact – so you should assume the latter even though it’s likely the former.

I’m torn today between blasting the whole admissions process and offering advice on interviews. Since it’s my column, I’ll do both.

Blast: The whole admissions process is pretty subjective. I’ve found very few offices that have any idea of how to use writing samples, recommendations, or extra-curricular involvement in a way that they can then correlate to student success. As the article explains in some excruciating detail, college interviews as part of the admissions process tend to be even less useful than other admissions factors. You can trace that to all the research from hiring in the business world that documents how even experienced interviewers aren’t likely to learn much about how a prospective employee will perform. Fortunately, MOST of the decisions are made MOSTLY on academic records, so interviews, essays, and the rest count a lot less in the process.

 Basic: dress nicely – no flip flops (I don’t CARE if they’re Manolos – the admissions officer won’t know that!) and please, try not to wear clothing with the logo or name of some OTHER university. Speak clearly, be nice, play well with others.
 Advanced: Get to know the university or college by reading their propaganda (also known as the website and brochures), and be ready to explain with great enthusiasm all the reasons it’s your FIRST CHOICE. Be specific – extra points for obscure details on faculty and academic programs of interest. Practice interviewing skills such as looking interested and laughing at the interviewer’s lame jokes.
 Expert: The schools that really do know how to do this are looking for self-awareness, motivation, and leadership (the same goes for those that know how to use essays well). Hone your public speaking skills as if you’re auditioning for a guest spot on Glee.

Had a good (or really lousy) experience on an interview or advice you’d like to share? Let me know and maybe I’ll feature it in a future column. Be seeing you.


SAT makes a big announcement about nothing

I had the oppourtunity to comment today on a story being written for U.S. News and World Report about the new SAT policy that will allow students to pick which sets of scores colleges will receive. There are times when I feel like I’ve landed in a Seinfeld rerun with a long discussion going on about absolutely nothing.

Even though my good friend from the College of Charleston has already posted on this topic, I just can’t help sharing as well. As I understand the policy, (you can check it out yourself in this L.A. Times article) students can only select which scores to send (or not send) by date, not by specific subsection.  As a result, I think this change is fairly insignificant.  SAT plays an increasingly diminished role in college admissions.  This is evidenced not just by the large number of schools follwing George Mason University into score optional policies, but also by institutions using the tests more appropriately, which is to say giving them weight according to their predictive value as compared with past academic performance.  More importantly, colleges and universities use the best scores from a stduent no matter how many times he or she may have taken the test.  There is no doubt there are rare extreme cases of those taking the test 10 or 15 times, but even then it is a rare institution that won’t want to take advanatge of a higher score.  What this is most likely going to do is encourage those with means to take more tests.  This probably won’t affect their scores much, or change admissions results to any large degree, but it is more likely to produce greater income from the tests, increase stress over advising on this policy at the high school level, and increase perceptions of disparity in the admissions process.

What kind of future announcements might we expect? Maybe they’ll have a new policy that you can pay extra to have your name sent to thousands of schools for potential scholarship opporunities! That would be great since they already do it without charging you by selling your name and information to colleges and universities that want to recruit you. This is the kind of innovative thinking we need in education – ways to get you to pay more without getting any more. 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.

Before you complain about the SAT…

If you thought taking the SAT was too much pressure, unfair, and lots of other stuff that can’t be printed in a family-friendly blog, check out the pressure from the state test for college readiness in China, as described in Slate.

If that doesn’t satisfy you, maybe you should consider a school with (shameless plug coming) an SAT/ACT optional admissions process (like the one at Mason!).

In related news, I was recently approached by the Princeton Review about buying ad space in a new publication they are planning to give schools with score optional admission processes a chance to promote themselves. This seems weird since 1) The Princeton Review is a HUGE test prep company, so promoting score optional schools seems against their own interests and 2) there’s already a pretty good free list at Fairtest. We’ve now had our score optional process in place for two years. Only 4% of applicants used it the first year, and only 8% this year. Since the numbers remain so small, and since the ad isn’t much money, I’ll probably give it a try this year on the off chance that’s where great students will hear about our process. I’ll share some thoughts on how different score optional processes work and whether they might be right for you in a future post. Be seeing you!

Those dreaded Admission TESTS!

I posed this way back in July, but some recent queries leads me to think its worth putting up again…

My legal counsel advises me to remind you that the information in these notes does not necessarily reflect the views of this institution. How cool is that? Now on to a bit about standardized tests

All I really remember about taking the SAT is dots. A LOT of dots. I think I tried to fill them in so that they formed a bunny. While entertaining, this did not lead to a higher score. At least I can tell you how most colleges do and don’t use these scores.

NEWS BULLETIN: your test scores don’t actually tell us how smart you are. They don’t tell us how clever you are, how creatively you think, how well you dress, how your popularity is unmatched, or how gosh darned cute you can be. The scores just tell us how well you did on that test. Since (what a relief) once you’re in college you won’t have to take the ACT or SAT ever again, they really don’t tell us all that much. There is some predictive value IF we use the scores with your academic information, but even then it’s pretty weak (for those of you obsessed with numbers, check out detailed studies at, , and

Why use them at all? Grades can differ from teacher to teacher, not to mention ranks and GPAs from school to school. The tests are one thing colleges can compare across the board. We know they aren’t very strong predictors, but at least it’s SOMETHING that is the same for all of you, unlike that award you got for being extra nice to your English teacher (you know which one). Worse, students use test scores to judge the colleges! It was all well and good for us to turn you into numbers, but we’re still pretty cranky about you turning the tables. This led to a race to see which schools could have the best scores – and here we are.

Fortunately, no matter how many times you take the tests, we’ll take the best score from any time you took the test to get the best possible total. Colleges say they use your best scores because they “care about you.” I, of course, care deeply about each of you (no, really)…but even if I thought you were pretty much a dirt-bag, I would still use your best score because it makes my school look good!

Can test prep help? The College Board swore prep courses had no impact, then they started selling prep services too. (Quick test. This is: a) ironic b) dumb c) confusing d) all of the above.) Students can raise their scores using materials from bookstores or online for low costs, or even free at the library. Those students, however, are self-motivated. They take practice tests and learn strategies. Those of you who are more inclined to log into Warcraft instead of cracking the books may want to consider a prep course.

The largest factor in test scores tends to be your stress level. So just RELAX! (Hyperventilation during the test, in my totally made up survey, happens all the time, as does showing up for school in just your underwear, and realizing at the end of the year that you never once showed up for some class but you still have to take the exam!).

You also get to take the new writing test, which doesn’t actually grade the kind of writing you are likely to do in college, or ever again in your life. Maybe future versions will require doing math with an abacus. Even so, some colleges use the scores since they are kind of like the old SAT II writing test, and the SAT II writing test was kind of predictive of performance. Plus, it makes those schools look really choosy, and more choosy means a better school, right? (If it works for peanut butter, why not for education?). So some schools will want the writing test, others won’t. So take the writing test, but don’t sweat it. If you do well, great, there are a lot of schools that will want you for your ability to master timed writing. If you don’t, a ton of us (Mason included) really don’t care what your writing test score was and will ignore it completely. Anyhow, writing is good. And drugs are bad. These are valuable lessons and I am glad to be the first to share them with you.

Also, a bunch of schools are totally score optional. This means that you can either apply with no scores, or you can be considered for admission apart from your scores if you have attained a series of other academic achievements (great courses, high grades, really impressive dating history, etc.). This may be particularly interesting since George Mason University is the largest competitive institution in the U.S. with a full score optional admission program ( for details)…I know it keeps me interested!

Once again you’ve made it to the end of my rambling, and once again I hope you get in everywhere you apply, you get every scholarship you want, and (why would this change?) I hope you decide the only place for you is George Mason University. Be seeing you!