Wake Forest University

September 2009

Rethinking Admissions

Continuing the Conversation

Archive for September, 2009

College Admissions is Not a Game

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

By Kevin Pittard

Kevin Pittard is associate director of admissions at Wake Forest University. Here he shares his insights from the 65th annual national conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling taking place in Baltimore this week.

At the annual NACAC conference, the “Town Hall” session is meant to be a forum for members to directly address the organization’s leadership about their cares and concerns. Sitting in this year’s session, I am struck by the cross section of schools and constituencies represented here. The key questions today seemed to focus on the challenges that everyone associated with college admissions has had to deal with this past year due to the troubled economy.

Not to be too “inside baseball” for some of our readers but worries about “melt” and “double depositing” generated the most comments. Representatives from colleges expressed their frustration with the trend of students sending in deposits to more than one of the schools that had admitted them. High school counselors responded with their dilemma of directing students to follow policy and send in only one deposit and having their advice ignored. To make the situation worse, a college wondered aloud how many other schools were being hit by more and more students abrogating their binding Early Decision agreements – presumably but not necessarily because of economic woes. All of these issues lead to “melt” or the cancellation of enrollment over the summer months by students that colleges had thought were signed, sealed and delivered.

Colleges and secondary schools do not like these problems but cannot seem to find a way to solve or prevent them. Suggestions were offered today, but the predominant sense of those in this town hall was that of resignation. “It’s inevitable and we all should just deal with it.” Then one college representative stood up and pointed to the elephant in the room by saying the problems were “societal” because more and more students and families—for whatever reason—see the college admissions process as a “game”. And in order to “win” that game, you need to “keep all your options open” even if that means breaking the rules of the game itself.

What better illustration of a broken system than the idea that parents and students, who are otherwise models of virtue, are willing to forsake their moral code because, in this instance, the end of getting into the “right” school justifies the means of duplicity and broken promise?. The pressure of the process has generated a mentality that diminishes us all.

Can this model be fixed? Various tweaks and cures were proposed, but surely bold steps are necessary. Students need to apply to fewer schools. Colleges should put their integrity above numbers and cancel applications from those who break the rules—no matter how strong that student’s credentials. Or maybe everyone should step back, take a breath, and rethink what choosing a school is all about. It is not about rank or prestige; it’s about the best school for that student.
Colleges have to be clear about their expectations from applicants and their policies regarding the admissions process and stick by those policies when required by circumstances that could be classified as “out of bounds”.

College admissions is not a “game”. The stakes are too high for such a rationalization.

Thoughts from Baltimore…

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Martha Allman, director of admissions for Wake Forest University, is attending the National Association of College Admissions Counseling national conference in Baltimore. Here she shares her thoughts about the 65th annual event.

By Martha Allman

In my twenty seven years of college admissions, I have attended more NACAC conferences than I would like to count and every year I am more and more struck by the for lack of a better word, the growing “commercialization” of college admissions. Sometimes I wonder if we have completely lost sight of our real educational mission.

When I walked into the exhibit hall at this year’s NACAC Conference, I must admit I felt a definite sensory overload. Nearly 300 vendors, some residing in lavishly appointed booths, were eager to tell be about the next best thing in college admissions. Consultants, direct mail gurus, graphics specialists, software geniuses and masters of social networking were all poised to show me the next best thing in college admissions. What I had to have to stay “competitive.”

So I turned to my friend who does admissions at one of the nation’s most selective colleges and said to him, “What if we called a moratorium? What if all colleges took the millions and millions of dollars we spend on consultants and marketing publications, web design, and admissions tracking software, etc, etc, and put it into financial aid, scholarships, faculty salaries, books, research or maybe even reaching out to struggling public school systems? What a revolution that would be in American education! Just imagine!

He laughed.”Well for starters, after the GM bailout, AIG and all the other economic woes we’ve weathered, the American economy couldn’t stand the hit. Just look around you and think about the unemployment that would create.”

“Secondly, Martha, college admissions is an arms race. We have to do everything our peers do and then some more and constantly look for something new and shiny to catch students’ eyes. No one has the courage to just stop. Unilateral disarmament would be suicide.”

“Finally, what you describe is a Utopian Society and you are a student of history and so you know those never work.”

Okay. Idealism brought down to earth. The celestial music I was hearing fell silent.

But I refuse to be jaded. When I look around this conference, do you know what I see? Sessions on working with Community Based Organizations to bring access to the underserved, workshops on how to do college counseling with gay and lesbian students, sessions on the educational issues of undocumented students. I see Bob Schaeffer from Fair Test and Lloyd Thacker from the Education Conservancy calling for dramatic changes in the admissions landscape. And people are listening.

And in little corners around the hotels and convention center, I see college counselors and admissions officers huddled in corners talking about individual students, helping them with college selection, worrying about the fit. And that is the real point of all we do.

