The Search Episode Six Transcript

The Search

Episode Six Transcript

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, this is Lee Coffin, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Welcome to The Search.

More than any question someone asks me, what counts might just be the one I hear the most, and I get it. There's a high degree of mystery attached to college admissions, and what counts feels like the operative question if you're trying to construct the elusive algebra equation where X equals an acceptance. I hate to break it to you. There is no such equation. This question about what counts is most acute for students who are considering colleges on the most selective part of the admission continuum, and decisions in this band are often characterized as random by those trying to make sense of it. They're not random, but they're certainly framed by an undeniably subjective process that includes qualitative info that's harder to measure. So, for example, if we say creativity counts, and it does, how do you measure that? So, what counts? How does an admission officer assess merit from the various components of the common application, the coalition application and the QuestBridge application, or maybe one of the institutional applications?

The questions on each of these platforms might differ, but each one invites you to introduce yourself through the various parts of the application. I would say two words sum up the broad building blocks of an application. We have data and we have voice. One is foundational. One is texture. One answers an essential question about academic achievement and your ability to thrive in the curriculum offered at the college. The other is your personal story. What voice do you bring to a college community as you join it?

We'll answer this bewitching question, what counts, in two episodes. Episode six looks at the data that defines academic achievement and our assessment about it. In episode seven, we'll focus on storytelling. How do you bring your personal narrative into the file that we will read as part of the admission process? So, to help us think about data, let's welcome two guests to this conversation. Leigh Weisenberger is Dean of Admissions and Financial aid at Bates College, and Sonia Bell is Director of College Counseling at St. Luke's School in New Canaan, Connecticut. Sonia, like so many college counselors, was once an admission officer, in her case at Johns Hopkins. So, hello to both of you. Thanks for joining us on The Search today.

Sonia Bell:
Hi, thanks for having us.

Lee:
So holistic review is the macro philosophy that so many of us follow, this idea that an application is the sum of many parts. So, Leigh, when you talk to juniors, how do you help them understand holistic review?

Leigh Weisenberger:
Sure. Well, thank you again, Lee for having us. So, when talking to juniors, when talking to families about what we actually mean by holistic admission and how we practice that, is to really help them understand that their application, as you say, is a sum of many parts and creates what ultimately is their storyline. That we don't go into that application looking at just one or two parts only, or that we apply exceptional weight to one part of the application, but not another. That we read it in its entirety, we review it fully, and we try to understand all of those elements. So that there is the transcript, there is the writing. There is all of the biographical information that they share. There are their activities. There are the recommendation letters, and sometimes even other supplemental pieces that might make up the application, but we read it fully as we're trying to get to know them wholly and completely.

Lee:
Yeah, and Sonia, is that how families understand the processes? They show up in your office for the first time, do they see holistic as the true path or are they suspicious about one part being more valuable than another?

Sonia:
I think they're definitely suspicious. I think when they hear holistic, the first question they ask is, "Okay, so how many APs and honors courses do I need to have? What should my grades be? What should my teacher ... which teacher recs should I get, and how many activities do I have?" So, when they hear holistic, they do think that you're going to be looking at all parts of the app, but they also feel as though there's something quantifiable about it. What we try to do is we try to tell them that it's holistic in a way that the college is looking to see who you're going to be in the classroom, who you are going to be as a roommate, who you are going to be outside of the classroom, and also who are you going to be as an alumnus? So, they're looking at all parts and all aspects of you as a person who is potentially going to be at that school.

Lee:
Then they come back and say, "Yeah, that's great. What SAT do I need to get in?"

Sonia:
Absolutely.

Lee:
So, the data is this magnetic pull on them. They can't let go of the idea that a GPA and a test score matter more. So, let's debunk that a little bit. Let's talk a bit about the transcript. Let's start there. One of the things I tell students when I do junior programs is, we look at the full four-year window. We pay particular attention to what's happening in 11th grade and 12th grade as you move into the more upper-level courses you're going to take. So, Sonia help us understand how you guide students through their understanding of the transcript as an element.

Sonia:
What we try to do is we tell them that the transcript is a story, and you have to tell the college what that story is. If grades were a little bit lower when they started and they get better senior year or through junior, up to the first quarter of senior year, so tell us that story why. Don't assume that the college is going to know the story of what happened. If you have been recommended for some honors classes and you choose not to take it, tell them why. So, we try to say that this is a story. So many transcripts look exactly alike, but it's up to you to tell the story of your transcript.

