Beyond the Standard Essay

Oklahoma State gets ready to try a different approach to admitting undergraduates -- and to defining wisdom in new ways.

August 29, 2011

Throughout his career as a psychology scholar, Robert Sternberg has critiqued the limitations of standardized testing and looked for ways that colleges might identify valuable qualities that have little chance of showing up in an SAT or ACT score. He has argued that the right kind of essay prompts or project-oriented questions can reveal creativity, commitment to community and other qualities that might well merit admission to college -- even for applicants whose test scores might be a bit lower than those of others.

When Sternberg was a dean at Tufts University, he worked with admissions officials there to create such a system, and the university has found that applicants who submitted these (optional) questions were in many cases ideal candidates for admission whose best qualities might not have been visible. Last year, Sternberg became provost of Oklahoma State University. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his new university has just launched an experiment to apply his ideas to admissions there. Oklahoma State is currently doing a pilot test of a "Panorama" approach to admissions. (Sternberg's original project was called Rainbow, and the Tufts program is known as Kaleidoscope.)

Sternberg thinks the Oklahoma State experiment -- if successful -- could be much more significant than his prior work. Tufts is a highly competitive university in admissions, attracting an international student body from an applicant pool that is exceptionally well-prepared. That's why there was so much attention for his work there. But it's also why Tufts is not typical of the institutions most students attend.

Oklahoma State -- proudly populist -- admits 70-75 percent of applicants. Students are admitted if they meet certain criteria (a 1090 on the SAT, for instance, or if they exceed a 3.0 high school grade point average and graduate in the top third of their class). Students do answer essay questions, which tend to be more relevant for those who don't meet the minimum criteria. Questions asked have been fairly standard: "Explain any academic and/or professional goals you have established for yourself and your efforts to accomplish these goals. Please also discuss your special interests and how you have developed knowledge in these areas."

Kyle L. Wray, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at Oklahoma State, said that the purpose of questions like that was pretty basic. "We wanted to know: 'What's your sentence structure like? Can you put together coherent thoughts?' "

Wray said that he believes that the SAT and ACT "measure very low in terms of creativity, and only a small bandwidth of intelligence." At places like Tufts, the idea behind using nontraditional approaches to admissions has been to be sure that some of the few slots available go to those with different backgrounds and talents. At Oklahoma State, Wray said, "we're in a state that wants to produce more college graduates, so it doesn't make sense for us to reject more students. We want to identify [prospective students with] creativity in ways that standardized testing does not."

In the past few months, Wray has been consulting with high school principals and guidance counselors, and he said that they have been enthusiastic about asking different questions. "They all have stories about all those students who have artistic flair but when they sit down to take the ACT, they froze up, and because they didn't perform well on one Saturday on the SAT, they were given second or third choices on where to go to college."

Oklahoma State is having current freshmen test out a series of the Panorama questions, and the university will then select some questions to start using on applications.

Three of the questions being tested are these:

  • "Music spans time and culture. Explain how the lyrics of one of your favorite songs define you or your cultural experience."
  • "If you were able to open a local charity of your choice, what type of charity would it be, how would you draw people to your cause, and whom would it benefit?"
  • "Today’s movies often feature superheroes and the supernatural. If you could have one superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it? Who would be your archenemy, and what would be his or her superpower?"

Sternberg said that he saw the approach of asking different questions and encouraging high schoolers to consider this path to admission as perfect for land-grant universities like Oklahoma State, and for other institutions that are focused on service to states. Oklahoma State has an "explicit mission to develop future leaders who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world," Sternberg said. While "other kinds of institutions, of course, talk about developing leaders," at land grants "that is the charter."

While Oklahoma State has always had multiple ways to earn admission, Sternberg said that "roughly 99 percent" of admitted applicants have in the past been admitted through some combination of grades and test scores, and nothing more. "What is wrong with this picture? Well, who believes, really, that ACTs and high school grades are going to predict who will become the positive active citizens and leaders of tomorrow?" he asked. "The correlation may not be zero, but it is not going to be more than very modest."

If anyone doubts that a new approach is needed in admissions generally, he suggested thinking about the state of society. "Our society has made the serious mistake of overemphasizing analytical skills in creating social stratification, with the result that we end up with people in top positions who are very analytical but who may lack creative, practical, and most importantly, wisdom-based skills," he said. "Look at our leaders in government and finance. How many of them would you call wise?"


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