Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The College Interview—A Reliable Step in the Admission Process

by Nicholas Amato, Jr.

Our guest columnist is Nicholas Amato, a veteran of the college world, who has a different view on how to take Artificial Intelligence out of the admissions equation.

As we see more and more colleges opt to be test optional, the essay is playing a major role in the admissions process. That leads many parents seeking the help of professionals that will work alongside their child in constructing a well written and thoughtful essay. Along those same lines,

The New York Times reported colleges are now wrestling with a new app that will construct a writing assignment from a general outline on any topic. I believe this app will be another resource that may enter the picture.

Colleges may want to start realizing that they may have to rely on another criterion that will clearly illustrate if the applicant is worthy of admission. Let’s not reinvent the wheel; how about The College Interview.

For years, many colleges have used the interview as part of their selection process. Since the beginning of time, employers count on personal meetings to choose the right person for the job. The interview is equal for all, meaning that those who cannot afford to seek help in writing a college essay, can now rely on their personal skills to illustrate their enthusiasm for a college, as well as put forth their particular qualities.

Of course, how in the world can a college interview every applicant? As a former college rep, with the help of college alumni, we spent months on the road meeting with groups of students. The advertising and marketing during the recruiting season was expensive, long, but rewarding. To this day, my personal relationships with particular students stand out in my mind. I can recall their personal qualities and easily match those with their transcripts, activity resumes, as well as their family relationships. I would say, they are the most important student qualities a college is looking for. 

Instead of college reps spending countless hours reading essays, have them spend that time with students. Colleges can be more personal in the process by using a pandemic favorite, Zoom. This allowed us all to maintain our work, and relationships by communicating efficiently in a safe and personal environment.

What can colleges learn from a personal interview?

  • The college can distinguish applicants that may look the same from letters of recommendations, transcripts and other application materials.
  • The student and college have a chance to build a personal relationship
  • The college can evaluate the student in terms of their genuine interest for their college.
  • The college and the student can exchange information about their intended major which will result in a better transition to the college and future occupation(s).
  • The college can have a better understanding of the student’s strengths and weaknesses…academically and socially.
  • The college is able to evaluate the communication skills of the student.
  • The college can provide an equal playing field for all students regardless of socio-economic status.

The admission process has been a long-overplayed discussion. We keep looking for the answer to this question…“What is the best method of getting a true evaluation of a student’s ability?” Simply talk to them.

Nick is a retired teacher, school counselor, Director of Guidance and central office administrator. He is the president of NA Consultants Inc. which specializes in school counseling programs and general curriculum, as well as college counseling. He has also served many districts as an interim school administrator. He is a former President of the Suffolk County Guidance Directors Association, member of NYSSCA and is a consultant to Frontline Education for GuidanceDirect in New York State.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Return of the SAT Essay?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It didn’t take long for the worlds of artificial intelligence and college admissions to meet—or, depending on your perspective, collide. Computers have long played an important role in admissions, but the skillset AI brings to the table leaves all kinds of areas where technology can do what humans are currently doing, typically much more quickly.

AI has recently reared its head in our world in an area many hadn’t expected. A recent article in Forbes fed a couple of college essays to a computer, then handed the results to a few admissions experts to evaluate. A couple of the essays didn’t exactly follow the logistics of the assignment, leaving at least one essay several hundred words short of the limit. Those reviewed by the experts were viewed as flat and soulless, a description that makes sense, since part of a good college admissions essay includes narrative based on life experiences a computer doesn’t have.

Nonetheless, the issue has raised the attention of more than a few admissions officers, leading them to ask—once the kinks are worked out, will the college admissions essay have outlived its purpose?

Discussions about this issue have taken some interesting turns, with more than a few pundits suggesting a return of the SAT Writing Exam. College Board scuttled the exam in 2021, largely due to the very few colleges requiring it at the time. In the event AI programs are capable of creating student-quality essays, there are some sound logistical reasons to consider bringing at least the format of the writing exam back into the fold:

Authenticity The old writing exam may have had its challenges, but at least the colleges knew who wrote the answer. Having students write an admissions essay in the presence of an SAT test supervisor—or on a secure website where they can’t leave the writing portion of the test—takes care of many of those concerns.

Uniformity A common complaint with the current college essays is that some students have the luxury of hiring essay coaches, tutors, and others to strengthen the quality of the essay. A return to the writing exam format would still allow students to engage in practice essays prior to the test date, but the finished item would be created by all students in the same period of time.

That said, very few tears were shed when the writing exam was terminated. If the format is brought back to life, College Board would need to consider:

Subject Many colleges use the college essay as a personal statement, asking students to draw on their thoughts, observations, and life history in crafting a thoughtful essay. Prompts of the old writing exam tended to stay with facts and provable instances. 

Length of exam period It isn’t uncommon for students to spend hours on several drafts of college essays, while the old writing exam asked students to come up with one draft in less than an hour. Graders of the exam were trained to keep these limitations in mind, but is it really reasonable to expect a student to produce a high-quality personal essay in less time than it takes to make a pizza?

Grading Some questioned how the old exams were scored, with some claiming the rubric used had little to do with the elements of a quality college essay.

As the Forbes article points out, we’re unlikely to see a world where admissions decisions are made entirely by computers. Still, AI is just a few tweaks away from requiring reconsideration of the college admissions essay. This is going to be interesting.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Common Bond That Ties

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A representative from College Board was talking about some boilerplate changes to the SAT—changes in registration procedures, notifications of new products—but she held almost all her enthusiasm for what she clearly saw as a big deal.