Lee:
Yeah, and Leigh, as you're reading a file, not as dean, but as an admission officer going page by page through someone's story, what do you look at when you look at a transcript?

Leigh:
I think to add to the idea of the transcript being a story, to know that it's accompanied by what is the high school profile so that we have context, which Sonya and I will likely say that word a couple other times here, where context really is everything in our work, but [crosstalk 00:07:42].

Lee:
Well, do you mean when you say that to someone listening who isn't nodding saying, "Oh yeah, context." What do you mean by context?

Leigh:
I mentioned earlier when looking at the application wholly and practicing holistic review, I just brushed over biographical information. That's the first part, that a student begins their application filling out first, where they were born, where they currently live. There's an opportunity for them to share an array of their identities, whether they're racial, religious, gender, otherwise again, optional. So that starts to build context, not that we're basing assumptions or creating biases when reviewing those applications, but it's starting to tell their story to see then that perhaps they're a first-generation college student. So, context thinking, okay, are they perhaps navigating this college search process without a ton of understanding or support at home?

So then when we get to the transcript, as application readers, it's our duty, it's our job to make sure that we're not reading that transcript in isolation. That we have the context to understand okay, at their high school, they have AP curriculum, or they don't have an AP or international baccalaureate curriculum. So, we're not going to penalize them when reading that application. Or we'll see, okay, they attend a high school where 50% go on to four-year institutions, or 98% go on to four-year institutions, or 12% or one to four-year institutions. So, we're starting to understand the learning environment that creates that context, so that we're not trying to apply across all applicants across our entire applicant pool, a baseline set of assumptions. That we're reading them within that context, so.

Lee:
[inaudible 00:09:39] is really important. I think it's one of those nuances of this work that most people don't fully appreciate. That a GPA all by itself, a 3.92 doesn't tell you very much. What was the curriculum that produced that 3.92? What was the rigor, what's available and how does it map to someone's academic plans for college to the degree you know that? But yeah, so go ahead, so what was your ... You're looking at the context of a person's situation. How do you start to diagram the transcript as a reader?

Leigh:
We'll certainly look to see that they were at, I would say, baseline consistent over time and persisted. But hopefully, also see a trend line, an upward trajectory that they are taking on perhaps more rigorous courses in their 10th, 11th, 12th grade. That with that, they're hopefully continuing to perform well, or maybe they did have a little blip in 10th or 11th grade. Maybe a family member got ill or they switched schools. All of that is fine. To Sonia's point earlier, hopefully they just explain that to us, so we hear that from the student. That at the end of the day, we're trying to assess that they are prepared for the rigors of our classroom. So, it doesn't need to be a sea of A's, but it needs to show that they've again, challenged themselves and done as best they could to hopefully again, be prepared for our classroom.

Lee:
Do you look for patterns?

Leigh:
Certainly, though it's not always perfect, but you might see patterns where a student clearly has grabbed onto the languages. So, they started off taking Spanish and now they're also taking Mandarin, and that's just where they thrive and where their heart is. Or you might see patterns where students are clearly strong in the humanities and not so hot in the sciences or math. That might be okay because they might be saying, clear in a way, I want to study anthropology. So long as they can continue to do reasonably well and the sciences are bad, that might be okay for that given institution.

Lee:
Yeah. The last two places where I've worked have had engineering schools. What was interesting, as I read files that were pointing in a more STEM direction, I paid a bit more attention to the curriculum, physics and chemistry and biology and mathematics as someone progressed, knowing that these were the building blocks for that first-year curriculum in college. So, the degree to which someone was in a curriculum pointing towards their intended course of study and doing well, that was important. Sonia, juniors right now just wrapped up their 11th grade. They're picking courses for 12th grade or they've already picked courses. What should rising seniors be thinking about from the high school side as they get ready to tackle 12th grade?

Sonia:
First piece of advice we give them is that their senior year courses should prepare them for their first year of college. We have some students who want to drop things where we we'll say, that's fine. A lot of colleges are looking senior year to see if given the choice, what classes will you take? But they also have to understand that if they are dropping a class senior year that they're going to have to take again in college their first year, is it wise for them to go for a full year without studying that discipline? We also tell them too, that it's not the time again, to relax. Because again, if they take their foot off the brake for senior year, how prepared are they going to be for college? So, we try to use that senior year as not a college admission year, but a year that's going to really prepare you for your first year in college. You want that rigor so that you're not shocked when you go into that first year.

