Three Trends to Watch
October 1, 2014
Howard and Matthew Greene
Among the many interconnected aspects of the college admissions process, there are a few we would like to pay some attention to this year. The first, and probably most visible, is the most significant redesign of the SAT in a generation. Debuting in March, 2016, and preceded by the new PSAT in October, 2015, this will not be your grandparents’ Scholastic Aptitude Test. Designed to more closely mirror a student’s academic program, which is expected to align nationally with the Common Core standards, the new SAT will look a lot more like the current ACT. David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core, was clear when he took over the helm of the College Board that he wanted the test to be more academic. Since students would be expected to prep for any important test, including the SAT, why not make it worth prepping for, and more connected to their everyday learning?
Without getting into details on the test, which are explained on the College Board’s website, some of the important changes likely to impact students and their counselors include: a partnership with Khan Academy to provide College Board approved, free online preparation materials in order to level the playing field on test prep. We expect many students to take advantage of this, and private tutors and test prep companies to race to access College Board materials, when released, in order to market more personalized and/or higher level test preparation. Students will likely be overwhelmed by a lot of this, and be forewarned that many companies/tutors are likely to be guessing about the test, how to prep for it, and how to predict, read, and compare scores for some time to come.
To that end, we expect the existing trend toward taking the ACT in addition to or in place of the SAT not only to continue, but to increase. The ACT is changing in some minor ways (and more significantly in the Writing section), and will be reporting scores in more detail, but the substance of the test, which has been tweaked regularly in any event, will not be seeing a radical overhaul, from what we have gathered. Thus, it will become the more predictable and familiar test. Many tutors and counselors are already counseling their students to by-pass or not worry a lot about the new PSAT and SAT, but rather to focus on the ACT. With every college accepting the ACT, and most of those that require SAT Subject Tests accepting the ACT in place of the SAT and the Subjects, the less expensive and now widely available ACT is going to see even more popularity.
Another major change likely to give students some trouble will be the new Evidenced-Based Reading and Writing section (aka, the Critical Reading replacement, née the Verbal). Though optional, we think most colleges will require the writing assignment, an extra 50 minutes of analytical, evidence-based writing responding to an important text. Did we say 50 minutes? Of evidence-based writing? Folks, this is not going to be easy. Talk with your English and History teachers about helping to get students ready for this hurdle, if this isn’t already an important part of your junior (or sophomore) year humanities curriculum.
Finally, as counselors and admissions officers, we are all going to have a hard time understanding scores on the new SAT (and, to a lesser extent, the ACT). What will they tell us? How comparable will they be? How much more trouble will the test be for international applicants, students in schools with less challenging curricula, students with learning disabilities, or students in schools whose academic program does not hew closely to the Common Core, including independent schools?
A second trend unfolding is the likely expansion of the Common Application, accompanied by a search among more selective colleges and universities for alternatives to it. The expansion of the Common App will be facilitated by the ending of the “holistic admissions” requirement recently reported (http://chronicle.com/blogs/headcount/common-app-changes-membership-requirements/39017). That means colleges that do not require an essay for admission could become members, dramatically increasing the number of potential Common App members and users, and complicating the process inside the Common App itself for students and counselors trying to figure out which colleges require what. We were already concerned last year about the proliferation of member questions and writing requirements in the 4th Gen application, a trend that only worsened this year, with a number of colleges inserting writing requirements that were not apparent to students until they delved deeply into the college’s member questions. Want to increase complexity and decrease access, especially among under-represented student populations?
A related possibility (perhaps response?) is a move away from the Common App by a group of more selective institutions. Still to be firmly defined, it looks like we will see a smaller cluster of more elite schools, which also provide more financial aid and have more stringent application and admissions requirements, create yet another application path (http://chronicle.com/blogs/headcount/breakaway-group-seeks-retro-common-app/39183). The inevitable question, if they also stay with the Common App: which one is better, and which app do they prefer? How does this continue to serve the needs of students and parents?
The final trend we would like to comment on is the continued shift in athletic recruiting into the early high school and even middle school years. This has been a topic of discussion for some time among the “money” sports of football and basketball at Division I scholarship institutions. Now, we are seeing a rush to early recruiting among more selective private colleges and universities in Division III and the Ivy League. Certain sports, including Lacrosse, Rowing, Soccer, and Ice Hockey, seem to be leading the way here. We have seen students verbally commit to Ivies and other highly selective schools at the conclusion of 9th grade. For them, it is akin to winning the lottery, but how to handle three more years of high school when the outcome is basically a foregone conclusion? What about the risks of an injury, future poor academic or testing performance, or a decision to drop one’s sport. As high performing non-athletic students watch these events unfold, their cynicism and frustration can only grow. Yes, even in D3, students are being groomed for recruiting throughout their high school years. While much of the “action” of recruiting and admissions might take place during the summer and early fall of senior year, when recruits are almost universally pushed to apply Early Decision, by that time they have attended numerous sports camps hosted by the colleges, played in numerous select tournaments or showcases, and gotten to know coaches through campus visits. We have long talked about athletic recruiting as both a blessing and a curse for prospective students, given the time and personal demands associated with it. As the pressure mounts for earlier decision making and intense focus, the balance seems to be tipping more away from the blessing side of the equation.
A version of this article appeared in CollegeBound Newsletter, October, 2014