February 09, 2004

"Admit, Deny, Done"

One of the charges I commonly hear against tests like the SAT is that the scores aren't useful for today's college admissions officers, who consider "the whole student" and the unique qualities that each applicant can bring to the college environment. But some say that the concept of spending a lot of time considering applications is a "Hollywood" fiction:

Anthony Dudley thinks he has a good shot at getting into Florida State University this fall. His application lists a number of extracurricular activities, including membership in the National Honor Society and the NAACP Youth Council. He wrote a moving essay about caring for his terminally ill aunt. And he has three letters of recommendation.

None of that, however, is likely to make the slightest difference.

Admissions officers at most Florida universities rarely read entire applications. Some spend as little as four minutes on a file before single-handedly deciding an applicant's fate.

One reason is volume: Florida universities are among the largest in the nation...
And since most Florida schools aren't overly selective, most admission decisions are based on grades and test scores. When evaluators look at essays or letters of reference, it's usually because an applicant is right on the edge of qualifying...

Ironic, isn't it? People who oppose standardized testing tend to be the same people who believe every kid should go to college, but when every kid tries to go to college, the swamped universities are forced to drastically cut down on the time spent per applicant. The result: Test scores become more important.

Even by Florida standards, FSU has an assembly-line approach to admissions.

Katherine Nerona-Balog, another assistant director of admissions, recently grabbed a file that belonged to a high school senior in Navarre, a town near Pensacola. She quickly calculated his grade point average - 3.7 after the elective courses were thrown out. She glanced at the SAT score of 1140.

He was in. There was no need to look at the essays or letters of reference waiting in his folder.

A sliding scale wrapped in plastic on Nerona-Balog's desk tells her what combination of grade point average and SAT score is acceptable at FSU. The school also has a 20-point checklist that provides additional scores for each applicant.

The kids on the borderline merit further inspection, but at Florida's largest universities, it appears that great students don't need to spend much time on the essay, and poor students needn't bother sending videos or lists of extracurriculars. At some universities, only one person makes the decision, which adds to the mystery surrounding the process:

Nicolas Vilaret, 17, was stunned when UF turned him down for early decision this year. So were his parents and his guidance counselor.

The Seminole High School senior has a 3.8 grade point average and a 1300 on the SAT. His grandfather and both parents are UF graduates. He has an older brother there now.

When he got rejected, Nicolas went searching for answers. He still doesn't know what happened.

"Was it a whole group of people or just one person making the decision? I couldn't tell you why I didn't get in," says Nicolas, who applied again to UF, this time for regular admission.

Update: Pandagon says I missed the point, because smaller or more elite colleges don't use this assembly-line process.

Posted by kswygert at February 9, 2004 02:10 PM