Lee:
After they've applied, we are also paying attention to their progress through that 12th grade schedule. So, first-quarter grades, trimester grades, mid-year grades, final grades, which is always surprising. At the end of the year, when we asked for final transcripts and someone has a booboo and they say, "Oh, we didn't think it mattered anymore," I say, "Oh, it still matters because we want to see that you've successfully concluded your journey through high school." So, you've got the transcript, and that's a story of progress from ninth grade to 12th grade, weighted a bit towards the latter two years. Where does testing come into that review? Sonia, what advice do you give juniors and rising seniors about testing? Then we can come back to this question around optional or not, but for now we're just testing fit.

Sonia:
I would say testing fits, and because there's just not a wide range of grades and courses for students. I tell my students that you would be surprised at, especially some of these highly selective schools that are accepting 20% or fewer of the applicants, how many students look exactly alike. They're taking rigorous courses. They have really strong grades. It's about that now what? So, what we tell them is that some schools have to look at test scores to try to see if that could help them in determining admission. We also tell them that there's a range. Most schools will report their middle 50th percentile. That just because you're within the middle 50th percentile doesn't mean you have a great shot of admission just because you're below. There are 25% that are below, but just that it's just a marker of the class.

Lee:
Yeah. That's a really good tip, to focus on the mid 50% range rather than the average, which is often more easily and readily reported that you miss the idea that this is a broad range. So, SAT, ACT, both equal?

Sonia:
Both equal in terms of an eye of admission officers. However, they're really different tests, even though they're more similar now than they have been in the past, and that students really need to spend time thinking about which test is best for them. My recommendation is try both. Don't assume that one test is going to be better, or it's going to be more impressive if you submit an SAT over an ACT. Try them both.

Lee:
What makes them different?

Sonia:
The difference is, I think, speed. The ACT is a very speedy test, and there are some students who like to take their time a little bit more, and maybe the ACT isn't the best test for them. We say there are a lot of places that offer free practice tests. Take them. They give a diagnostic test. Take them. Don't assume that one is better than the other, or against, that more schools will be impressed with one test over another.

Lee:
What I think is interesting about the difference is on the ACT, you've got a more subject-oriented way of looking at a score, so that science sub score might be very different than the reading sub score. It gives a student a chance to shine in an area that might be a strength. I took a practice SAT a few years ago while I was at a college board conference and they had them sitting outside. I thought let me go to my hotel room and try this. I took the verbal section, and I was struck by how one of the reading passages was about literature and I got every question correct. The next passage was about oceanography, and I started missing questions. So, my verbal score was a little wink towards my preference for literature more than science. But that gets masked in the SAT in the way the ACT helps break out and highlight, here's a different way you might individually move through the curriculum. So, testing fits as a supporting piece of information. Would you both say that's true or false, testing as supporting or dominant?

Leigh:
I would say supporting. If anything, even complimentary is the phrase ...

Lee:
I agree.

Leigh:
... that I like to use.

Lee:
Yeah, and-

Sonia:
I think it's also going to depend on this school. I think it's really important for students to not assume that testing doesn't matter as much. So, I think that that's a question that they should make sure they're asking, is how important is testing? There are some schools that will be very honest to say that, you know what, it's really important. Some will have breakdowns of students who had this particular GPA and have this range of test scores, this was their acceptance rate. So, they're very transparent about the role of testing.

Lee:
Yep, and testing as part of the admission process can be required where the college is saying these elements are required components of a complete application. There are some colleges that will say these testing elements are recommended. So, SAT, two subject tests have been recommended, not required. AP scores can sometimes be recommended, not required. Recommended means leaning in that direction, but you don't need to submit them. Then other places like Bates have had long-standing policies where testing is optional. So, Leigh, tell us about that.

Leigh:
Sure. Yes, Bates has been test-optional for three-plus decades now. So, in my professional life, that's all I've ever known, but our firm belief as an institution is that the opportunity to prepare for these tests, the tests themselves are created equally. But even beyond that, that it's one, two, hopefully not three Saturdays of your life, rather than three and a half years on a transcript. So that when we're viewing the application in a holistic manner, we're really spending our time on that transcript to see the student's persistence over time in the classroom, rather than while yes, you may have done ample test prep, not every student has the opportunity to do ample test prep. So, should we be spending that much time emphasizing those scores that are illustrative of a few hours rather than a few years?

