A Sea Change in Admissions?

A radical new approach to admissions will give students an alternative way to represent themselves beyond essays and SAT scores, Ann McDermott argues.

October 1, 2015

We all know that in unity there is strength. When it comes to the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, I would add that in unity there is also great opportunity -- for colleges and prospective students alike.

As director of admissions at the College of Holy Cross, one of the 80 colleges and universities that have joined to launch the coalition, I am delighted -- and encouraged -- to be part of this effort to improve and reform the college admissions process for all students.

In my 36 years in college admissions, I have seen the stress and angst of students during the college search grow exponentially each year. Many students are under enormous pressure (some of it self-imposed, much of it driven by a marketplace focused on rankings and test scores) to get into the “right” college. Too often, students don’t devote time and energy to truly thinking about who they are, who they want to become and how their choice of college can help them achieve their goals. In addition, too many talented students are opting out of or severely limiting their college search because of the perception that a college is out of their and their family’s financial reach.

The coalition’s online tools promise to alleviate both of those obstacles. That will benefit not only high school students in navigating their search, but also colleges like mine in recruiting and enrolling our classes. The tools will drive students to start the college search much earlier and help in finding a diverse set of colleges and universities that will invest in them financially and academically.

Providing a way to start building a digital portfolio early in their high school career will, I hope, encourage more and more students to give more time and thought to what they want out of college. I also am excited that the application process promises to be a resource for first-generation college students and those from underrepresented groups or low-income households. For example, a student from a low-income background can now use the collaborative platform to invite mentors, advisers, a parent and others to engage in a dialogue. They can provide feedback directly on the platform and let the student know if what he or she is producing is on the right track. I see enormous possibilities for students in these groups to be empowered by the options and flexibility this platform will provide. I also hope that starting earlier in the process will give them a college mind-set.

At Holy Cross, we use a holistic admissions process and evaluate every aspect of an applying student’s background, experience and achievement in order to work toward the diversity of a class and the campus community as a whole. Currently the admissions office evaluates students based on the four-year story they tell us through their transcripts, essays and interviews -- a file that is typically put together in a few months. The coalition tool will allow students to spend even more time and reflection on their applications. The new tool will give high schools across the country a free and sophisticated system that has not been available to them in the past.

At Holy Cross, we are committed to building a campus community that represents diversity in all respects, including cultural, ethnic, racial, socioeconomic and geographic. For us, diversity is a constant work in progress, and we seek students who will thrive in and contribute their talents and perspectives to our community. The coalition’s direction and tools will help us get even better at meeting these goals. These tools -- across the board -- will encourage students to think about college earlier in the process and also help them to find an alternative way to represent themselves beyond essays and SAT scores.

Holy Cross became SAT optional in 2006. Almost 10 years later, I can say with confidence that becoming SAT optional has brought our college very positive results. The first classes to be admitted under the new policy -- beginning with the Class of 2010 -- have been more geographically and ethnically diverse than previous classes. The percentage of ALANA (African-American, Latin American, Asian-American and Native American) students went from 17 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2010 to 24 percent this year.

As a Jesuit institution, Holy Cross places a high value on the unique combination of background, experience and personal qualities in each individual and the opportunity to learn from many life situations. As an alternative to the Common Application, I expect that the coalition’s application will work with our current admissions process in choosing future classes. That being said, it won't be without challenges for our staffing and processes. But we will use those challenges to create opportunities and adapt to the changing admissions needs. I eagerly look forward to reading the applications from students applying to the Holy Cross who opt to use the new platform.


Ann McDermott is director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross.


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