Why moving past the SAT is essential in today’s admissions

Finding the right students with a holistic application approach.

application-admissions-intelligenceIn 2013, graduate programs received 1.97 million applications and accepted about 40.5 percent of applicants. The process relies heavily on standardized test scores to vet and decide which applicants to accept. But should today’s admissions officers, who often review hundreds, even thousands of applications, rely solely on standardized test scores to provide enough insight into prospective students?

The standardized test system is outdated, and it is time for institutions to implement a more holistic approach that accounts not just for applicants’ test scores and quantitative skills, but also their qualitative skills. Today, these skills are proving to be critical components in the professional world, and employers expect entry-level candidates to have developed them throughout their schooling along with achieving academic success.

The Three Types of Intelligence

Many people recognize everyone has different learning styles; similarly, there are three different types of intelligence based on Sternberg’s work that shows a person’s ability to use knowledge gained.

  • Componential Intelligence measures a person’s ability to interpret information hierarchically in a well-defined, unchanging context and is the traditional way schools evaluate prospects through standardized test scores.
  • Experiential Intelligence assesses creativity and the ability to interpret information in changing contexts.
  • Contextual Intelligence concerns adaptability and capability to negotiate the system for personal benefit.

The latter two types are considered non-traditional measurements. Their qualitative nature makes them much more difficult to assess, especially in the application process, which leads many schools to use test scores as an initial and reigning measure for applicants. However, this may cause schools to miss out on potentially strong applicants–ones that will perform well both academically and in the workplace.

A growing number of schools are beginning to recognize the value of these different types of intelligence and, to identify and enroll students that demonstrate them, are de-emphasizing the standardized testing approach. However, there is a lack of a systematic process to identify noncognitive variables that help pinpoint a person’s intelligence type.

(Next page: Identifying intelligence outside of test scores)

Defining Noncognitive Variables

Since standardized tests were first created, test participants have varied greatly, from economic, to cultural and gender diversification.

A holistic approach should look beyond quantifiable skills and evaluate noncognitive variables. There are eight variables that have been identified that can be used to measure how a person’s background and experiences have influenced the way she/he thinks critically and how knowledge is applied:

  • Community: applicant participates and is involved in a community
  • Managing systematic discrimination (ex: cultural, gender and religious discrimination): exhibits a realistic view of the system based upon personal experience of discrimination; takes an assertive approach to dealing with existing wrongs, but is not hostile to society
  • Non-traditional learning: acquires knowledge in sustained and/or culturally-related ways in any field outside of school
  • Leadership: demonstrates leadership in any area of her background
  • Long-range goals: ability to respond to deferred gratification; plans ahead and sets goals
  • Realistic self-appraisal: recognizes and accepts any strengths and deficiencies, especially academic, and works hard at self-development
  • Self-concept: demonstrates confidence, strength of character, determination and independence
  • Strong support person: seeks and takes advantage of strong support network or has someone to turn to in a crisis or for encouragement

It is important to note that very rarely does one individual exhibit strength on all eight variables, but it’s common for a candidate to score highly on several. These noncognitive variables can give admissions staff a well-rounded view of who the applicant is and the applicant’s potential success at the school.

Identifying noncognitive variables

The key focus in admissions is to find the best-fit students to shape each incoming class, yet the standardized tests do not provide information on important aspects of applicant potential.

To better identify these students, the application needs to reflect a more holistic approach with questions that target noncognitive variables and identify prospects who demonstrate Contextual and Experiential Intelligence. These questions may be presented in an essay or short answer format, asking applicants to write 100 or more words on a specific experience or situation. Unlike standardized tests, where there can only be one “right” answer, noncognitive variables, unique to each student, can be identified and scored from applicant responses.

Rush University, for example, has included a series of questions within its nursing graduate program application. These questions include: “What are some of the skills that demonstrate you would be a successful student and practitioner?” and “What experiences have contributed to your interest in nursing?” Rush has created a rubric to ‘score’ students on noncognitive variables.

Advantages of holistic applications

Customized applications, either based on a program or including school-specific additions to the common application, are beginning to be employed in a number of institutions. Although the review processes for personalized applications are more time consuming, as scoring isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” the benefits of finding the best-fit students and enrolling a strong, diverse class outweighs the additional time spent.

And though the validity and legality of using customized applications has been challenged, in Farmer v. Ramsay et al., the Farmer court ruled in favor of allowing the University of Maryland to utilize noncognitive variables as a measure in accepting students to its medical school.

Updating the traditional application with custom questions to uncover the skills and characteristics most important to success at a particular school, program, or professional organization, addresses the limitations of standardized tests. These questions can be revised to fit the current social and economic environment.

Additionally, information gathered from personalized applications can also be used to benefit student services that may improve a student’s experience – and retention – at the school. Based on student application responses, Oregon State University, for example, uses noncognitive variables to emphasize and improve offerings within the institution. This includes counseling, admissions, retention, scholarships, advising, student services, referrals and teaching. This contributed to a 10 percent increase in retention, an increase in the diversity of students enrolled, and new service programs instituted.

It is time to look at how we measure and assess incoming students to reflect the skills needed in our current and future workforce. By using a more holistic approach through personalized applications, admissions officers can learn more about a student and identify his or her strengths, opportunities at the school, and potential for a future profession.

As students apply to a record number of schools at an increasing rate, institutions need to update the application process and look to a new way of thinking to ensure they’re not missing out on the right students.

Hilda Mejia Abreu is the executive director of Program Partnerships at Liaison International. William Sedlacek is professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.