During the last year, Tufts University started a pilot project that represents one of the most significant shifts in undergraduate admissions policies for a competitive research university. The experiment involves additional essays used to identify applicants who are creative, who possess practical skills, or who have wisdom about how to promote the common good -- characteristics Tufts says are consistent with its vision of higher education, but which may not be reflected in SAT scores or high school grade point averages.
The early results are encouraging to Tufts and have at least one other university looking at the experiment for possible adoption or adaptation. About half of all applicants chose to participate by writing voluntary (additional) essays. Evidence suggests that those who were tagged in the process as exhibiting one of the desired qualities were more likely to be admitted.
Tufts saw an increase in admitted students from some key underrepresented groups, especially black applicants and those from the Boston public schools, likely in part because of the new approach. And of potential significance to those who feared the new system might diminish the quality of the incoming class (as defined by traditional measures), that doesn't seem to be the case. Mean SAT scores are up slightly, to a verbal-math combo of 1440, a new record at Tufts. And the scores of students who benefited from the new system aren't statistically different from those who didn't.
"I think we now have a more nuanced understanding of our students," said Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions.
The Tufts program is known as Kaleidoscope and it is based on the work of Robert Sternberg,  a psychologist who specializes in measuring intelligence and promoting creativity, and who is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. Sternberg has worked for years to demonstrate that there are many factors -- not just grades or test scores -- that can predict the success of students in various academic settings. Many admissions reforms these days are based on the idea of "holistic admissions," in which committees attempt to take a more in depth, and less numbers-driven look at applicants. But Kaleidoscope responds to the concerns of some that such approaches may be too impressionistic and subjective.
"From an outside perspective, it seems capricious," Coffin said of admissions to competitive institutions, since students with similar grades and test scores have no way of expecting that they will have the same outcome in the process. While Kaleidoscope makes the process consider more factors, he said, it also makes it less subjective, as admissions committees are relying on something real, not just an impression, when they argue that an applicant has creativity, for example. "What we've done has another level of information in the process," he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Coffin described how the process worked in its first year and some minor adjustments for the coming admissions cycle.
What Kaleidoscope does on the application is give the prospective student the chance to write a short additional essay selected among eight prompts. But the topics are not standard, and are designed to demonstrate the presence (or absence) of certain qualities in an applicant. The topics for next year  illustrate the idea of moving beyond the "name a person you admire" or "name a book that influenced you" approach to essays. One prompt is simply "What is more interesting: Gorillas or guerrillas?" Another invites students to do as follows: "Use an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper to create something. You can blueprint your future home, create a new product, design a costume or a theatrical set, compose a score or do something entirely different. Let your imagination wander." Another says: "Thomas Edison believed invention required 'a good imagination and a pile of junk.' What inspires your original thinking? How might you apply your ingenuity to serve the common good and make a difference in society?"
The essay prompts are designed so that students may demonstrate one or more of the qualities being sought.
Tufts starts its admissions process with an academic review based on grades, the high school curriculum, SAT scores, and so forth. A small group are "academic superstars" who are admitted right away, Coffin said. Others might not be able to do the work and are rejected before any review of their Kaleidoscope essays. The essays are having the most impact on the group Coffin called the "upper middle," about 8,000 of the university's 15,000 applicants this year -- applicants who demonstrated they could succeed academically at Tufts.
About half of those applicants wrote one of the optional essays. On the basis of those essays (or other material in the applications), students were designated when appropriate as having a creative, practical or wisdom rating. Applicants either have or don't have the rating -- there is no scale. When admissions committees met to discuss candidates, these ratings clearly helped a lot.
Among all applicants in the "upper middle" group, the admit rate was 25 percent, but 55 percent of those tagged with a practical rating were admitted, as were 53 percent of those with a creative score and 58 percent of those with a wisdom score. Of the entire incoming freshman class, 19 percent have a practical rating, 15 percent have a creative rating, and 13 percent have a wisdom rating. (Some students had multiple tags.)