So, we at Bates, and I think this is an important point to underscore, you should ask each institution that's test optional exactly what their test optional policy is and how that plays out in their admission process. Where over the last handful of years, hundreds of institutions are now test optional, and in light of COVID, many peer institutions have decided to be test optional for the next admission cycle or the next few admission cycles. So, I think clarity around what their process is in the test optional world is important.

But for Bates, it's really basic. Either you give us the scores, or you don't. If you give us the scores, you're just sending us a signal that you're proud of those scores, or you think they're somehow telling or indicative of your academic capability. So, we'll take a peek, but it's still not the be all, end all when we're viewing a student's application. For a student who chooses not to submit their scores, we don't penalize them in the process. We don't sit back and question and guess and wonder what happened. How "badly" did they do? You're just saying, "Hey, you know what? You've got everything Bates. The transcript strong, the writing's strong, my recommendations speak volumes. You're good to go." So that, for us, it's pretty cut and dry.

Lee:
Your career has always been in test optional. Most of my career has been in the required part of this. For places that continue to have a required element this year, next year, it's a supporting piece of information that helps you look at a transcript and make some inferences around testing in context. To go back to a point that we've already made around a norm at a local high school would be something we look at. So, my mean, maybe let's say a 1420, the high school mean might be a 1020, and a student gets a 1220. So, they're 200 points higher than the mean in their local community. That's noteworthy, so the test scores are not one size fits all across every high school and every college. But as Leigh mentioned, many institutions have paused this policy.

Dartmouth is one of them that has recently said in this pandemic moment, the test element cannot be universally attained by all. So, let's suspend the requirement for now. That is not a trick question either. It's a way of saying let's step back, reduce some anxiety around lack of access to a test site, or they need to do test prep while in quarantine. Or you took the test once, but you couldn't do it two or three times. This new wave of optional policies means we're saying to you what Bates has been saying for three decades, that use the full application to tell your story. If you have a score that you'd like to share, please do. If you don't, don't worry about it. Sonia, how is this playing on the school side?

Sonia:
I think a lot of parents are, and students, are relieved in so many ways that this is that more schools are pausing. I think that there was so much anxiety about signing up for these tests and the test sites crashing, and not being able to find a test site that's within an hour drive. That this is relieving them of that. What I tell them, I said, "It's not your problem anymore. It's really the school's problems to decide how they're going to assess students without test scores. Your job is done. Just do as best as you can. Complete the best or prepare the best application you can but leave it up to schools to make that decision about how they are going to review your application without test scores." So, most are really happy.

Lee:
Yeah, good. We'll review them holistically, as we've always said we would. So, let's move on to recommendations. As an element, that is always important. But if you are in a test optional moment and perhaps you have a pass-fail transcript right now from your junior spring, a recommendation will be a really important piece of the story you're telling around academics and data. So, Sonia, how should a student think about which teacher is the best one to offer a recommendation?

Sonia:
What I would suggest is they look at the common app, since so many schools are on the common application and look at the teacher recommendation form. Look at those qualities that teachers will be addressing. It could be anything from respect accorded by peers. It could be intellectual curiosity. It could be engagement. It could be reaction to setbacks. They need to look at that checklist and think about all of the teachers that they've had, I would say junior year, or that they may have had sophomore year, but they plan to have again senior year and just jot down some notes. What would my teacher say about me using that checklist?

From there, they should be able to decide, all right, this teacher is going to be able to best represent me as a student. It doesn't mean they should not necessarily go to the person that's given them the best grades. Sometimes the best recommendations that we've seen have been from teachers that have written for students who didn't do as well as maybe the student wanted to do, but they work hard. I always tell my students; they are going to hit a brick wall in college. I t's how they respond to that, that's more important than the grade itself.

Lee:
You used to teach.

Sonia:
I still do.

Lee:
You still teach?

Sonia:
I still do.

Lee:
So, teach English?

Sonia:
I teach English.

Lee:
Is there a difference in the way you write the teacher recommendation versus when you write the college counseling recommendation?

Sonia:
Yes and no. I love to tell stories. I am a believer that you can say that a student is intellectual, but I need to give you examples. I can say that a student is resilient, but I need to give examples. So, in both cases, I think that giving examples is the best way to go. But as a teacher, I imagine the person in a classroom. So of course, I write from that perspective a lot less about what the person is going to contribute outside. I just stick directly to what I see that student's contributions to be in the classroom.

