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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When Less Is More

Inside Higher Ed
September 23, 2009
For years now, applicants to highly competitive colleges have complained that they feel that they must do more and more to demonstrate why they should be admitted.

This year, following a pattern that had already taken hold among less competitive institutions (for different reasons), some institutions are asking a little less of applicants, at least when it comes to how much they have to write. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is replacing a longer essay (500 words) with several short questions of about 200 words. The University of Pennsylvania has decided to combine two essay questions about the student's fit into the institution into one, saving students maybe 200 words.

For book-writing academics, 200 words here or there may seem irrelevant. But the admissions officers behind the decisions say that they are asking for less out of the view that they may learn more about applicants by not overwhelming them with so many questions. They also said that it may be time for admissions deans to balance more carefully what they would like to know about applicants -- and the demands on applicants' time.

"At one level, within the admissions office, we constantly ask ourselves what information we would like to receive to get to know a student better.... But at another level, we need to try to put ourselves in the student's shoes, and think about how we can get the information in the most efficient manner, about being judicious with the number of questions," said Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at Penn.

Penn made the changes in its supplement to the Common Application, Furda noted, so applicants have already answered questions there before turning to Penn's university-specific questions. He also noted that Penn has an optional student autobiographical essay, so those who want to say more have the ability to do so. But he said it was important to consider the benefits of asking for less.

For instance, he said that he believes he may learn more about applicants from very short questions than from longer essays, which many admissions officers in recent years have feared are becoming opportunities for coaching if not ghost writing.

Going short with requirements "in some ways makes it less filtered for students," Furda said. "As you are approaching the longer essay, there is this sense of creating the masterpiece, as opposed to 'they are asking me a straightforward question, let me answer it.' "

At MIT, applicants are now given short prompts (such as describing how they have used their creativity) that might have once been the basis for longer essays.

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT, said that the reason for the switch is that those reviewing applicant files found they were learning more from shorter responses than longer ones. "We have for a long time had two shorter essays on the application, and from those we got very direct, clear answers to our questions," he said.

The MIT application instructions also stress that students should not view the short prompts as setting up writing exams. "Remember that this is not a writing test. These are the places in the application where we look for your voice -- who you are, what drives you, what's important to you, what makes you tick. Be honest, be open, be real -- this is your opportunity to connect with us," it says.

A column in The Tech, MIT's student paper, backed the change, but also noted some reservations. Ethan Solomon writes that he thought the longer essay gave him a chance to truly "tell a story about myself." But he also believes that the shorter questions are less stressful.

He notes the "significantly more relaxed tone of the short essays ('Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.… This isn’t a trick question.'). From an applicant’s perspective, these kinds of questions aren’t as worrisome and probably result in much less polished responses than a long, 'Common Application' style essay. They force the student to respond directly and, at least from my experience, tend to elicit more honesty -- which is great from an admissions perspective."

In fact, the Common Application doesn't push on length. Rob Killion, executive director, said that until three years ago, the essay was described as having a maximum length of 500 words, and that it was then changed to set a minimum of 250 words. "The intent wasn't to get longer essays, but rather to clarify a minimum, and drop a maximum that most kids ignored anyway," he said.

Of the 268 Common Application members that require supplements from applicants, more require short answer questions (152) than full essays (111).

Kevin Crockett, president and CEO of Noel-Levitz, a company that consults with colleges on admissions and enrollment issues, said he's not surprised by Penn's and MIT's changes, given that many colleges that are not competitive in admissions have already cut back or even eliminated essay requirements.

With colleges that admit most students, he said, many admissions offices found that they weren't using the essays at all, or were considering them only for a minority of applicants. These colleges find value, he said, in a streamlined application that doesn't ask for more than the admissions office needs and doesn't add to the burdens of applicants.

"What you don't want to do is put requirements on everybody that you'll use only in a minority of cases," he said. Crockett noted that if colleges cut back on essay length, and then find that they want more writing from a particular applicant, they can always ask.

Despite that trend, plenty of competitive colleges aren't shortening their essay requirements. Pomona College has optional essays that it encourages applicants to consider in its supplement to the Common Application.

Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona, said that the writing the college receives from the Common Application is "more polished" than the samples in response to the college's more informal questions, such as "Although it may appear to the contrary, we do know that people have a life beyond what they do to get into college. Tell us about an experience you've had outside of your formal classroom and extracurricular activities that was just plain fun and why."

Poch said that question "has proven to be a great 'reveal' because it clearly was written more informally and likely with some haste nearer the deadlines."

Pomona receives "periodic complaints from counselors that we are asking for too much work and should just stick to the Common App, but I still see the Common App as a common core and that each college may want something more particular to their community or mission," Poch said.

And he said there can be value in asking for more. "I'd personally rather ask for a bit more and get completed applications from those who were serious enough to follow through," he said.

— Scott Jaschik

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

10 Things College Admissions Tests Don't Do

Smart Money Magazine
published: September 9, 2009

1. "We don't measure what you think we do."
IN 1926, THE College Board created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and standardized college-admissions testing was here to stay. The American College Testing Program followed suit in 1959 with the ACT. Today 89 percent of schools use these two tests in the admissions process, according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But what do they measure? Both the SAT, which has three sections scored from 200 to 800 each, and the ACT, scored from one to 36, have narrowed their claims. These tests are no longer said to measure intelligence; rather, research indicates they reliably forecast how well students perform in their first year of college. But there are better indicators, says Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, such as class rank and GPA. So why are these tests popular? Convenience for admissions officers, says Robert Schaeffer, of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who argues standardized tests get misused. It's less expensive and time consuming but "less fair to students," he says. The College Board says it offers guidelines on appropriate uses of test results but doesn't control their usage.

2. "We score on a curve."
SAT RESULTS USED to mean scores in the traditional 200 to 800 range for each section of the test, a scale that depended in part on the performance of other students. Today's test taker still gets these, but she also receives her "raw scores," which directly reflect the number of questions she got right and wrong.

A big improvement, say many students and their harried parents-until you learn that it's the original 200 to 800 scores that really matter as far as most admissions officers are concerned.

How does scaled scoring work? The College Board says that a missed question typically means a debit of 20 points. But the higher a student's score overall, the more missed questions will weigh, says Leslie Lukin, director of Assessment and Evaluation at Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska. No small thing, given that more than 20 percent of schools impose minimum scores for admission, and studies indicate that even a 10- or 20-point difference can significantly improve one's chances at more than a third of colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Indeed, says Fitzsimmons, these tests can be "a very blunt instrument."

3. "You don't have to be Shakespeare to ace the essay."
IN 2005, THE College Board unveiled an updated SAT, designed to restore the test as a measure of ability in at least one area. The main new feature: a 25-minute essay. But it hasn't exactly impressed some admissions officers. "We don't think it's a measure of anything that's supportive of a student's writing ability," says Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

When the test was released, the College Board said the writing section "sends a loud and clear message that strong writing is essential to success in college and beyond." But critics like Robert Yagelski, associate professor of English education at SUNY Albany, disagree, saying the essay section "misunderstands what makes effective writing." One problem is that scoring focuses on organization and tends to ignore factual errors. "It's taking a step away from how students need to write in college," Yagelski says. A College Board spokesperson says the essay "very effectively measures students' writing skills and, in particular, their ability to write concisely, coherently and quickly."

4. "You can game the system."
THERE HAS ALWAYS been concern about the legitimacy of the SAT and ACT-which is why the College Board and ACT Inc. frequently tweak the tests, then put out new studies reconfirming their validity. One factor experts use to determine whether a standardized test is legitimate is its vulnerability to gaming techniques. "If you can take shortcuts to do better, then it's a bad test design," says Mark Reckase, an education professor at Michigan State University; studying subject matter is the only thing that should help improve a score.

But according to the $2 billion test-prep industry, performance on the SAT and ACT can be improved with tips and tricks. "We don't pretend to teach students a lot academically," says Ed Carroll, an executive director at The Princeton Review. "Taking tests is a skill that can be developed, like playing a guitar or tennis." A study by the NACAC supports his claims; it found this type of test prep could add roughly 30 points to a score, or 5 percent per section. A common suggestion: Skip a question if you're unsure of the answer, since it won't count against you. However, if you can eliminate at least one answer, then the odds of guessing correctly shift in your favor.

5. "The practice test is more stressful than the real one."
BEFORE THE test-prep industry took off, the only real way to prepare for the SAT was to take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, which debuted in 1959 to offer students a "low stakes" practice version of the pressure-filled admissions test, says Glenn Milewski, executive director of the PSAT at the College Board.

But in 1971, the stakes suddenly got a lot higher for high school kids taking the PSAT. That's when the College Board teamed up with the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which doles out $36 million in scholarships annually to high school students, and renamed the test the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The crux of the relationship: The College Board allows the NMSC to use the test as a way of narrowing the field of potential scholarship recipients based on score. Before the NMSC will even glance at GPA, class rank or any other measure of a student's merit, it looks at results of the PSAT-which can be taken for the National Merit Scholarship competition only once. "We're not saying we get every great student who's out there," says a spokesperson for the NMSC.