Coffin said that one of the main advantages of the new system may have nothing to do with the validity of the approach in predicting success. "What we found in reading the essays is that they were profoundly different" from standard college application essays, he said. "Kids weren't being coached to the question," so there was "a freshness of writing" in the pieces.
But Coffin said that the essays also pointed to genuine student attributes. In some past years, similar attributes may have been raised in a student essay or in a teacher's recommendation. But Coffin said that in many cases, the essay prompt yielded evidence that wasn't previously available and that helped some applicants win admission in a "tangible" way, not just because of a feeling that someone had a particular set of qualities.
Some academics have feared that adding such factors would take away from academic competitiveness using traditional measures. But the first year at Tufts didn't find that. Coffin said it was important -- based on grades and test scores -- for people to see that this new approach is not mutually exclusive with tough academic standards.
Some of the frustration with existing admissions criteria is that they may be less likely to predict the success of black and Latino applicants than of other applicants. On average, Asian and white students outperform other groups on standardized tests, leading to calls for measures that might better predict the success of all groups.
Coffin said that Tufts has not run a complete demographic breakdown on which groups benefited from the new measures. But he said that black applicants and applicants from the Boston public schools appeared to benefit disproportionately from the practical measure, as opposed to the creative and wisdom measures. He said he wasn't sure why, but that the trend could be important because in deciding whether to admit a student who may not have gone to the best high school or have the best SAT scores, Tufts wants confidence that a student can manage challenges and solve problems. Someone with good practical skills is more likely to be able to seek help and succeed.
"We accepted and enrolled students from schools in Boston [from which we] don't usually accept and enroll students," Coffin said. When admissions officers noticed this trend, they also noticed that many of those they were admitting had the practical tag.
In total, the new freshman class at Tufts will be 13.4 percent black or Latino, up from 10.8 percent last year.
Coffin stressed that getting a tag "was not a silver bullet" assuring admission, but that it brought issues to the table as candidates were being discussed. He also emphasized that Tufts will be studying these students for three or four years to assess the success of the program. One change in the coming admissions cycle is that applicants will also be tagged for analytical skill. That was left out this year, based on the assumption that it was covered by traditional application materials, but Coffin said that he saw cases where he would have wanted to credit analytical skill that wasn't otherwise evident in traditional measures.
Philip Ballinger, director of admissions at the University of Washington, is among those who have been watching the Tufts project closely with an eye to using the approach. Washington currently uses a holistic approach, similar to that adopted by similar universities that have had to eliminate affirmative action in the wake of a state referendum, in which Ballinger said that admissions committees looked at "contextual factors" that may influence a candidate's academic record or ability to succeed. But he said he has wanted to move beyond that, to get additional factors that have predictive value.
"A holistic process is always going to strike many as subjective and mysterious, and I understand that, but with work like [the Tufts project], if the data supports it, then we have something that is more data founded and more easily communicated," Ballinger said.
A question mark for Ballinger is scale. The University of Washington is larger than Tufts and receives more than 30,000 applications. "I want to to see if we can find ways of assessing these possible new predictors, and to see if there is some way to assess them that isn't as labor intensive," he said. With that caveat, Ballinger said he would like to see his university try the idea, potentially in the next few years.
Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, said he too was impressed with the Tufts experiment. Thacker has been a prominent critic of the admissions process at competitive institutions, saying that it reflects the wrong values and is too often devoid of educational values.
The kinds of questions Tufts is asking relate in part to the idea that education "has a public purpose, to prepare our citizenry," Thacker said. He said he's also happy whenever he sees an admissions change that brings the application process "closer to education."
"In education, imagination is extremely important and the current process does not encourage creativity, imagination, courage, wondering, or civic-mindedness," Thacker said. "It encourages gamesmanship, competition, managing your high school career to please a dean." Tufts, he said, "seems to be sending different messages. I like that."