There Has to Be a Better Way for Kids to Apply to College


That is essentially what we are asking our high schoolers to be when it comes to their grades. And I don’t just mean some of their grades. I mean ALL of their grades. The mere sight of a “C” or a “D” (GASP!) on a transcript is now a brutal blemish that no concealer is able to cover up. Add to that is the fact that even the slightest dip in one class in one semester can wreak havoc on your GPA.

Think about that for a second – out of eight semesters, even a one semester slip up can spell possible ruin and disaster when it comes to merit based scholarships. This is absolute insanity when you think about all the factors that can come into play in the life of an adolescent.

From personal experience, I know I’ve had to call on my teenagers for help during stressful periods in our family’s life – help that took them away from their studies and school obligations. But how do you explain to an admissions officer that you bombed that AP Calc final because your mom had emergency surgery, your dad travels for work, and you had two younger brothers to take care of (prepare meals, drive to extracurriculars, run all the household errands for your parents) for the three weeks right before that final? Sadly, you don’t.

The grade pressure on kids who apply to college is extreme

You don’t get to show colleges any of those sorts of non academic accolades, duties, and successes. To them, you are two things – a GPA and an SAT/ACT score.

A high school transcript and your entrance exam scores do not lend themselves to being an ideal assessment tool or accurate predictor of college success, nor do they even begin to scratch the surface of what most teenagers have and are capable of doing through their high school years and beyond. By measuring all things equally – say the grade in an English Lit class has the same weight as the grade in a Calculus class, you’re of the mindset that students should be on equal footing and have identical grasp of (and complete mastery of) every subject, every year, every time.

Every subject. Every year. Every time.

And then admissions officers attempt to disguise this irrational and twisted way of measuring academic success by saying you’re trying to find the most “well-rounded” students. Well rounded? Sadly, well-rounded has turned today’s high school kids into anxious robots mindlessly checking off each and every box of “college preparatory” requirements, so as not to appear deficient in any one category.  

And guess what fails to go unnoticed in all of this? The real young adult behind the transcript – the one that can’t possibly be seen and appreciated from only a subjective paper transcript, or a humble bragging essay they wrote after extensive coaching and prepping. The one that cannot be surmised by a four-hour college entrance exam (that happened to be held the morning after an out of town district swim meet that went late into the night, which followed a long month of daily and practices, extra AP class study sessions, never-ending nagging by parents, and the fulfillment of mandatory service hours and leadership responsibilities….you get the idea.)

When the application process is solely dependent and fixated on core class grades (English, science, math, history) and thus evaluates students on only those success or failures (without taking into account the whole student and what he/she is capable of) some of the most innovative, creative, and hard-working students slip through the cracks.

Consider a couple of scenarios where this could be the case, and you’ll understand why many educators are calling for an overhaul of the college admission process – one which is inclusive of a wider variety of assessments.

Scenario 1

Beth is an honor student (if by honor student meaning she excels at the arts, drama, and literature.) She has As and Bs in English classes, is a member of the drama club, plays several instruments, and even directed and helped produce the school’s musical drama this year. She helped cast it, design and produce the set, promoted the show through social media,  and even developed a well-received marketing campaign which was used to help secure additional funding for costumes (which she also designed on the side.)

Months of dedication and labor were put forth into this huge school drama project – one which ended up being a sellout, and impacting the lives of not only her classmates, but her whole community. But that semester, she bombed her Calc and Chemistry finals, and ended up with a C- in each class.

Scenario 2

Mark doesn’t play sports. He doesn’t sing, dance, or play the piano. He doesn’t debate, play chess, or hold any leadership positions in any school government or club. He has however, helped the school’s IT director stop a serious virus from infecting the entire school’s learning management software.

Mark took apart his first computer when he was 6, and hasn’t stopped since. When the football team wanted their games streamed live, Mark went to work configuring the aging a/v equipment to get it done.  When the yearbook director needed her staff to be well versed in Adobe Creative Cloud, Mark taught all of them.  And when the local senior center was having wi-fi connectivity issues, Mark spent a semester volunteering after school to rewire the whole place –  then jump started a “teen teach seniors technology” initiative at the center.

But that same semester, he bombed his AP Lit and AP European history exams, barely squeaking out a C-  in each of them, because to him, Shakespeare and Russian monarchies don’t hold a candle to watching an 85-year-old learn Twitter.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Any college would be lucky to have both of these driven and motivated outstanding students on their campus, if only they could see just how driven and motivated they really are – not how driven and motivated they are to memorize Russian monarchies.

Well, you and I aren’t the only ones making this stark yet obvious realization, as many high schools have also done so, and are now creating and presenting new performance assessment options to college admissions departments.

Additionally, some schools, like those in Rhode Island, have adopted new and different (but equally challenging) sets of requirements for receiving a high school diploma. Translation – if you maybe don’t understand Calculus, but can produce, direct, and promote an entire school drama production, you must be made of something special. Something that maybe a Calc final cannot properly assess.

Educators are calling these “Performance Assessments” and describe them as being based on a “synthesis of skills, rather than showing some level of competency in particular academic subjects. And these assessments typically mix individual performance with group work.”

A recent report issued by the Learning Policy Institute and Education Counsel contends that these new types of performance assessment options could be a better way to evaluate students for college admissions. They argue that “these high school assessments, or at least some of them, could be better ways to predict college success than traditional methods of grades and test scores.” Finally! They also go so far as to say that these alternative assessments “would help identify talent for college that might be overlooked by traditional measures.” Amen!

Many college admissions reform efforts are currently underway, as more and more educators and parents wake up to the fact that the way it’s being done now is no longer beneficial for either students or colleges. Our teens are stressed to the max (and so are their teachers),  all because of out of reach and irrational admissions requirements that simply need to change. It’s become clear that “merit” measurements are out of control, and groups like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the National Association for College Admission Counseling now realize this, and thankfully are on board with many of the reforms.

Roneeta Guha, senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute said in an interview about their report that college admission officers need better and more information. Her opinion of performance assessment is that

“Students can showcase their talent and skills in multiple ways.”

They certainly can. Now, can we just let them already?


New Bid to Overhaul College Admissions (Inside Higher Ed) 

Trying to be “Perfect” is Killing Our Teens and We’re to Blame

10 Truths of College Admissions for the First Time Parent

College Gear: The Best Places to Shop for Logo Gifts

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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