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Judging College Applicants - 2001-07-31


At the end of August, millions of American graduates head for their first year in college, and high school seniors think more seriously about completing their college applications, collecting their grade sheets, listing their talents and extra-curricular activities, writing essays about themselves, and taking the Standardized Aptitude Test, also known as the SAT.

As the number of college applicants grows, so does pressure to rely on standardized tests as a quick way to choose from the sea of applications. A university in Denver, Colorado is bucking this trend, thanks to a novel experiment devised by the enrollment department.

As Vice Chancellor for enrollment at Denver University in Colorado, John Dolan wanted a better idea about how it feels to be a prospective student. So he invited his staff to re-apply, as if they were high school students, and Mr. Dolan reapplied as well. Each "applicant" even took the SAT. "My whole approach," he said, "was more trying to get a feel for what is it like to take a four hour test. What do they ask you? How tough are the questions? What does it mean if you only have a 500 verbal? So I felt pretty good about it, really."

So did Jackie Moore, a D.U. Admissions Counselor who volunteered to re-take the SAT. "[My score] actually went up from high school," she said. "I actually did pretty well. I got a whole 1160. So that was pretty good. I was excited."

Altogether, 16 Denver University staff took part in Mr. Dolan's experiment. They collected their high school grades and new sat scores. They listed extracurricular activities ranging from softball to chess club. They submitted each application anonymously. But when actual names were revealed, some results were a shock. For instance, did Mr. Dolan get in? "No," he said, "I didn't. But I'm on a wait list, and I'm putting a lot of pressure on."

"I think we were all very amused about that and it would be a good exercise and a humbling exercise for the rest of us as well," says Anne Wright, Vice President for Enrollment at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She says she admires Mr. Dolan's experiment, but still considers standardized test scores essential. Many American universities sympathize with a prospective student's desire to be treated like a human being rather than a number.

Still, standardized tests, such as the SAT, remain key evaluation tools, according to Richard Shaw, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aide at Yale University. "In terms of all students in America and really worldwide, it's the one thing that all our students take that's common, and it gives us a common denominator really across all our applicants," says Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Shaw believes that personal measurements matter, too. He says Yale is bucking a nationwide trend against taking the time interview most student candidates. "They're voluntary," he says, "but about 80 percent of our students interview. So they interview locally and also on campus. We have 5,000 alumni interviewers that work for us at Yale."

Like Yale, Harvard University explores many clues about a student's potential. Bill Fitzsimmons said, "We know there are people who might freeze a little bit on tests." Bill Fitzsimmons is Dean of Admissions and Financial Aide at the Ivy League school. "Interviews, recommendations from teachers and counselors, essays, and people who want to send in some of their short stories or their poems or music tapes, we're happy to evaluate them," he says. "So with all the information, I think testing's really only a small part of it."

That's also the case at the University of Pennsylvania, where Lee Stetson is Dean of Admissions. "We actually turned away 65 percent [of applicants who scored] over 1400 on the SAT, but we also admitted some 1250, 1300 and 1210 and all because they had something else in their record that we thought was attractive."

This is a positive trend, according to Neil Sanders, Dean of Enrollment Policy at the University of Rochester in New York. He currently serves on the executive board for the SAT and chairs the executive committee of TOFL Test of English as a Foreign Language. He says tests such as TOFL and the SAT will always have a place, but believes it should not be too big a place. "What colleges need to do," he says, "is rely less upon these empirical measures, use those as support, but sit down, study, and read about that candidate. Read those essays, those letters of rec. Get a feeling for the student, and then punctuate that with grades, courses and SAT scores."

Rochester's "whole person" approach convinced Darren Mueller to attend college there. The school's admission counselor wanted to know more about him than his SAT score, which is above average, at 1290. The Fairview High School senior from Boulder, Colorado, concluded this more personal attitude toward his application would show up in a more personal style of teaching. He says he liked that, since he doesn't think an SAT score tells a student's entire story.

"I've run into a lot of students," he says, "that aren't necessarily the cream of the crop, but they test really well, and so they end up getting scores that are, you know, not really reflective of [what they can do]. Take another person who doesn't as test well who I would consider to be much more intellectual and just more like that, and they don't test as well and then they can't get into as good a school because of their SAT scores."

Back at Denver University, Mr. Dolan is well aware that statistics are not the only measure in life. He says, "My secretary had a perfect score on the verbal, so maybe she should be the vice chancellor and I should be answering the phone."

As part of a more humane approach, Mr. Dolan is adding a personal interview to the list of criteria Denver University will use to evaluate prospective candidates.

It will be more work, but Mr. Dolan hopes it will give his admissions department a better sense of each student's character, as well as giving students a chance to mention details about themselves that otherwise might be overlooked in the clutter of scores and statistics.

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