Questions regarding College Administrators

Hi

I’ve always wondered how college administrators assess for grade inflation, which seems to be quite rampant, and not only in the US. If high school students are receiving inflated GPAs, and perhaps having their application essays written for them(which I’m sure doesn’t surprise anyone), how can administrators make sensible choices when accepting applicants? What else plays into the decision-making process? When foreign students send in their applications, are college administrators aware of education practices in those countries, that may even involve fraud? Are they expected to have spent time in those particular countries?
I look forward to your feedback.

I am not a college administrator, but just off the top of my head I can think of a couple of things college admissions offices look at:

Standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT, and AP tests, are supposed to be the same for everybody everywhere. So if a student has a high GPA but low SAT/ACT scores, that would at least raise a red flag.

Class rank: If a particular high school’s grades are inflated in a more-or-less consistent way, the students at the top of their class are still going to be the best students from that school, even if it’s hard to compare them to students from other schools. A 3.9 GPA from a student who graduated #2 in her class is probably less inflated than a 3.9 GPA from a student who graduated #82.

Following on with that, you can probably do a correlation with a big enough sample - if people form this school get X GPA and Y SAT, hen that assigns a realistic value to their GPA numbers. There may be a few outliers, but not everyone would have had a bad day when they wrote their SAT etc. To serious a spread on more than one applicant is probably a red flag.

A minor point of clarification: you’re asking about college admissions officers, not college administrators. I mean, admissions officers are administrators, but your typical college administrator isn’t reviewing a lot of applications.

Every institution is different, but grades generally aren’t compared to the third decimal point, especially between institutions. Yes, many countries outside the US have even more grade inflation than we do, and many foreign students set out to make themselves appealing to US universities years before applying (just like American students). Grade fraud isn’t as big a problem as TOEFL fraud; some foreign students arrive speaking practically no English, despite strong TOEFL scores. (TOEFL stands for Test Of English as a Foreign Language).

Because of the variability between American high schools—let alone between different countries’ high schools—exact GPAs are only comparable between students at the same school or district. Even then, grades are only one factor. In general, colleges are looking for evidence that the student is prepared to flourish at the college level. SAT/ACT scores establish general intelligence, activities and extracurricular stuff helps establish well-roundedness and grades indicate some capacity to work hard. None of these factors is independent.

And no, admissions officers aren’t expected to have spent time in the home countries of the students they’re admitting. That would require them to have spent time in nearly every country in the world. In the college admissions universe, some countries have reputations for grade inflation and/or test scores that don’t reflect actual ability. Those general guidelines are all admissions officers need, really. Of course, an admissions officer who worked in the Peace Corps in Tanzania is going to understand the application of a Tanzanian student much better than an AO who hasn’t lived there.

Students applying to college generally believe that they need to have attractive numbers, and that’s not wrong. GPA and test scores matter. But a good story trumps everything else. Tara Westover is a great example of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tara_Westover

She was raised in rural Idaho by a fundamentalist, off-the-grid Mormon family and arrived at college (BYU) without having heard of the Holocaust. She has an Oxbridge Ph.D. now and is a successful author. Good grades are fine, but “I taught myself to read and I’m escaping from a brutal childhood” is incredibly compelling to an admissions committee.

I don’t think Westover taught her self to read, but you get the point: quantitative measures establish baseline qualifications, but qualitative narratives can really seal the deal. People in higher education are mostly sincere when they say that their field changes lives. A prospect living a life that’s about to change is compelling to university admissions officers partly because that reinforces their favorite warm, fuzzy my-work-matters feeling.

My undergrad degree is one of those classical liberal arts BAs, so I faced some skepticism when I applied to my grad program in engineering physics. I was admitted with one of the lowest math GRE scores in my cohort but one of the highest verbal GRE scores the department had seen. (I have a somewhat rare learning disability that makes my arithmetic slow even though my conceptual math skills are just fine. My verbal skills are strong, but also, the verbal bar is low for engineers). My weird background and odd mix of test scores made me interesting to the admissions committee, so they took a chance on me.

Source and caveats: I was married to an academic for a long time. She reviewed grad student applications, not undergrad ones. And some undergrad schools put a lot more emphasis on GPA than they do at others.

I’ve heard that admissions officers are more interested in whether a student is challenging themselves than in the GPA. So it behooves you to take the most challenging courses your school offers: a B- in an AP class will help you more than an A in the regular section of the same class.

Why are these things seen as important?

Why is this?

Seems like that’s not something a person has much control over. “Student A was born to a stable, middle class nuclear family, so they don’t deserve a good education because they are boring. But Student B was raised in a Mormon survivalist compound, so that makes her interesting.” Would I have gotten into a better school if I claimed to have been raised by wolves or something? I mean, I’m sorry I wasn’t born to a refugee family or whatever but that’s not my fault.

It sounds like that episode of ‘Modern Family’ where the gay couples are trying to out-do each other as to whose minority status is the most convoluted and unconventional.

I know I probably sound argumentative, but I’m not trying to debate here. I’m trying to explain my own understanding so that you can better answer my questions, or explain why my reasoning is flawed.

At the risk of venturing outside GQ territory, I’ll point out a few things:

Many colleges would prefer a campus community made up of a diverse group of well-rounded students who are good at and/or interested in many things, over a student body made up of one-dimensional study geeks.

A person’s ability to succeed academically is partly determined by character traits (such as self-discipline, perseverance, and intellectual curiosity) that are displayed in non-academic activities.

I’ve never heard of anyone who was unable to get a good education because they were born to a stable, middle-class family. (Not being able to get into one particular school is not synonymous with not being able to get a good education.)

In the UK, University admissions officers, especially those at the ‘red brick’ Uni’s are relying more and more on interviews. Exam results are a filter, but even with top marks, you would still have to interview well to get a place. Of course, the lesser colleges are much less fussy and even offer ‘guaranteed’ places before the results are known.

I can understand why you went in this direction with what I posted, but that’s not quite what’s going on. It’s not that people are competing for the weirdest background or anything like that. I think Chronos makes a great point about how schools are primarily looking for students who challenge themselves. It’s not that Tara Westover was raised in a survivalist compound that makes her interesting; if it were, colleges would recruit directly from survivalist compounds.

No, what makes her interesting is that she clawed her way out of that compound because she loved learning so much. In evaluating applications, one of the very best traits my ex could find was something she called “scrappiness.” It wasn’t so much that prospective students cleared a particular bar, but that they wanted it more than anyone else. She routinely admitted grad students from BFE State with OK GPAs (but with glowing references and the fire in their bellies) over people from Ivy League schools with strong GPAs and test scores (but who were applying to grad school because that’s what’s expected of them).

It’s the fire-in-the-belly part that is really compelling. Anyone from any background can demonstrate it. But sometimes, when students with great test scores and 4.0 GPAs don’t get into their first-choice school, it’s because they’re a little basic. They tick all the boxes but they’re grinds: their hobby is having the right hobbies.

This XKCD comic captures the ethos at work here in the lower-right-hand pane: you don’t become great by setting out to be great; you become great by doing something so hard that you become great in the process.

To Thudlow Boink’s point, a 4.0 GPA and very good SAT scores will ensure that you get into a first-tier college. Often, the people like that who don’t get into Harvard get into Cornell or Stanford or Princeton. None of those, in the big picture, puts its students and a substantial disadvantage compared to Harvard’s students. IMHO, the more interesting students may apply to Harvard, but their first choice is a school more like the University of Chicago (“where fun goes to die”) or Deep Springs College. But then again, I went to a weird little school myself, so of course I think people like me are more interesting.

I’m an alumni volunteer to do applicant interviews for Rice, and from my perspective, the presence of extracurriculars and other activities are not important in themselves. Rather, they are an indicator about the student.

A lack of extracurriculars and activities isn’t necessarily a problem, but the student should then be able to explain what they do when not in school or studying at home. If the answer is “I watch a bunch of YouTube videos” or “I obsessively read and post on the SDMB”, that’s clearly not a great answer.

If the answer is they have a single parent who works 3 jobs and they have to help take care of their younger siblings, that’s perfectly fine and can lead to some interesting discussions about how that prepares them for college or how that experience gives them a different perspective from their peers. Or maybe (because they don’t think it “counts”) they aren’t including their hobbyist group who design and fly balsa wood gliders in their spare time. Or anything else.

Conversely, a bunch of extracurriculars doesn’t mean much if the student isn’t serious about any of them. I don’t really care if you were a member of the student council if all that means is you won a popularity contest and occasionally had a meeting or two. It’s just a checkbox at that point.

The important thing is if the student shows some semblance of independence and personality outside of what they have been coached to say or what they think I expect to hear. Most of my interviews are in the suburbs and it’s very cookie-cutter - lots of kids who are in 3-5 clubs but not really serious or passionate about any of them, have either a part time job or do volunteer work, and have decent test scores and grades. That’s well and good but doesn’t impress, especially for a highly selective school. Some of the most impressive interviews I’ve done have included students who maybe only did 1 or 2 things outside school but put serious time and work into them and could effortlessly talk for more than half an hour about that activity if I didn’t stop them. You can easily see in their eyes when they have a genuine interest in learning, not just in school but about the world around them.

A demonstration of real passion and in-depth focus or study is impressive and students who have extracurriculars are more likely to demonstrate that than students who don’t. Again, not exclusive, but it’s certainly correlated.

I’ve served on various admission committees back in the day. Mostly grad admissions but some undergrad. I also did a lot of transfer credit review.

Grade inflation, different standards between schools, etc. aren’t that big of a deal. You can correlate stuff quite well with SAT/GRE scores and letters of recommendation.

As to “essays”: We generally ignored the content topic. What mattered was could the person put together something without butchering the English language too much?*

As to diversity, we checked out some of the more interesting candidates a bit more. Called up their advisor, had them come by a visit, etc. Some really good folk would have been overlooked if we didn’t put more time into it. People’s ideas of “quotas” and other nonsense are purely from lala land. We picked up a lot of folk that did great in our programs. And that is what matters, right?

The biggest bias I fought against was getting people with straight A’s from Podunk U in. Lots of snobbery around. An Ivy near-flunk out somehow rates higher to some people. And yes, there was that One Guy that was a misongynist pig and “didn’t want to let any of those unqualified women in”. So of course he kept finding negative things in their folders. Sheesh.

  • This was Computer Science. We knew the language capabilities of a typical CS student.

I’m an administrator in a well-regarded honors program at a public university. In a past life, I did work in admissions for a Very Fancy Pants university in the 02138 zip code. In my current job I do admissions for a graduate program as well. It is in fact admissions season now and I should be reading more files…

There are a multitude of factors that go into an admissions dossier. Transcripts, student GPA, co-curricular activities (and leadership/advancement in those activities), test scores (SAT, ACT, etc), recommendation letters, personal essays, interactions with institutional agents (admissions staff, faculty, staff, alumni), and in the case of elite institutions, the personal interview. I often tell students and families that no one item would disqualify a student from admission–you’re looking for a pattern of achievement, overcoming obstacles, and working through adversity. Now this is for mostly middle class young people, so a working class or poor student who excels in less than optimal settings is going to capture the attention of a reviewer.

Resiliency is a big issue. How does the student bounce back or learn from a setback? They’re definitely going to happen, so the student who has lived a charmed life doesn’t tell us much. It doesn’t have to be growing up in poverty, or overcoming cancer–but what happened to you when things didn’t go your way? What did you learn? How did you make a difference in your life, or in the life of others?

