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October 21, 2013 — By Robert J. Sternberg
An alumnus of the University of Wyoming recently asked me whether the university is lowering its standards for undergraduate admissions. Here is what I told him.
No, we are not lowering our standards for admission to UW. We intend to become the No. 1 land-grant institution in the country, and we won’t get there by lowering our standards for admissions -- or lowering our standards for anything else. We are changing the way we do admissions, however. Let me explain why.
The mission of a land-grant institution such as the University of Wyoming is to serve its state and its nation by educating ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world. In order to succeed in this mission, all that we do, including admissions, should reflect our mission.
Consider some of the top leadership positions in our state -- namely, our governor and our state legislators, both senators and representatives. In choosing a candidate for whom to vote, would you rather decide on the basis of their (a) ACT scores and grade-point averages or (b) their lifelong record of leadership as reflected by their honesty, integrity, sense of responsibility, hard work, analytical skills, resilience, teamwork, wisdom, creativity and common sense. I am betting that most people would choose (b). Indeed, they most likely would not even seek to learn candidates’ ACTs and GPAs. In other words, they would assume, correctly, that the best predictor of a given kind of behavior in the future -- good leadership -- is the same kind of behavior as exercised in the past.
Following this logic, we are expanding our admissions process. Starting with applicants to the entering class of fall 2014, we are providing applicants with a new opportunity to show their full range of leadership skills. We will continue to offer admissions based upon ACTs and GPAs, but for those who do not qualify on these bases, we will offer optional essay-based activities that measure a broader range of creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom/based and ethical skills. The activities, prepared by the Office of Admissions under the direction of Vice President Sara Axelson and Director of Admissions Shelley Dodd, will ask students to write one essay of 300 words chosen from various topics, such as, “What is the most important lesson you have learned in your life?” The essays will provide a trustee-approved alternate route to admission to UW.
We still will consider ACTs and GPAs, which are reasonable (although far from perfect) measures of analytical skills and predictors of academic success. In particular, students will continue to be admitted who have (a) a cumulative, unweighted high school GPA of 3.0, (b) a minimum composite ACT score of 21 or SAT score of 980 (math/critical reasoning combined), and (c) demonstrated completion of the success curriculum while attending high school. These combined credentials continue to be predictive of success at UW. Some students who have lower high school GPAs and test scores will continue to be admitted “with support” (for more information, go to http://www.uwyo.edu/admissions). For students who don’t reach the required test scores and GPAs, we will use the expanded optional, essay-based assessments.
There are three reasons for the change. First, these traditional measures are not particularly good predictors of active-citizenship and ethical-leadership skills. They were not even intended to predict these skills. Second, some students just don’t test particularly well. For example, someone who is highly creative or highly practical in orientation will often find a standardized test pointless and frustrating. Third, using more assessments gives better prediction of success, so long as all assessments are relevant to what one is trying to predict -- in this case, future success in active citizenship and ethical leadership.
How do we know that such essays will provide a valid basis for admitting students to UW? We know based upon past experience using similar essays at Tufts and Oklahoma State universities. In both universities, we used a similar admissions program, but the program being used at UW will have been explicitly tailored to our own university. I first experimented with such essays when I was a professor at Yale. We did a national study of admissions, using similar essays all around the country in a large variety of institutions of various kinds (for more details, see my book “College Admissions for the 21st Century,” Harvard University Press, 2010). We found that the use of such essays increased prediction of both academic and extracurricular/leadership performance beyond what was obtained from GPAs and ACT/SAT scores. Their use also reduced the impact of ethnic group (i.e., there was less difference among ethnic groups than on the SAT or ACT). The procedure also created more enthusiastic and satisfied applicants, who felt they were being evaluated as whole people rather than merely as some weighted average of their GPA and standardized test scores.
How do we know that parents or other non-applicant adults did not write the essays? First, applicants will be asked to certify that they wrote the essays. Second, our past experience is that when parents or other non-applicant adults write the essays, they sound inauthentic and off-key. Third, if the quality of the writing in an essay greatly mismatches the level of the ACT score, we will discount the validity of the essay. At UW, our new admissions program will be monitored continually to assess its effectiveness.
Any organization performs best when its actions reflect its mission. Our new admissions procedures better will reflect our mission of educating ethical leaders who will make the world a better place to live.
Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming