Rethinking ‘excellence’ in post-pandemic university admissions

The traditional methods of measuring student ability in college admissions aren’t fit for the unconventional study environments students are now in, says Ben Faulkner 

May 8, 2020
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The education landscape has changed dramatically in the wake of Covid-19. Many traditional indicators of student success have been thwarted, and for high school seniors in particular, this has caused panic over how they will be evaluated in the college admissions process. School districts across the US are assigning students pass/fail grades (or in some cases all As) for the spring semester. The College Board is cancelling its in-person tests and working to move them online. Universities are doing away with their testing requirements for next year, and many may get rid of them altogether. Not to mention, students are learning from home, requiring a kind of resourcefulness they’ve never had to demonstrate before. With so much up in the air, this may be the perfect time to rethink how we measure academic “excellence”.     

Each year, my colleagues and I read hundreds of applications to our honours programme. While we evaluate students for their fit to our programme’s particular mission, we have relied on traditional academic metrics to help us, such as grades, test scores, the rigour of high school coursework, and the quality of writing in essays.

Over the years, we’ve thought carefully about how we as a programme define “excellence” (like whether we should even look at test scores to begin with), although never has this question been more salient than now: without completely ignoring the skills students need to succeed, how are we supposed to evaluate students when so many metrics no longer exist?

To be fair, the college admissions process in the US has long been overdue for an overhaul. Eric Hoover of The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that the process is inherently unfair and often heavily influenced by the mere 13 per cent of colleges that accept fewer than half of their applicants.

The result is a rat-race effect that has strangled our students with undue stress. Given that necessity is the mother of all invention – and that traditional grades and scores might soon be a thing of the past – now is the time to reimagine some of the fundamental assumptions of this process.

Rather than relying only on typical admissions essays – through which students are coached every step of the way (often at mind-numbing price tags) – maybe students could supplement them with portfolios of other creative work. Or in lieu of essays altogether, we allow Zoom presentations, or live storytelling sessions that shed light on a singular accomplishment, interest, or challenge. Maybe we allow students to showcase independent research projects, ones they’ve done formally through their curriculum (if they are lucky enough to attend schools that have these), or ones they’ve undertaken through their own curiosities and hobbies. 

Even more importantly, perhaps we could ask the students themselves to participate in developing the measurements in the first place. Has anyone ever stopped to ask them what they think excellence is, especially in light of Covid-19? Or what they want us to know about them and how they might best show us?

Inviting this kind of student input may sound silly – teenagers need us to provide the external benchmarks, we’d say – but I argue that doing this may actually raise the standards of excellence because it could include indicators we haven’t considered before, and embrace voices that the process has historically excluded. That’s not to say we overlook the academic skills needed to communicate, analyse and think well. But loosening our grip on the strictures may free students to go a step further and tell us about what they want to think.

Every so often, I come across a student’s application that is absolutely on fire. It is never because of the number of Advance Placement courses they took, or how many SAT words they use in their essays. It is, instead, a kind of poise: the student knows who they are, what they know, and more importantly what they don’t yet know. They’ve spent time investing in who they want to be and what work they want to start doing (or for the “undecideds”, at least what questions they want to ask.) More importantly, they’ve thought about the kind of person they want to become. In a way, they’ve already defined success for themselves.

Expecting young people to get to this point by the time they apply to college may sound lofty, but I think it’s important that we give them space to start. They spend so much time shaping themselves to fit a paradigm of “excellence” that has been predefined for them. While some of those qualities we want to unquestionably encourage, students need to think through what it is they want to say and who they want to be in the first place. And we in the higher education world have much we can do to facilitate this. 

At this point, there are many more questions than answers; if anything, we’ve only barely begun figuring out the brave new world of post-Covid schooling. But as my colleagues and I roll up our sleeves for the admissions cycles to come, we have to prepare ourselves to welcome in a generation of students whose educational journeys have been upended by a pandemic – and will need more creative and non-traditional ways of telling us who they are. It is only fair that we meet them halfway.  

Ben Faulkner is a former philosophy teacher at the International School Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is now a program manager and instructor at the George Washington University Honors Program in Washington, D.C. 

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Reader's comments (1)

Well I think it's correct to say that 'excellence ', speaking in the UK context, has always been multifaceted. However, tutoring in the University as part of HE, and outside as a private tutor has taught me that there are always some students that see university as a place to reach the intellectual stars, so to speak, and those who are simply mercenary in their outlook. Excellence defined as the Enlightenment vision of never ending personal and collective development; flying above the clouds (eudaemonia), is for many, the notion of excellence, indeed the culture of HE. Isn't university a culture we join because of that? So if personal statements giving an idea of what prospective students think university is, as well as teachers' reports were used here, in the UK, in lieu of exam results then excellent!

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