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A 'Rainbow' Approach to Admissions

July 6, 2006

Like research universities all over the country, Tufts University asks applicants to submit their high school grades, various test scores, letters of recommendation, as well as the predictable essays about significant life experiences and so forth.

This year, applicants to Tufts will also have the option of answering very different kinds of questions. They might be asked to write a short story to fit the title "Confessions of a Middle School Bully" or "The End of MTV." They might be asked to write an essay imagining what the world would have been like had Rosa Parks given up her seat on the bus or had John Paul I lived longer than a month as pope. Or they could create an advertisement or ad campaign for a product that doesn't exist. Other exercises might be timed and prompted by videos. They could watch a film about a situation they might face in college -- such as going to a professor to ask for a recommendation only to realize that the professor doesn't know you -- and write a short piece about what they would do.

To be sure, some colleges are more creative than others with their essay prompts. But at Tufts, these various essays and exercises won't be evaluated as a new way of judging mastery of vocabulary or history, but with specific tools to measure creativity and other factors that aren't strictly academic.

The process this year will be an experiment. Applicants can stick with the traditional application if they want. But if the experiment goes well -- and Tufts officials are optimistic -- some of this approach might be required soon. The idea is to change the admissions process from one that focuses only on a subset of analytic qualities -- the kinds that can be measured by grades and test scores -- and to look more broadly at ways to measure creativity and leadership potential. The approach is based on the work of Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who specializes in measuring intelligence and promoting creativity. Sternberg left Yale University last year to become dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts.

"If we are interested in developing future leaders, we need to expand the way we think about student abilities," Sternberg said. The college admissions process to date focuses "on a sliver of what we need to know" and completely ignores "skills that are important for success in college and life."

Unlike some colleges that are frustrated with the current admissions system, Tufts isn't eliminating the SAT, curricular requirements or anything else. All of that matters, Tufts officials say, and the problem is making decisions solely on the basis of that information. In fact, Sternberg said that many of the admissions reforms considered at other colleges -- talk about looking at "the whole applicant" and so forth -- aren't rigorous enough. The Tufts approach will be based on science, he said.

And while Tufts will be the first major university to try such a departure from the norm, Sternberg is this month releasing data tracking hundreds of students he has tested using the system. In an article just published in the journal Intelligence, he says that using this approach on top of traditional measures (grades and the SAT) significantly increases the ability of colleges to predict college success. In addition, his research found that when this approach -- which he calls "the Rainbow Project" -- is used, the differences in performance expected of different racial and ethnic groups is decreased.

Several leading advocates for reforms in college admissions were thrilled to hear about the Tufts experiment. "Colleges say that they want to educate people to be creative about knowledge and society, but the things that they look at in admissions don't have anything to do with that," says Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, which is trying to shift the admissions process back toward more educational goals. "This is a bold move that could make colleges truer to their purpose."

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said Sternberg was "one of a handful of people" thinking of "truly innovative and exciting ways" to reform admissions. Nassirian said that the Tufts experiment could "contribute way beyond whatever it does at Tufts" -- in part because Sternberg is an arts and sciences dean, not an admissions dean. "Substantive changes to the admissions process need to come from the academic side of the house," he said.

Nassirian said he could not think of a competitive college doing anything on the scale of the Tufts experiment. But he added: "Shame on us that there aren't 20 schools doing something like this."

Tufts is undertaking this experiment at a time that it is attracting more and more applicants. More than 15,000 students applied this year and 27 percent were admitted, to produce a class of 1,275. These new measures will come into play after Tufts does its first cut on applicants, but the reality is that relatively few applicants are eliminated in that round. Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions, said that Tufts assigns all applicants an academic score of 1-7 (1 being the best) based on their ability to succeed academically at Tufts. This cut is only designed to weed out those who couldn't handle the academics, and it eliminates only about 30 percent of applicants (those who receive an academic score of 5, 6, or 7).

The new system isn't going to bump those rejected applicants up into the admit category, Coffin said. But it might mean that more 3's and 4's get in. And the reality, he said, is that when you are comparing these applicants based on the current admissions system, "an awful lot of them are pretty identical." Coffin also said that the fact that everyone knows so many of the applicants are identical academically is part of what leads so many applicants and their families to distrust the admissions system.

Competitive colleges have long paid lip service, of course, to the non-academic side of applicants. "This is what we've always called 'personal qualities,' " Coffin said. But he said that this part of the process is doomed to be of little importance when it is so "soft" in that it hasn't been based on more than what you list on your activities. Does being student body president, he said, really mean something or was it just a popularity contest? In contrast, the "Rainbow Project" approach provides ways in theory to see how students respond to situations and how creative they can be in situations that they haven't been rehearsing at SAT camp for the last five summers. With a scientific basis to evaluating creativity and leadership, Coffin said, admissions officers are likely to put more weight on such qualities.

The changes are also consistent with institutional values at Tufts, Coffin said. He noted that Lawrence S. Bacow, the president, talks a lot on the campus about promoting a sense that students should be engaged in the world, that ideas cross traditional boundaries of disciplines, and that public service matters. He is also raising money to move Tufts to need-blind admissions. While an extremely bright student body advances these goals, Coffin said, they are about more than just having the highest SAT scores.

Tufts took a step in the direction it is moving in last year, when it added some optional essays to the Common Application, which it uses. Coffin said that even though the essays were optional and on top of the full application, about 40 percent of applicants wrote one last year -- so he anticipates getting a large enough sample in the coming year to get a real indication of whether the new system will work. He said that he could see parts of it becoming required within a year.

In the next admissions cycle, the experiment will play out in two ways. For the parts that involve optional essays, all applicants will receive the material and will decide whether or not to submit. For the parts that involve real-time prompts and videos, Tufts will hold a session for 150 applicants during a weekend that is part of the university's efforts to recruit minority students. A similar session may be held at one or more urban high schools. Coffin said that one of the goals of the experiment is to find ways that better predict the ability of minority applicants, but he stressed that this weekend is open to all and said that white applicants as well would participate in this part of the experiment this year.

Sternberg said that diversity was a key goal of reforming college admissions. He said that he rejected the notion that the SAT doesn't add anything to the college admissions process. But he said that the SAT tends to have the most predictive ability for those from wealthier parts of society. By broadening the measures looked at, he said, colleges can have better predictive tools for all students.

"It's not that the analytical skills measured by the SAT aren't important," he said. "But they aren't enough. We have to stop putting so much emphasis on only a sliver of the abilities that kids can bring to college."

 

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