6. "Our side business is selling your data."
AFTER MATEI ALEXIANU took the PSAT in his sophomore year, test scores weren't the only thing that showed up in his mailbox. Soon the 17-year-old high school senior from Spokane, Wash., was getting postcards, letters and brochures from colleges-"a whole bunch of junk," he says. The reason for the blitz? He had opted in for the College Board's Student Search Service, which allows colleges to contact you.

Selling your info is just one added way testing services bring in money, says Harry Henry, vice president of Outsell Inc., an education research company. Schools pay the College Board 32 cents a name and ACT 31 cents for address, gender, date of birth, e-mail and other such data. "They're selling the information you paid to give them," says Schaeffer. A spokesperson for the College Board says students don't pay to participate in this elective, opt-in service. Nonprofit ACT says the program "is used to improve our products and services and keep their cost to students as low as possible." Alexianu says when he retook the PSAT/NMSQT junior year, he chose not to opt in. "I already know the schools I'll be applying to," he says.

7. "There's no point in taking both tests."
WHEN IT CAME TO deciding which test to take for college admissions, the decision used to be easy-it depended on where you lived. The SAT has always been more popular on the East and West Coasts, while the ACT has been the admissions test of choice for the Midwest. But now, with the vast majority of colleges accepting both, students can choose. And since admissions officers generally don't give extra weight to one or the other, there's no good reason to take both, says Molly Baab, director of StudentEdge, an online test-prep service.

So how to decide which one to take? Baab suggests taking both tests at home, using versions found online (for the SAT, free at; for the ACT, free with a $20 annual test-prep program fee at, then see how you did on each. Some other factors: For students who get stressed by short, timed intervals, the ACT might be better since it's divided into five sections, half the SAT's 10. The ACT also has a science section-if that isn't your thing, go with the SAT.

8. "We've been known to make mistakes."
THERE IS ENOUGH pressure on high school students who take the SAT without their having to worry that their test isn't being scored properly. But unfortunately, just as students slip up sometimes and fill in the wrong answer, Pearson Education, the third-party company that scores the SAT, can make mistakes too-as more than 4,000 students who took the test in October 2005 can attest.

Heavy rain in transit caused wet answer sheets to expand; as a result, some scores were off by as much as 300 points. Exacerbating the problem, affected students weren't informed of scoring errors until five months later, enough time to derail admissions-which is what some students alleged in a class- action lawsuit filed in federal court in Minnesota in 2006 against Pearson and the College Board. The suit was partially settled out of court; students had the option of receiving $275 in damages or submitting a claim for more money, which some have done, according to Joe Snodgrass, an attorney at Larson King, the firm representing the students.

(A spokesperson says the College Board is taking steps in quality control to ensure it doesn't happen again; Pearson had no comment.)

The College Board offers a $50 Score Verification service for those surprised by their score. The fee covers the cost of regrading by hand, says a College Board spokesperson. But even The College Board is skeptical about the service; the PSAT's Milewski, who hasn't heard of a score being changed through Score Verification, says he wouldn't recommend it. If a scoring error is found, the fee is refunded.

9. "We cost more than you think."
BOTH THE COLLEGE Board and ACT recommend taking their tests twice for optimum results-that's around $90 for two go-arounds, not counting test preparation, which can run anywhere from $100 to over $1,000 for tutoring and other approaches. But for many, these costs get compounded by additional fees.

For example, if you miss one of the seven registration dates for the SAT, it will run you about $20 more to register. If an emergency comes up on test day and you need to reschedule or change the location, that's another $20. Want to apply to more than four colleges? The College Board and ACT both charge about $9 for each additional college a score report is sent to after the fourth one. The one safe haven from all this nickel-and-diming: Checking your scores online is free.

10. "We're becoming obsolete."
THE BIG NEWS for the nearly 3 million high school students who take the SAT and the ACT every year is that these tests may start carrying less weight than they used to. The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently recommended that colleges and universities deemphasize the importance of standardized tests unless there was proof these scores predicted college grades and graduation rates, according to Harvard's Fitzsimmons. So far, there are more than 800 test-optional schools, which don't penalize applicants for not including an SAT or ACT score. Instead, high school GPA, class rank and Advanced Placement courses are given more weight in the admissions process.

Of course, the reasons for going test-optional aren't all altruistic on the part of the schools, says Jack Maguire, chairman of educational consulting company Maguire Associates. Since the test-optional schools are more likely to have students submit scores only if they're high, the optional route can raise a school's average test score, Maguire says, boosting its reputation. Still, going test-optional should lead to a more diverse class population, Maguire says, "one that's more representative of society."

by Jason Kephart

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