Lee:
That's really helpful. I often think of the teacher recommendation as this hidden gem. It's not hidden to an admission officer, but I don't think the applicant really appreciates how powerful that teacher narrative can be in a file. I mean Leigh, do you share that thought?

Leigh:
Agreed, yes. I think in the most basic sense, our job as admission officers is to bring faculty wonderful students. That's a little bit of an antiquated way to think about our work. So bigger, we're trying to create this very intentional living and learning community. So, we look to those recommendations for those stories that Sonya mentioned to really try to imagine, okay, how are they going to contribute? What role are they going to play in the classroom, outside of the classroom? You actually get to know and hear the person. I know we'll probably talk about writing later on, but it's hearing those other perspectives on who this student is and what kind of community member there'll be.

I'll say also, back to this idea of context, we read these recommendation letters with an idea of the high school setting in which you're in. So, we're hyper-aware, if you're attending a high school where the counselor might have a caseload of 600 versus a caseload of 25, and so the time they have to A, get to know you, but B, write that letter could vary drastically. There again, we're not going to penalize the student if the recommendation letter isn't two pages long and full of anecdotes and adjectives and all of that.

Lee:
I think recommendations are also a wonderful opportunity for a student to showcase potential. High school students don't all form at the same rate. One of the big opportunities, as college admission officers, is to identify potential and reward it in the admission process. The teacher will sometimes be the best one to say, "He is really growing. He's not quite there yet. You got a B, but he's really smart. You can see the steam rising as the year progressed, and I want to amplify his growth." Growth as a really important part of what we're doing. I sometimes pause and say to myself, remember, they're kids. They're still developing. I think the teacher recommendation see that day, to day, to day in the classroom and the wisdom that amplifies, here's the B plus on the transcript, maybe a score that goes with it, but here's my day to day impressions of the person who sat in the room with me for all those hours. I think that's really important. Let's wrap up with a philosophic question. What's merit? I stumped them.

Sonia:
When I think of merit, I usually use the term meritocracy. When we talk to parents, sophomore year, junior year, we tell them immediately that college is not a meritocracy at all. I think so many believe that college is a reward for either performance or hard work, and I have to tell them, no, this is not a reward. This is an intentional community that's being formed. It's an intellectual community. It's a social community. It's a community, and there is no meritocracy that's involved. I think most parents will, or most students want to hear it because it gives them this idea, I think, some actually dangle the carrot to say, "If you work really hard and do well, you'll get into these colleges." I'm like, well, that's not necessarily true. If you work really hard, you really will work very hard. That's going to be the reward. You're going to be happy that you've worked hard. So, I think that the idea of merit is a bit outdated.

Lee:
Leigh, is there such a thing as institutional merit?

Leigh:
That's an interesting question. Yeah. I would say, still though without a precise equation, but we are, yes, trying to create these intentional living and learning communities, but we're also having to attend to broader institutional priorities. You could categorize those or align them perhaps with institutional merit so that most basic, we're trying to fill the class. So, we need to fill a first-year class of, whether it be 500 students or 5,000 students. But beyond that, that institutionally, there could be really precise goals that we are trying to geographically diversify our student body, or that we're trying to increase the number of Pell Grant recipients, that we have to field X amount of athletics teams, whether a one or division three. So that it still doesn't work like a precise equation, but that we're trying to attend to those institutional merits. I think that's-

Lee:
Yeah. So what counts geography, what counts socioeconomic status, what counts athletics? We could keep going, what counts? We'll come back to this in episode seven, where we're looking at storytelling through writing and interviewing and your extracurriculars. We've focused now mostly on the data elements, but what counts? Everything. So, Leigh, Sonia, thank you so much for joining me in this conversation about what counts. Your advice was really elegant and wonderful, so I appreciate it.

Sonia:
Thank you.

Leigh:
Thank you.

Lee:
Our next episode, we'll continue this conversation about what counts by diving more deeply into storytelling. How do you tell your story through the essays, through your recommendations, through your extracurriculars? We'll turn the conversation away from my colleagues in admissions and college counseling, and we'll bring some students back into this to hear how they told their stories, how they introduced themselves through the various parts of the file, and framed a narrative that captured their persona in a really vivid way. So, until next time I'm Lee Coffin, Dartmouth college. Welcome back to The Search.