Colleges Broaden Admission Policies

A rite of passage for generations of college-bound students has been preparing for and taking the ACT or SAT college admission tests--and sweating over whether their scores qualify them for their first-choice schools. But as research mounts that there are accurate measures of student potential other than standardized testing, an increasing number of colleges are turning test-optional and using more holistic tools to determine who is admitted.

Finding a good fit matters when choosing a college, and it makes sense to give students the opportunity to represent themselves in ways they feel are most accurate. For some that might not be a standardized test score, so having the chance to submit more creative work that better reflects their strengths will encourage them to explore a wider range of institutions.

After reviewing the national research and conducting our own internal research, Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, determined that requiring test scores meant that we might never see applications for students who would succeed at Cornell. Just this week, we made the decision to adopt a test-optional approach, a pilot program we will review after three years. Our goal is to appeal to students who may not have considered Cornell or applied to the college. We want strong students from a broad range of backgrounds--regardless of their standardized scores--to know that we're interested in them and that they may be a good fit here.

Our rubric for admission has always been holistic, and will now focus on 1) high school grade point average, 2) strength of the core curriculum taken, 3) their motivation, and 4) their fit at our residential liberal arts college distinguished by a One Course At A Time curriculum. Students who thrive at Cornell tend to be motivated, curious, creative individuals who love learning and are fully engaged with campus life.

Campus discussion on accepting students without test scores raised concerns that we may unknowingly admit students who won't succeed. In reality, national and internal research shows that high school grade point average is a better indicator of college success than are standardized test scores. Research conducted by Cornell College Associate Professor of Psychology Melinda Green concluded that "high school GPA is the strongest predictor of grade point average at Cornell College." Feedback from our peers shows that other test-optional schools have not generally seen a diminution in quality of students.

A separate internal analysis indicates that a student's work ethic and motivation are as, or more, important than test scores. Analysis conducted by Cornell College Professor of Statistics Ann Cannon concluded, "The bottom line is that while both SAT and ACT are of some use as predictors of success at Cornell, there is a lot of variability among students and these test scores are only a small piece of the puzzle. Clearly, the higher the test score, the more likely the student is to succeed. But many students do not follow this trend. Based on this analysis, I believe that if we can reliably determine a student's work-ethic/level of motivation, this is likely to be as (or more) predictive of their success at Cornell as test scores."

Cornell's applicants now have more flexibility to allow for greater creativity. Their portfolio submission may include an essay, but it can also include a wide variety of other submissions including a photo journal, video, published piece of writing, poetry, etc. We also decided to require short-answer questions with minimum word limits on the test-optional application to assure we have an adequate writing sample.

We are confident that the alternative test-optional application will appeal to successful students who may not have considered or applied to Cornell College before. Among those students will most certainly be future Cornellians who will thrive in our classrooms and on our campus.