School reputations matter as well. Private HSes inflate grades. Hell, most public HSes inflate grades. But recommendations and transcripts are going to help explain this. Standardized test scores combined with grades have a very weak correlation with first semester GPA, but I don’t think this is what determines most admissions offers in my experience. What’s the narrative of this kid’s experience? Are they a poet who is going to write for the college literary journal and major in English, then go to medical school? Are they a budding computer scientist who will found the next Facebook (actually, maybe we shouldn’t admit them, LOL)? Do they have a sense of social justice and plan to work to eradicate food deserts in urban areas? Will they write opinion columns in the student newspaper and become an elected official? In short, are they motivated and headed in a certain direction? (We know most of them will change their minds and do something quite different than what they say they will at age 17.)

Recommendations really matter. Teachers, counselors, and professionals have seen large samples of students. They can give a sober assessment of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and most of all, how they would fare at an institution like ours. A good recommendation will be able to match the student’s skills and attributes to what the institution’s qualities are. This is why alumni recommendations are particularly helpful (and not from 60 years ago), and those that truly know a student, warts and all.

True story: reviewed a file with a recommendation letter from a famous public intellectual–someone you’ve all seen on TV (and in a movie or two). So of course it caught our attention… and it turns out it was a lukewarm, “Hey this is a friend’s kid, they’re pretty nice” type of letter. It didn’t harm the student per se, but it would have been better for the student to have had a letter from a teacher or coach that knew them well. In fact Big Mucky Muck letters usually raise suspicions unless the letter is about a working, academic, or coaching relationship. The BFD letters often come from experienced teachers or counselors who have sent strong students to us before, or to other top notch programs.

Last–the issue of fit. We’re a big flagship institution so we literally have all kinds. But a small liberal arts college or a research intensive engineering school is going to have a type of student that excels in that context, and a type that will struggle. (And of course there is diversity in that type.) I can tell you an applicant that talks about living in our community, knows about our faculty and courses, and talks about study abroad experience that we have is going to fare better than a student with perfect scores and no mention of why our institution is where they want to learn and live for 4 years.

Even more last :slight_smile: - every reviewer is different. Selective institutions and programs have multiple reviewers, and reviewers can advocate for a case that doesn’t seem to be strong based on the narrative and fit they understand. Some institutions have “cut scores” or ranges they look for, but the right kind of advocacy can overcome that. Recently, I convinced an admissions officer to extend an offer to a student whose scores were somewhat lower than the “typical” applicant on the basis of what I read in the student’s file. We also realize we’re developing students, and they’re not fully formed human beings at 17.

Hope that helps. This isn’t 100% of my job, but it feels that way this time of year. I have colleagues who do this all the time and I think my approach is similar to theirs–though they tend to have really strong opinions formed over time about what indicators they rely on (rec letters, test scores, GPAs, HS preparation).

If you are really interested in this topic, I recommend the book The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg. It’s an older book now but it resonated greatly with me when I did admissions work.

I was actually invited to apply to Deep Springs, after getting a ridiculous score on my PSAT. I completed the application, but I wasn’t accepted (not that I really thought I had a chance) – I think I wasn’t really smart enough, nor interesting or “scrappy” enough. :smiley:

I have a lot to say, later, but I am on the phone now. One quick point: admissions officers read by region, so one person will read all the applications from, say, Alabama and Georgia. They read the same area for years, so they get to know individual schools, programs, even teachers. They also visit schools in their region during recruitment season. So they have a pretty good idea what an “A” means at ine school over another.

We have grade deflation where I teach: it’s a STEM school, we have a 100% pass rate on the AB exam with 75% of our kids scoring the max score (5). Our average on the SAT math is 720/800. Despite this, two teachers in particular almost never award As: it’s all low Bs and Cs. It absolutely infuriates me: we have some of the strongest math students in the country, and math is the lowest grade on their transcripts. Colleges seem to get it though: they still get into the most selective schools at a good rate.

Thanks bob++. Do students have to write essays(as they do in the US) as part of their application for UK universities? Are there any written tests foreign, non-native students have to take as part of the interviewing process to determine whether the application was genuinely prepared by the candidate?

