Will Colleges Agree Your Student Is a Great Writer?

Only 23 colleges in the country ask applicants to write the optional ACT or SAT essay. None of Georgia’s 26 public institutions are on this list. Does that mean writing is no longer an important skill for incoming college students? Absolutely not! The question is: how do colleges evaluate applicants’ writing skills? Princeton University just announced they’ll require students to submit samples of graded high school papers. What’s behind this growing trend?

Nancy Griesemer explains in the following article: “Princeton will require graded papers from 2018-19 applicants.”

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Beginning with the 2018-19 admissions application season, Princeton University will require a graded writing sample, preferably in the subjects of English or history, to be submitted by all applicants for undergraduate admission.

According to a statement on the Princeton website, “University officials believe that assessing a student’s in-class work will provide helpful and meaningful insight into a student’s academic potential.”

Providing a graded paper option in the admissions process isn’t anything new. Lots of colleges and universities have been doing it for many years.

But requiring a graded paper from all applicants represents a major departure from usual practice. And making the announcement in a statement also advising applicants that the University will no longer require the writing sections of the SAT or ACT gives food for thought. In fact, the change in policy might just have something to do with the current state of high school writing instruction and evaluation.

Historically, colleges have used many different tools for evaluating an applicant’s writing skills. And considering the number of remedial writing and communications classes offered at even the most prestigious institutions, the need for making an accurate assessment of college-readiness in this key area is becoming increasingly important.

To assess writing ability, colleges may carefully review grades in writing-intensive English, history, and social science classes. Or they may require one or more essays as part of an application for admission.

Some colleges factor in SAT or ACT writing scores during their evaluations. But this is becoming a less popular practice. In fact, according to James Murphy, director of national outreach for the Princeton Review, only 23 schools in the country continue to require these sections of the tests as “these assessments do a poor job in evaluating writing skill.”

So what’s a better option? A handful of colleges invite the submission of a “graded” writing sample in lieu of an essay or as part of additional requirements for test-optional/test-flexible admissions.

During the 2017-18 admissions season, a significant number of Common Application member colleges, including Agnes Scott College, Amherst College, Brandeis University, George Washington University and Sarah Lawrence College made provisions for uploading or otherwise receiving graded papers.

The Coalition Application even has built-in capacity in the Student Locker for both storing and adding these kinds of documents to applications. With this in mind, several Coalition members also gave students the option to submit a graded writing sample including the University of Chicago and St. Olaf College.

And it’s not such a bad idea.

Graded papers not only provide insight into a student’s basic writing ability, but they also speak volumes about a high school’s grading system.

For example, an “A” on a paper filled with grammar, spelling or syntax errors obviously diminishes the value of the grade and suggests the possibility of grade inflation at work within a specific class or at the high school in general. And it may say something about the applicant’s ability to recognize fundamental mistakes in his or her own work.

On the other hand, a “C” on a beautifully written essay could be indication of a particularly difficult or demanding class or school.

“There were times when I would be reading the essay being awed by the poor level of writing, while the teacher still gave an A to the student,” said former dean of admissions and financial aid Tom Parker, in an interview with the Amherst Student. “[A graded paper] was a great opportunity to have a deeper look into the varying levels of writing education in high schools.”

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to discover if a college is inviting a graded paper or how it should be submitted. And there are usually no guidelines as to what should accompany the paper, if anything. In general, it might be helpful to include a cover sheet with basic identifying information such as the student’s name and birthdate; the name of the course for which the paper was written noting honors, AP or IB; the specific assignment or essay prompt; and possibly the final grade for the class.

Once the decision has been made about what to send, students sometimes need to figure out how to send it, as colleges vary enormously on how they prefer to receive writing samples. Some ask for an upload and others create a dedicated portal on the website. Still others go with snail mail, fax or email.

Although the Common App offers easy-to-use tools for uploading graded papers, a number of colleges have mysteriously chosen to make the process more complicated. For these members, the Common App may only provide an easily missed link on the “My Colleges” page under “Standardized Test Policy.” If you follow the link, you may be given instructions for submitting the paper.  Or not.

