A Different Approach to College Applications

Higher Education
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collegeappRegardless of the size of the eventual debt, the choice of a college for most people is a very big financial investment often made with inadequate information. Families do their due diligence in researching what they can—school ranking, cost, availability of aid and salaries of graduates. Schools use grades, test scores, essays, interviews and portfolio reviews. But the one crucial determination that is almost impossible to figure out is: which school is best for a particular student? Which pairing of student and institution will be to the benefit of both?

It’s something that both sides of the admission equation should consider. In a recent article written for the New York Times, Professor Adam Grant of Princeton suggests ditching the college application system entirely and replacing it with assessment centers such as those used to screen candidates for business, government (including spying) and military positions.

In an assessment center a candidate would typically spend a day that includes individual tasks, group activities and interviews, some of which would result in objective scores and others would offer insight into key behaviors such as teamwork and/or leadership skills. According to Professor Grant it would solve three problems encountered by college admission’s offices: bring order to the myriad “noise” of recommendation letters from teachers and interviews by alumni that often reveal more about the recommender and the interviewer than the student; solve the problem of the quantitative side of the admissions process that measures grades and scores and give non-traditional students a chance to showcase their strengths; and even the playing field for essays and portfolios, since there is absolutely no way to determine how much assistance a student may have received before submitting them.

It’s true that using the approach of an assessment center in the application process might be more costly up front, but it’s also more likely to result in higher success rates for both the institution and student. The results of a day in an assessment center could provide much more criteria for both sides to make a more informed decision.

Once again, I’m not saying that this must be done right away and that it will fix everything. Professor Grant suggests that the pioneers in assessment centers could be professional schools for law, business, and medicine: programs that are looking for “emotional intelligence, creative problem-solving, ethical judgment and interpersonal skills” as well as book smarts. Although it should be pointed out that assessment centers are currently being used for placements of PhDs and MDs into post-doctoral training and clinical residencies. I think assessment centers should be added to the list of alternative approaches to status quo of choosing and applying for college and graduate school. This sort of approach is also part of the macro trend of customization on an individual level that’s beginning to permeate all aspects of our life. And it might be time for academia to start using innovative approaches that they often lecture about, but rarely seem to adopt for their own use.

Take Away: It might be time to ditch college applications and turn to a better method of matching students with colleges and universities.

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