We aren’t in Utopia but there is lots of hope in Baltimore!

Applicants: “Be Careful What You Post on Facebook”

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Before addressing school children in a speech this month, President Obama had some candid advice for students using social media. “First of all, I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life,” Obama said. “And when you’re young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff.” This may be just what students needed to hear given that a recent survey of colleges with the most selective admissions found that 10 percent of admissions officers have checked applicants’ social networking sites as part of their evaluation. What’s more 38 percent said they were “negatively affected” by what they found.

The findings are part an annual survey of college admissions officers by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, and are based on responses from 401 admissions officers from 500 of the nation’s top schools While the percentage of admissions officers checking social networking sites is still relatively low, students are increasingly extending friend requests to admissions officers, the survey found. More than 70 percent of admissions officers surveyed said they or a colleague had received a MySpace or Facebook “friend request” from an applicant. Read more about the impact social networking is having on admissions policies.

College Rankings: How Important Are They?

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Every August, there’s a lot of buzz associated with U.S. News & World Report’s new rankings of colleges and universities. According to one study, more than half of incoming college freshman surveyed say that the rankings were important when making their decision about which school to attend. But what kind of an impact do the rankings have on college acceptance rates and the quality of the students who attend the high-ranking schools? A new study entitled, “Getting on the Front Page: Organizational Reputation, Status Signals, and the Impact of U.S. News and World Report on Student Decisions,” tries to answer those questions.  The research shows that both liberal arts schools and national universities see a change in their applicant pool when their rankings improve. For example, institutions that move into the top 50 can expect to see a nearly 4 percent increase in applications as well as a 2.3 percent spike in the proportion of incoming students who finished in the top 10 percent of their class. Meanwhile, these same schools see their acceptance rates go down by an average of 3.6 percent, making them even more selective. Click here to read more about the findings of the study by Nicholas A. Bowman of the University of Notre Dame and Michael N. Bastedo of the University of Michigan published in the August 2009 issue of Research in Higher Education.

Smart Money Magazine Tackles the Issue of Standardized Testing

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

If you’re a college-bound high school student, do you ever wonder whether you should take the SAT, the ACT or both? If you’re a parent, are you curious about why your mailbox is suddenly stuffed with unsolicited information on colleges and universities?  Whether you’re a student, a parent or one of the many others who has a stake in the college admissions process, you ‘ll find answers to commonly asked questions in Smart Money Magazine’s article “10 Things College Admissions Tests Don’t Do.” While the article offers just one view of standardized testing, it does provide some valuable insights. For example, the article points out that more than 800 colleges and universities no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. It also underscores just how important it can be to take the Preliminary SAT, better known as the PSAT. Click here to read more.

U.S. News & World Report: Are the SATs a Must for College Admissions?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Are the SATs necessary for college admissions? Or is high school performance just as good an indicator of a student’s likely success? That’s the topic U.S. News & World Report tackles in its September issue. We first told you about it last month when the issue hit newsstands. Now you can read about it online. Click here to see columns by Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler and Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. As you might imagine, each has a very different view on this issue.

Wake Forest's Admissions Director Shares Her Top Ten List

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

By Martha Allman

With many high school students and their parents in the thick of the college application process, I am now finding myself frequently cornered in the produce aisle at the grocery store, the dentist’s office and the hair salon. My voice and e-mailboxes alike are filled with urgent questions from prospective students and parents. So, in the spirit of the “top ten list” I have compiled my own “top ten most frequently asked admissions questions.” Here they are (in no particular order).

1) How important are extracurricular activities?

As a general rule, the academic record is much more important than extracurricular activities. However, if a student has substantial talent and accomplishments in the fine arts, athletics or other areas which are sought after by a particular college, that can become a significant factor in the admissions decision. In general, colleges seek depth of involvement, not breadth so focus your time and attention on a few activities in which you excel and enjoy and skip the resume.

2) How do you differentiate among high schools?

Through school visits, written profiles and past experience with students from particular high schools, admissions officers gather data to assist them in assessing different schools. We evaluate students in the context of where their education is taking place, the rigor of the curriculum, the competition in the classroom and the opportunities afforded them. It is however in the end, an individual evaluation. There are great students at not so good schools and there are marginal students at superb schools. The students that we seek are those that have “bloomed where they are planted” taking the most challenging curricula afforded them, going beyond expectations and exhibiting real motivation and intellectual curiosity.

3) Do IB and AP courses matter?

Selective colleges expect students to successfully pursue the most challenging curricula offered to them. In some high schools, that is the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, for others it is Advanced Placement, while other schools offer a different curriculum for their most advanced students. Pursuing the most rigorous curriculum signals academic motivation and excelling in that curriculum suggests that the student is well prepared for academically strenuous college classes.

4) What do you look for in admissions essays?

