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Create an Action Plan for Changing College Admissions Standards

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

College retention rates are simply not what they could or should be according to the annual "College Student Retention and Graduation Rates" report published by ACT. For example, their most recent data for 2012 reveals that the "National First-to-Second Year Retention Rates" for students pursuing a BA or BS are only about 65%, and the rates are even worse for students in two year programs at 55%.

These numbers are troubling, and while some students certainly drop out because of personal issues, a majority of these students leave their institutions because they were a poor fit for each other initially. Admissions officers have been attempting to develop a solution to this problem for years, and it seems like they might be getting a little closer with "noncognitive" assessments of applicants.

This changing trend in admissions has the potential to improve student fit and satisfaction and subsequently, retention rates. What are these new measures? What do they mean for your application process? And how can you prepare yourself for them?

What are "Noncognitive" Measures?
According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education more colleges and universities are implementing "noncognitive" assessments in the admissions process.

Essentially, non-cognitive assessments are the antithesis of everything that has traditionally figured into the college admissions process such as grade point average and standardized test scores. According to The Chronicle article, these new measures attempt to determine how something was learned by the applicant as much or more so than what was learned (Hoover, 14 Jan., 2013).

These alternative indicators of student performance attempt to qualify and quantify the extent to which the individual is a self-motivated leader who will have the fortitude to complete their degree. Many of the schools that are using these qualities to assess applicants are developing their own tools such as the "Insight Résumé" developed by Oregon State University (Hoover, 14 Jan., 2013), which seeks to give admissions officers "insight" into the intangible elements of students’ personalities.
 
How do they Affect the Admissions Process?
Currently, these measures are mainly used as supplements to established criteria such as the college essay and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. They are used to help decide cases where students may not seem to meet the hard criteria for admission, but they have something in their records to indicate that they might be a good fit for the institution anyway.

As such, they may not seem that important of a consideration when planning your admissions strategy. Think again. Not only are these measures becoming more widespread with organizations such as ETS (Personal Potential Index) and the College Board jumping on the noncognitive bandwagon, but being well-rounded in these areas also indicates that you will be a successful lifelong learner. That is something of value far beyond helping you get into the college of your choice. The question then is, how can you prepare yourself to do well on these measures, and set yourself up for long-term success in life at the same time?

Becoming a Great Noncognitive Applicant
Now that you are aware of the potential impact of these assessments on your application process, you must also understand what institutions using them are looking for and develop a strategy for becoming proficient and demonstrating your proficiency in those areas. Here are the most common noncognitive measures taken from the College Board, and suggestions for how to make sure that you can exceed them when the time comes to apply for college.

