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College Admissions: Valuing More Than Just Test Scores


Students walk outside the Francis Field House at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.


High schools in the United States organize sports teams and groups where students can share their interests in subjects like art or politics.

These activities are meant to help young people identify skills that might help them in future careers and as they grow into adulthood.

However, there is another reason American high school officials want students to be involved in theater or technology or volunteer groups. These activities might help students move on to higher education.

Many students, especially those from outside the U.S., might wonder what and activity like writing for a school newspaper has to do with attending a university. After all, in many countries the best, and sometimes only, path to acceptance to a university is having high test scores or good grades.

Jennifer Dewar is the senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, or Wash U. Wash U is a private research university. Dewar says that every college and university in the U.S. values strong academic skills in their students. But, she says that administrators at these schools also have other goals.

Jennifer Dewar, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University in St. Louis.
Jennifer Dewar, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University in St. Louis.

​"We’re not just thinking about the classroom experience for our students, but … the four year student experience. So we’re trying to build a community, and…make sure that you have people to play sports and people to play music and people to be leaders on campus and people to do research and people to start conversations, and people to disagree with those conversations, and people to bring in… to those conversations that might not be well represented."

Admissions officials almost always ask students to list the activities they are involved in outside of the classroom in their applications. Dewar says these activities can show that a student possesses the qualities they are looking for. This method of considering both academic success and non-academic skills is known as holistic admissions.

Dewar argues that the more a school knows about a student’s interests, the more they understand the student. This is especially important for the top universities in the U.S. She notes that the best American universities receive thousands of applications from both inside and outside the country. For example, Wash U had over 30,000 applicants for the 2017 school year. But it only had room to accept about 16 percent of them.

Schools with limited resources, Dewar says, are unable to spend as much time and money on holistic admissions as more competitive ones. They will often pay more attention to academics. But, every U.S. college and university uses extra information about applicants as a tool to build their communities.

She says her school would not be able to do this if it just accepted the 16 percent of applicants with the highest test scores. And, she adds, students who only talk about their academic work in their applications all start to seem the same.

Some young people might wonder how to choose activities. What would schools value more: playing basketball or singing in a musical group? Is it more important to spend weekends serving free food to homeless people or cleaning up a public park?

Dewar says that thinking about holistic admissions in this way is not helpful. Instead of trying to figure out which activities are better than others, students should think about which activities serve them best as individuals.

"What will give them…experiences and ideas that will help them grow as young people?…You can do almost anything, as long as it’s legal and ethical…But it’s really about how a student talks about those experiences and what a student takes away from those experiences."

Dewar says admissions officials want to be fair to students with fewer activities available to them. Some high schools may not be able to support student government organizations, for example. Also, involvement in groups may not come easily to some students. That does not make them worse candidates, Dewar says.

"We’re really looking for evidence that a student is excited about learning, that they’re excited about ideas…And so, we want to see that…they’re going to…positively impact one of our campuses."

A student could explain their interest in reading many books or even exploring their home city, Dewar says. Also, there are other places in an application where a student can describe their non-academic interests.

Students, for example, can bring attention to their special qualities in the writing samples they provide, or the letters they ask teachers to write in support of them.

They can even use these parts of their application to explain things that prevented their involvement in other activities. This could be a lack of money or a need to work to support a sick family member.

Students, Dewar notes, should trust that admissions officials will consider their personal history and what might have been available to them. The holistic method lets them pay more attention to the qualities they are looking for, not only academics.

But, Dewar says, it is still up to the students to share all they can to make them stand out from the other candidates.

I’m Lucija Milonig. And I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor. We want to hear from you. What sorts of non-academic activities or groups do high school students in your country commonly get involved in? How much do high schools and parents support these kinds of things? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

grade(s) – n. a number or letter that indicates how a student performed in a class or on a test

undergraduateadj. used to describe a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

application(s) – n. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, admission to a school, or a loan

holistic adj. relating to or concerned with complete systems rather than with individual parts

ethicaladj. following accepted rules of behavior

excitedadj. very enthusiastic and eager about something

positivelyadv. in a way that is good or useful

impactv. to have a strong effect on something or someone

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