To make things even more challenging, a note might appear under the “Instructions & Help” column to the right of the college-specific preferred testing question sometimes only after you mark your intention to go test-optional.

And on occasion, the Common Application provides no information relative to graded paper submissions. In this case, you’re on your own to find instructions on a school’s website or wait until the college sends you an email outlining the process.

This might be where the Coalition Application’s Student Locker comes in handy. As part of its package of application tools, the Coalition Application makes the Locker available as an easy-to-use repository for papers and other documents related to a student’s high school career. Using the Coalition platform, a student can store and eventually attach papers to applications requesting them.

So how does an applicant find out if a college requires or invites the submission of a graded writing sample or will accept a paper in lieu of test scores?

This is where it’s to a student’s benefit to research and compare different application formats accepted by individual colleges. The best place to start is the school website, where allowable applications will be listed. And don’t be surprised to find multiple applications used by a single college, including the Common App, the Universal College Application (UCA), the Coalition Application, the Cappex Application, a school-based online application and/or a paper version of the same.

Although it may take a little time, it’s often worth the effort to investigate the requirements of each application because they may differ significantly. And you should pick the application that is easiest to use and best represents your credentials.

A number of Common Application member colleges list on their websites other application forms, some of which allow students to substitute graded papers for essays—even when the Common Application does not. For example, the University of Chicago allows a graded paper to be substituted for an essay, but only for those students using the Coalition Application.

To give you an idea of how complicated these questions can be, here are some Common App member colleges that provided for paper submissions (graded or otherwise) during 2017-18:

  • Agnes Scott (Test Optional)
  • Amherst College
  • Augustana, IL (Test Optional)
  • Austin College (Test Optional)
  • Baldwin-Wallace (Test Optional)
  • Bard College (Homeschool)
  • Bard College Berlin
  • Bennington College (Dimensional Application)
  • Bloomfield College
  • Brandeis (Writing Supplement—test flexible)
  • Butler University (international)
  • Caldwell University (Website)
  • Cedar Crest College (online application)
  • Chatham University (Test Optional)
  • College of Saint Rose (Website)
  • Daemen College (Website)
  • Elizabethtown College (Website)
  • Emerson College ( students deferred )
  • Fairfield University
  • Franklin and Marshall (Test Optional)
  • George Washington University (for writing-intensive majors)
  • Gettysburg College (homeschooled)
  • Green Mountain College (Test Optional)
  • Hiram College (Website)
  • Hood College (international)
  • Hampshire College (Writing Supplement)
  • Kings College (Website)
  • Lake Erie College (Website)
  • Lewis and Clark (Test Optional)
  • Lynchburg College (Website)
  • Marietta College (Website)
  • Marlboro College (Writing Supplement)
  • Muhlenberg (Test Optional)
  • Niagara University (Website)
  • Oberlin College (Homeschool)
  • Quest University-Canada
  • Roanoke College (Test Optional)
  • Saint Leo University (Test Optional)
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • Stetson University
  • St. Olaf College (Coalition Application)
  • University of Chicago (Coalition Application)
  • University of Scranton (Website)
  • University of the Sciences (Website)
  • Ursinus College (international applicants)
  • Washington College (Website)
  • Wheaton College MA (Website)

Other colleges that offered the graded paper option last year included Catawba College, Hellenic CollegePoint Park University, the University of Baltimore, and the University of Oregon (alternate admission process). And the Ohio University Honors Tutorial College asks for “samples of graded papers in Spanish with at least two pages of writing with teacher comments.”

Princeton promises to provide “further information regarding how to submit a graded paper” on their website sometime later in the summer. Note that Princeton accepts both the Coalition Application and the UCA in addition to the Common App.

And here’s a tip for underclassmen: begin saving or setting aside good examples of graded papers. You never know when they might come in handy.

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Nancy Griesemer, a former North Atlanta resident, is an independent educational consultant in northern Virginia. Published on LinkedIn in July, her article and photo are used with permission.

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