I look for beautiful, clear writing that comes to life on the page and offers insight into the character and personality of the student. The essay and short answer writing prompts give the student the opportunity to put meat on the bone of transcripts and test scores and introduce themselves to the admissions committee. Beware being someone whom you are not in the essay and beware outside influence. Editing by adults or professionals often removes the very elements that admissions officers seek.

5) Who should write my letter(s) of recommendation?

An academic teacher from the junior or senior year of high school who knows the applicant well and can speak to his strengths, weaknesses and the qualities that differentiate him from the other students in the classroom should write the recommendation. If the applicant has special talents which she wishes to be considered in the admissions process, a letter from, for example, a music teacher or debate coach is also helpful. People who do not know the applicant are not good references, regardless of how fond they are of the applicant’s parents.

6) Are college visits really necessary?

They are very helpful in differentiating one college from another and assessing the appropriate “match.” Never underestimate “gut feeling” and campus personality. Campus visits however can be expensive and time consuming. Websites and virtual tours are helpful but when it comes down to the end , when the choices have been narrowed and the enrollment decision looms large, you might just want to meet some professors and eat in the cafeteria.

7) To how many schools should I apply?

Working with your parents, your school counselor, college guides and websites, narrow your choices! Applying to multitudes of colleges is costly, time consuming and it compounds the problems of yields and waiting lists which adds to admissions hysteria. Don’t apply to a college unless you are genuinely interested in attending and don’t apply to colleges that are unrealistic for you.

8) Should I send supplementary materials with my application?

Scrapbooks demonstrating your love for college X? No. DVDs of your student body president campaign speech? No. Tapes of your garage band? Probably not. Slides of art work for which you have received awards? Yes. Newspaper clipping showing you as Boys Nation President. Yes. If you have significant accomplishments which have been recognized outside your own family and circle of friends and you believe those accomplishments should be considered in your admissions decision, submit supplementary material…but be prudent. Admissions officers have a lot to read!

9) How important are standardized tests?

Many colleges including Wake Forest are now test optional which means each applicant may decide whether or not she would like her standardized tests considered in the admissions decision. Regardless of whether or not scores are submitted, the high school record remains the most important factor in the admissions process. Even the highest standardized test scores fail to compensate for mediocre academic achievement.

10) How do colleges really choose their students?

Colleges choose students based on their own institutional needs. Will this student bring something to our campus community which we value? Something that we need more of?

Will this student contribute to an academic or extracurricular program which is important to the college? Will the student add energy and perhaps a different perspective to our community?

First and foremost, colleges must select students who are academically qualified but from that point, it is about class building and adding a variety of individuals that will further the college’s mission and enrich its campus.

I hope these questions and answers were helpful to you. If I missed your question in the top 10, don’t hesitate to catch me in between the cantaloupes and the green onions.

Continuing the Conversation in Baltimore Later This Month

Friday, September 4th, 2009

If you missed out on the Rethinking Admissions Conference here at Wake Forest last spring, you’ll get another chance to hear from experts on some of the very same topics at this month’s meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The last day of the national conference in Baltimore, September 26, includes three sessions on the use of standardized testing in admissions. First up is Wake Forest’s Martha Allman, who will join three other experts to discuss the ins and outs of implementing a test-optional admission policy. The NACAC answered the “why” of going test optional, now discussion turns to the “how.” The second panel will feature Wake Forest’s Joseph Soares, an associate professor of sociology who helped organize the Rethinking Admissions Conference. He will join two other scholars to discuss research on the old and new SAT and college admissions, as well as share Wake Forest’s experience with tests and admissions. The third panel will feature two speakers who will focus on alternative approaches to admissions and their impact on social diversity, academic quality, practical ability and creativity. You’ll find a full list of speakers below.  There’s still time to register to attend the conference scheduled for September 24-26, or just log in to the NACAC conference blog for the latest news.

Panel  #1: Implementing Test-Optional Admission

Robert Schaeffer,  National Center for Fair & Open Testing, FL

Martha Allman,  Wake Forest University, NC

Andrew Flagel,  George Mason University, VA

Kristin Tichenor,  Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA

Panel #2: Institutional Research on the Utility of Standardized Admission Tests

Joseph Soares, Wake Forest University, NC

Matt Chingos, Mellon Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, Crossing the Finish Line

Chris Cornwall, University of Georgia

Panel #3: Alternative Approaches and Ramifications for Colleges

Thomas Espanshade, Princeton University, NJ

Robert Sternberg, Tufts University, MA

CNN: Should the SAT be Scrapped?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Angst. That’s the word CNN is using to describe students’ reactions to taking the SAT. The news segment, which aired this week, shows teenagers spending their entire summers in SAT prep classes and paying anywhere from $699 to $8000 to learn how to “beat the test.” But just how important is the SAT in predicting a student’s likelihood of success once they get to college? Watch the clip to see what experts have to say on both sides of the issue.