Many others with real expertise have joined this conversation, and I (with my second-hand pseudo-expertise) yield to them.

But the points about students who are engaged with the school in particular and who want to be a member of that school’s particular community are important. Successful applicants to my ex’s graduate program arrive for interviews prepared with a research question (basically, a question that requires original research to answer and that could be turned into a dissertation) and they know the faculty’s research interests. You’d be shocked at how many prospective students show up for an interview at the #1 program in the country (for my ex’s sub-field) without knowing which faculty members might be best suited to advising them and without knowing what they want to do other than study this sub-field.

For undergrads at the interview stage, I think they’d make quite an impression if they asked the professors interviewing them some detailed questions about their research. That would require reading up on that professor’s research prior to the meeting, of course. If a student showed up and said, “hey, you study nanotribology, right? How is it that friction is so different at the nano scale?,” that student would blow the nanotribology prof’s socks off. It’s a general question that requires no special knowledge beyond “friction works differently at the nano scale,” but it shows that the student has done her homework on many levels.

No one is going to expect a high-school student to show up with a dissertation-level research question or with probing comments about the state of nanotribology. But the point is to demonstrate engagement with the school and/or program. Many students try to check all these test/GPA/activity boxes ahead of time but neglect the step of making a personal connection with the people on the admissions committee—the professors who interview them when they visit.

A student who can show convincingly that he/she really wants to be at that school, in this program studying under that professor will inspire the kind of admissions advocacy that people are talking about.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. I have one friend who was rejected from Deep Springs and another who graduated from there. The one who Deep Springs rejected was absolutely smarter, more interesting and scrappier than the guy who was admitted. There’s no accounting for taste, and college admissions have more to do with taste than some people would like to admit.

Thank you. :slight_smile: For that matter, I don’t think my skinny, nerdy 18-year-old self would have really been terribly happy at a college in the middle of the desert. I made it into my first choice anyway (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and got a great education, so it all came out fine.

I have scored scholarship essays for an organization I’ve been involved with for many years. We can tell the high school seniors from the ones who’ve been out for even a year or two, by how many times they use the word “goals” in each sentence. :stuck_out_tongue: I’ve also seen essays where there were just plain old not enough hours in the day to do all the things they claimed they’d done.

I too have done alumni interviews for two different former institutions. But with regard to JB99’s “Why?” question, I need to be brutally honest in my opinion.

And the answer extends to why frats are still allowed… the simple reason is that colleges/universities are in effect a money making entity (in the form of buildings and endowment). And “greek life” associated students donate back to colleges at a higher rate than the general student body. Similarly, students who are active are more likely to donate in the future-- one hypothesis being that they have a more enjoyable and fun college experience and warmer feelings of their college experience. So students in high school who are joiners (particularly ones who really dig into their experiences) and can manage a more complex life are likely to be joiners and funner people in college (and donate more). Additionally, outgoing and social people are more likely to get (good) jobs and have good (job) networks, which also leads to better jobs (and bigger donations).

~8 years ago I interviewed an applicant who had a perfect 2400 on the SAT and GPA of 4.x with 10 APs, etc. However, the applicant had listed 1 activity (Science Olympiad) from high school and had, after questioning, admitted only attending 1 meeting his freshman year. X went home after school every day because it was quiet as X’s parents and siblings weren’t there. After a 35 minute discussion in which teeth were pulled to glean even the slightest hint of discussion or engagement by the applicant (most interviews/conversations have to be ended after 90+ minutes), I wrote a review of the discussion as: “I am sure that X will be accepted and do very well gradewise. However, due to the lack of interest in the world and people around them, X’s roommate will hate X due to X never leaving the dorm room, X’s dorm mates will never see X, X will preferentially eat alone in the dining hall, X’s professors will never know who X is, and X will hate their college experience. Do not accept X. I can get a rock to talk and would do so preferentially over another discussion with X.”
Honestly, I can’t figure out what X would do post college… move home?