ROSEN: An admissions experiment

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Last month, Yale admitted just over 6 percent of applicants to the class of 2018. These applicants were evaluated based on their Common Application, standardized test scores, high school transcripts and optional interviews, an application system used by most four-year colleges.

This year, however, Bard College decided to present an alternative admissions process. Applicants were given the option to submit four academic essays in lieu of a traditional application. If, when graded by Bard professors, the essays scored an average of B+ or higher, the applicant was automatically admitted.

Following the lead of colleges like Bard that are innovating their process, Yale should consider trying to find alternative admissions methods as well.

Bard chose to present the Entrance Examination option in an attempt to level the playing field for applicants “in a process that more closely mirrors actual college work.” Applicants were presented with 21 essay prompts across three categories: social science, history and philosophy; arts and literature; and science and mathematics. Students were asked to choose four prompts that covered all three categories with a suggested essay length of 2,500 words.

The essay prompts were similar to ones you might find in a typical college course. One philosophy question asked students to analyze Immanuel Kant’s “On a Supposed Right to Lie.” A mathematics prompt asked: “Why is factoring numbers into primes a difficult problem?”

Although 400 students logged into the website, only 41 complete applications were submitted. One student was found to have plagiarized and 17 students were admitted, a slightly lower admissions rate.

The traditional application system is not the best for everyone. Standardized tests pose problems for second language learners and students with learning disabilities, as well as those who simply do not perform well on multiple-choice tests under pressure. Studies have shown that the SAT and ACT are not particularly good indicators of college performance, especially when compared with high school transcripts.

Grades are not a perfect metric either. Some brilliant students perform poorly in high school because they find the material simple and boring. There is also something to be said for not using a 14-year-old’s grades to determine where he attends college at age 18.

The Common Application and interview allow for some amount of subjectivity, but the fact remains that very few students with less than perfect test scores and grades will be admitted to top colleges based on an excellent essay or interview. Exceptions exist, of course, but they are few and far between.

This is not to say that the new Bard system is without flaws. It could easily open the door to hiring professionals to write application essays. (This problem arises with the Common Application essay as well.) Bard asks applicants to sign an honor pledge, but that can only go so far. The essay system would also be difficult to implement on a larger scale. Grading 41 sets of essays is much easier than grading hundreds or thousands. In addition, the Bard application advantages those with exposure to the philosophers and literature discussed on the exam, a set of students already advantaged by the traditional system. Finally, I’m not sure that the only goal of a college admissions office should be to find the students who will perform the best during their first semester. Other important factors should be taken into account when putting together a freshman class, including different backgrounds and varied interests and skills.

Still, I like the idea of college applications attempting to actually mirror college coursework. It is possible that many of those admitted under the Bard Entrance Examination would not have been admitted under the traditional system, and clearly they are prepared to take on college-level work.

Perhaps a solution is to present an essay examination as an option in addition to the traditional application. Alternatively, the essays could be evaluated alongside either a transcript or standardized test. The only way to figure out what works best will be through experimentation.

It’s good to see a well-respected institution acknowledging that the current college application system is flawed. It may not have found the perfect solution, but proposing an alternative is a good start. Yale should consider taking on a similar endeavor in an attempt to make the college application process as fair and successful as possible.

Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. Her columns run on Mondays. Contact her at diana.rosen@yale.edu .

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