“As you know, we’ll be recentering the SAT this year” she gushed, even though she was battling a head cold. “We’re very excited about all the prospects this change will have for students, counselors, and colleges”, and she discussed those in great detail.

We took a break, and I felt compelled to share the excitement she had generated in me. “This is really quite something,” I started once I got to the front of the room, “College Board is really taking a giant step in creating an SAT that will be free of the cultural, gender and racial biases of past tests.”

It had been a while since someone looked at me like I was stupid, but here we were. She said something like “We’re recentering the test, not redesigning it. If we did that, there would be no way colleges could compare scores on the new test with scores from the old test. We’re happy to make sure the distribution of scores is accurate, but we aren’t going to change the test.”

If I was a classroom teacher, and my principal came in to tell me my teaching practices showed racial, cultural, and gender bias, the last thing I would do is say, in essence “I know, and I’m going to keep doing that.” But even in the face of overwhelming evidence, College Board was not only admitting these practices existed; they seemed almost proud that they were going to continue. I left the update, hoping a future meeting would bring the news of the changes I thought College Board needed to complete.

That was in 1984, and I’m still waiting. This isn’t to say College Board has no regard for students of color, first gen students, and females. They offer many services and programs designed to bring students from these groups into the fold, with many of these products amounting to some kind of inside-baseball look at the SAT. That’s nice, I guess, but it reminds me of winter driving in Michigan. You’ll avoid catastrophe if you know where the potholes are, but wouldn’t it be better just to fix the street?

Test optional advocates cite this as one of the biggest reasons to give up on standardized tests, and have some early evidence to suggest some test optional schools have seen an increase in student diversity since making the change. This is welcome news, to be sure, but as our colleague Jon Boeckenstedt has pointed out on more than one occasion, nearly every aspect of holistic admission has a built-in bias that favors the well-to-do. It’s more than fair to think an essay-free, recommendation-free admissions process might also advance the goal of increased diversity, but even a grades-only admission policy would have some significant economic biases.

Beyond that, Jon has occasionally raised a question our profession is hesitant to answer. If we found an admissions process that was more streamlined and open to all, how eagerly would we embrace it, knowing that it would spell the end of a need for writing coaches, test prep coaches, and many aspects of the work of college counselors? At a time when many in our profession are eager to hurl stones at College Board, it gives one pause to consider how much our self-interest may, like College Board, lead us to be comfortable with half solutions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Brussels Sprouts of College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

New Year’s Day is kind of quiet around my house. Not quiet, as in “everyone breathe quietly, Daddy’s head hurts when he even blinks”. It’s more like the quiet that comes once the rush of something big is over. Like the quiet of eating pumpkin pie for breakfast by yourself the day after Thanksgiving, or finishing off the last bacon-wrapped date after the admitted student event. It’s a time to revel, a time to dream without feeling compelled to look ahead— a time to just be.

That was how this New Year’s started, with a roaring fire that started at noon and stayed til ten; taking the second-to-last pizzelle a lifelong friend makes every year; the understated elegance of making a familiar but rarely used menu.

Except for the Brussels sprouts. I have detested this vegetable since the womb, and my view is only hardened by two facts:

  1. This is a vegetable that has multiple names, and people argue over which one is right
  1. Every treatment of them results in the same effect— tasteless, unchewable matter.

My wife slipped them on the menu to placate our youngest, whose palate was not inclined toward any of the other dishes. Knowing ahead of time my portion of these green golf balls would go untouched only seemed to steel her resolve to serve them.

In the spirit of the day, I tried one. Just the right amount of garlic, melty parmesan, and a hint of an olive oil I was certain I didn’t want to know the price of. I ate them all.

I’m tempted to address another item on our New Year’s menu (who on earth named them “funeral potatoes?”), but you’ve come looking for college admissions ideas, so here goes.

Planned change is the Brussels sprouts of college admissions. Things do change in college admissions, but these changes tend to be nuanced tweaks in response to current application trends, or sudden, not-so-subtle declarations from an incoming college president. The recent switch to test-optional admissions by hundreds of colleges over the last few years was more of a shotgun wedding than the result of a prolonged engagement, so that doesn’t count as planned.

It's both necessary and important to be flexible at a moment’s notice, but some changes require more time, research, and discussion in order to be implemented and effective. Our distaste for long-term change has either slowed or wiped out efforts to make important changes in the admissions and enrollment process, like:

  1. Changes to the FAFSA, which will finally be welcomed by all some three decades after calls to simplify this labyrinth;
  1. Creation of a common Student Aid Report students could compare offers across colleges without the need of a spreadsheet;
  1. Expanding college access to include more students who don’t consider college as a viable option.

It’s easy to see why systemic change is the high school senior no one wants to ask to prom—planned change requires discussing the nature of our work with those who don’t see it the way we do, gathering data, and the risk of the change not working.

All of this may be true, but the birthrate decline we’ve known about for years is on its way. That means fewer students heading to college, unless the percentage of college-bound graduates goes up. There’s no other way to get past this zero-sum game; it’s time to make plans for bringing more students into the fold, or many colleges will fold. Let’s begin.

And if you have any leads on that funeral potatoes thing, do let me know.