During the first session of my CERPP Leadership in Management program, I was thrilled to discover readings about non-cognitive variables and the rise of these NCVs among college and university admission programs. Eric Hoover’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education aptly names this movement “Next Frontier in College Admission.” (2013). A quick Google search on non-cognitive skills and admission produces a plethora of articles tackling this shift. How do we consider students beyond the test scores? Colleges and universities have begun asking this question; so should we.
At Crossroads, our admission process mirrors the School’s priorities and philosophy: a philosophy that equally values academic excellence, the arts, each student’s full human potential, diversity and contributing to the common good. The School is also committed to “10 solids”: five traditional academic solids (English, history, science, math, world languages) are equally valued alongside athletics, the arts, human development, service learning and environmental outdoor education. When we redesigned our admission office four years ago, we were tasked with making our application process reflective of the School’s philosophy and priorities. So, from first inquiry to final review, our process had to be holistic, far-reaching and deep. At Crossroads, we prioritize the teacher-student relationship which allows instructors to know our students far beyond the classroom. In turn, we had to deeply understand our applicants through the admission process. How could we design a process to know students best?
We know that academic transcripts and test scores tell one part of the student’s story, but it is incomplete. We wanted to understand how students manage challenges, balance their interests, show resilience, teamwork, empathy, understanding of others and openness to new experiences. To tackle these non-cognitive factors, we redesigned our student statement and now ask applicants questions about their strengths, areas of growth and challenging experiences. Additionally, in a small group interview format of five to six students applying to the same grade level, applicants engage in a series of purposeful activities to draw out these NCVs. A design challenge, team icebreakers and a situational/ethical dilemma are all part of the group interview. We look for students who show flexible thinking, openness to others, steadfastness and teamwork.
And, finally, we asked for the Character Skills Snapshot to help supplement the application and provide the student’s view of their own non-cognitive skills.
We know that some of our applicant families use placement consultants. Some come from schools that leverage resources to place them and often “oversell” them. Other applicants show up “green” in the applicant pool. Having a sizeable portion of our process focused on the non-cognitives, we have found, helps us crack the “privilege and placement gap.” By focusing on areas of strength beyond grades, we stay true to our School’s values and provide an equitable process for all applicants.
Ultimately, our process yields students who are highly open, engaged, resilient and opportunity-seekers. In truth, it is our students’ non-cognitive attributes and variables that create the very ethos of each class and the overall School community. We are lucky to be in an environment that sees students beyond the test score. While those scores matter, they are only one part of the larger, multidimensional view of the student. To paraphrase Hoover, the notion that test scores and grades tell the story of an applicant has long been worrisome. Hoover also argues that great students will be missed because “so many kids rule themselves out, based on test scores alone…We have to break out of the traditional way of evaluating what makes someone capable or smart or talented.” I couldn’t agree more!
While the term ‘holistic’ has become mainstream, even expected, in independent school admission, I would argue that to be truly holistic, an admission process must give equal weight to non-cognitive factors.