  • "Knowledge and mastery of general principles: Gaining knowledge and mastering facts, ideas, and theories and how they interrelate, and the relevant contexts in which knowledge is developed and applied."
    Suggestion: Take your studies seriously and more importantly seek out opportunities to demonstrate that you are making connections between areas by entering essay competitions, science fairs, and other academic showcases such as the College Bowl and Math is Cool. Achievements in these highly visible events will clearly indicate that you have mastered content and can apply it in innovative ways.
  • "Continuous learning, and intellectual interest and curiosity: Actively seeking new ideas and new skills, both in core areas of study as well as in peripheral or novel areas."
    Suggestion: Take some college courses or participate in online enrichments such as free courses from a site like edX or Coursera, or any of the MOOCs freely available online. Pursue areas of interest and take the opportunity to apply that knowledge in venues like those listed above.
  • "Artistic and cultural appreciation: Appreciating art and culture, either at an expert level or simply at the level of one who is interested."
    Suggestion: This can be difficult in a time when art budgets are being cut in public schools, but opportunities exist in almost every U.S. town or city to develop an appreciation of art and culture. Visit local museums, take classes at a local community college, or online. Once you’ve developed some expertise find a venue to share it either through your school or local newspaper or in a blog.
  • "Multicultural appreciation: Actively participating in, contributing to and influencing a heterogeneous environment."
    Suggestion:  Volunteer for multicultural organizations in your area such as the Boys and Girls Club, a local Native American Pow Wow, or by helping to organize a GLBT support group or parade. If there isn’t something that appeals to your particular multicultural interests, start your own group. This will demonstrate not only your interest in this area but it will help to show your leadership ability, interpersonal skills, and adaptability -key noncognitive measures that admissions officers will be looking for.
  • "Leadership: Demonstrating skills in a group, such as motivating others, coordinating groups and tasks, serving as a representative for the group, or otherwise performing a managing role in a group."
    Suggestion: Take any opportunity to start a club or organization based on your personal interests and local needs. Finding an unfilled niche in the local area where there is a gap in public services can be a fantastically rewarding experience and will not only demonstrate your leadership but will also provide needed services.
  • "Interpersonal skills: Communicating and dealing well with others, whether in informal social situations or more formal school-related situations."
    Suggestion: If you are doing the other things on this list meeting this requirement is not going to be an issue. However, if you feel you need practice making your voice heard and managing a social situation rather than just being a competent part of one, join a debate or speech club. These activities will give you the confidence to take charge of social situations.
  • "Social responsibility: Being responsible to society and the community, and demonstrating good citizenship."
    Suggestion: Many of the earlier suggestions will also help demonstrate your development in this area as well. One additional suggestion is to volunteer for a political campaign or cause. You can help get out the vote, canvas for candidates, make phone calls, or even promote your own cause and try to get it on the next ballet.
  • "Physical and psychological health: Possessing the physical and psychological health required to engage actively in a scholastic environment."
    Suggestion: While there may not seem to be many ways to explicitly demonstrate your achievement in these areas, one thing you can do that will show that you possess these qualities and secure recommenders who can vouch for you is to participate in organized sports, either within your school or in the community. Athletics naturally requires many of the noncognitive attributes being sought and the relationships that you develop with coaches will make them excellent potential recommendation writers. Even if you are not a natural athlete, diligence and a commitment to constant improvement says as much about your character as do specific achievements and awards.
  • "Career orientation: Having a clear sense of career one aspires to enter into. Establishing, prioritizing, and following a set of general and specific career-related goals."
    Suggestion: The activities that you choose to participate in and the causes you support should be things that you are passionate about. Now is the time to imaging what a career related to your passions could look like. Many high school students start their own businesses or non-profit organizations. I even had one student who started an online business in 6th grade! The Internet is ripe with opportunities to make and sell crafts or provide services such as website design. Researching how to set up your own business will be an experience that will help you impress admissions officers during an interview.
  • "Adaptability: Adapting to a changing environment (at school or home), dealing well with gradual or sudden and expected or unexpected changes."
    Suggestion: Everything mentioned above will show your adaptability to new circumstances and changing demands on your time. What you need to do is keep track of the adversity you have encountered in your personal and academic life and how you have adapted to overcome it. Keeping a journal or diary is an excellent way to do this.
  • "Perseverance: Committing oneself to goals and priorities set, regardless of the difficulties that stand in the way. Goals range from long-term goals (e.g., graduating from college) to short-term goals."
    Suggestion: Just as with adaptability, keeping a journal of your struggles and achievements will give you something concrete to refer to when the need arises to demonstrate your perseverance.
  • "Ethics: Having a well-developed set of values and behaving in ways consistent with those values."
    Suggestion: One of the true intangibles on this list will be hard to "show" to admissions committees. This is where all of the hard work you have done in the categories above will pay off. Think of all the people who you will have interacted with and impressed with your hard work, adaptability, perseverance, and ethics while starting organizations, lobbying for political causes, and playing on athletic teams. Those you have served with your grassroots efforts, the politicians you helped get elected, your coaches, and all the rest can attest to your character and ethical behavior from their interactions with you. Your job then becomes to not be afraid to ask them to.

Don’t be overwhelmed by this daunting list. Many of these attributes naturally fit together in the activities suggested here. It is also unrealistic to think that any single applicant will be a star athlete, social activist, budding entrepreneur, politician-in-training, and art critic all at once. Pick the things that you are passionate about and pursue every opportunity that you can in those areas. Most importantly, strive to be a leader in the things you do choose to participate in and make your own opportunities if they don’t already exist. Doing this is going to set you up brilliantly for the evolving admissions requirements that are starting to sweep across higher education and your life after graduation.