The SAT Debate
Monday’s New York Times reported the results of a commission, “convened by some of the country’s most influential college admissions officials,” that examined problems with the SAT. Their official recommendation: colleges should move away from the SAT as an admissions criteria. They have two main justifications: the SAT is not the best predictor of college success and it measures “merit” in a manner that calcifies existing class differences.
(Interestingly, even though the reporter opens with a breathless description of a “billion-dollar test-prep industry that encourages students to try to game the tests,” the commission found that coaching only increases scores by a “modest” 20 to 30 points.)
This article got me thinking. By arguing about the nuances of the SAT — or, for that matter, other small details like whether applications should include class rank or limit the number of AP courses — are we missing the forest for the trees? That is, if we were to start from scratch and design a college application that best fits our current vision of a “good” college student, what would it look like?
In this essay, I tackle this question by offering up my own suggestion for a 21st century approach to college admissions. I call it the Talent-Centric Application.” It’s designed to isolate exactly the type of young people that admissions officers profess to seek; and it does so while eliminating the weak success predictors and stress-inducers that mar the current admissions process.
The Talent Centric College Application
My proposed college application would require exactly the following:
- A performance report for five courses selected by the student. Each report is written by the course’s teacher. It includes the student’s grade and how this compares to the other students in the class. It also includes a more subjective description of the student’s performance, focusing on his in class contributions, intelligence, and ability/interest to learn.
- An essay describing the student’s plan for college. It should cover why the student is attending college, what he or she hopes to accomplish, and a description — with justification — of the first year courses he or she plans to take. It should also describe the type of college lifestyle the student plans on living, and the strategies that will make this possible.
- An essay describing the most important activity the student was involved with during high school. It should describe both the activity and its meaning to the student. Mentions of multiple activities will be frowned upon.
- An in-person interview. At the beginning of the interview, the student will be given an article to read. He or she will then discuss it with the interviewer for 30 minutes. The interviewer will rank the quality, curiosity, and inventiveness of the applicant’s thinking on a 100-point scale. This score will count for a lot in the final admission decision.
Notice, this application omits most of what we expect:
- It does not ask for a student’s transcript, G.P.A., or class rank. The only grades are those included on the five grade reports.
- It does not ask for any test scores. The students can later use A.P. credits, perhaps, to test out of some courses at the college, but the admissions officers don’t know about the scores.
- It does not ask for a long list of activities or awards. The student only discusses the one activity that he or she writes an essay about.
- It does not ask for essays about important experiences or abstract ideas. It demands, instead, an essay that proves that the student has thought through his or her reasons for attending college.
- It places a large emphasis on the interview. A student that has spent a lifetime of reading, and thinking, and probing ideas will do very well. A grind who suddenly decides she wants to go to Harvard cannot fake it.
My contention is that the elements of this application select for the type of students selective colleges claim to covet. Specifically, a student who looks good on this application is one who:
- Can really stand out as smart and interesting and inquisitive in the classroom.
- Has done one thing outside of school that is really interesting — showing an ability to innovate and make important things happen.
- Has a real plan in place for getting the most out of college.
- Can take in, think about, and debate complicated ideas on the fly.
At the same time it removes any importance from taking large numbers of hard classes, getting perfect grades, obsessing over standardized tests, or building up laundry lists of activities: the major sources of student stress.
But Don’t Take My Word for It…
The Talent-Centric Application is my take on the complicated admissions issue. I’m interested, however, in what you think. If you got to redesign the standard college application from scratch, what would it look like?
(Photo by j.gresham)