Seeking wise, creative students

Colleges admit students with strong analytical skills, but may reject creative, wise and community-minded students who’d also do well, argues psychologist Robert Sternberg.  After trying his ideas as a dean at Tufts, which attracts very well-qualified students, Sternberg became provost at Oklahoma State, which takes 70 to 75 percent of applicants.  The university is testing new essay prompts to identify applicants with hard-to-measure qualities, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Oklahoma State accepts students with a 1090 SAT (without the writing test) or a 3.0 grade point average and top-third-of-the-class ranking. Students with lower grades and scores can get in by doing well on an essay question, which might ask about their goals or special interests.

The university is asking current freshmen to answer questions Sternberg developed. Several will be chosen for next year’s applications.  For example:

“Music spans time and culture. Explain how the lyrics of one of your favorite songs define you or your cultural experience.”

“If you were able to open a local charity of your choice, what type of charity would it be, how would you draw people to your cause, and whom would it benefit?”

“Today’s movies often feature superheroes and the supernatural. If you could have one superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it? Who would be your archenemy, and what would be his or her superpower?”

“Roughly 99 percent” of admitted applicants have qualified on some combination of grades and test scores, Sternberg says. “Who believes, really, that ACTs and high school grades are going to predict who will become the positive active citizens and leaders of tomorrow?”

I do.  The combination of high school grades and test scores predicts who’ll complete a college degree, which predicts active citizenship, such as voting and volunteering.

A good writer can express creativity and devotion to community service — maybe even wisdom — by writing about goals and interests. Just because the question is boring doesn’t mean the answer has to be. A bad writer won’t do any better because he knows a lot about comic superheroes. I suspect few C+ students with mediocre ACT or SAT scores can write a good essay on any topic.

But it’s an experiment. Maybe Oklahoma State will find hidden gems in its applicant pool by tweaking the essay prompts.

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  1. These days, I’d be highly suspicious of a wonderful admissions essay paired with mediocre verbal & writing SAT scores. The only way I’d believe it was reflective of the student’s actual capabilities is if I witnessed him/her writing it unaided. Otherwise, I’d been inclined to believe it was at best, heavily edited, and at worst, ghost-written.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Also, a 1090 SAT score or top 1/3 in graduating class is not that selective.

    The score alone will pick up the slackers with bad grades, and the top 1/3 and 3.0 GPA will pick up the not as skilled kids who try really hard. Given that less than 25% of Americans manage to get a college degree, trying to limit your pool to “slightly above average” still guarantees that you’re probably admitting students who’ll end up leaving college with debt but no degree.

    Is this really a time to be encouraging MORE marginally qualified kids to go to a 4 year college? It seems immoral to set them up for failure like that. Let the kids who can’t meet those generous standards prove themselves for a year at CC– but don’t admit them if they’re “interesting” but not academically prepared!

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    In OSU’s defense, in-state tuition for a 12 unit quarter is only about $1,700. We aren’t talking about taking out loans that would purchase a house.

    I would rather see these kids in a local JC first because I’d like to see “real” 4-year universities focus less on remedial education (and my bias is that most of the kids who aren’t making the cut-line now will need remedial something) … but the cost saving for the student are only about $1,700 at OSU versus $850 per quarter at the JC:

    Marginal out-of-state kids are a whole ‘nuther mather, though.

  4. I’m cynical enough to wonder if this is another attempt to increase “diversity.”

  5. Funny how his defn of wise and creative questions equate to writing about “me me me! It’s all about me!”

    18 yr olds aren’t wise. 22 yr olds aren’t wise. What makes people who are creative successful in their endeavors is discipline, hard work, tenacity, and optimism–all traits far more likely to be present in, and cultivated by, students who learned to work for high grades and high test scores.

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Sternberg has done some interesting work on types of learning preferences (he doesn’t call them intelliences, I don’t think). This is probably an extension of that research. However, I find that the interesting kids typically have a mismatch in GPA and test scores. They don’t apply themselves to classes that don’t grab them, so the GPA is lowish, but they’re smart, so they’ll have pretty good ACT or SAT scores.

    The essay prompts aren’t that creative, though. If he wants creative, he should look at the University of Chicago. ALL college essays are about the student — it’s a “sales” tool — the first prompt looks pretty dreadful, though. I’ve got a round of college essays coming in soon, and I hope nobody writes on that. Ugh.

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I only applied to colleges that did NOT require me to submit a “personal essay” about some hardship I’d overcome. I was an 18 year old suburbanite—I had no hardships!

    The U of C’s improv essays are always a lot of fun, and several other schools allow you to submit the writing sample of your choice…..

  8. “I only applied to colleges that did NOT require me to submit a “personal essay” about some hardship I’d overcome.”

    Unless they’ve got private detectives on staff to check out every three-hanky tale of being the first of your family to go to college, losing your uninsured mom to cancer or growing up with a disabled sibling, they really shouldn’t treat these essays as evidence of character.

  9. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Heh– yeah, I could have written a really good one if I wanted to lie! But I figured that I didn’t want to attend a school that wanted me to lie… and my first choice (U of C) had great topics anyway, so I had a lot of fun with it and debated whether I could send in MORE essays! (And my other choices, MIT and Case, just let me send in whatever I wanted, so I sent a comic romance I’d written called “Flame Tests of Passion” about the torrid (and pun-filled) chem lab affair between scientists Tess Tube and Flint Stryker… )

    Now, I could probably write a pretty entertaining humorous essay on some of the “obstacles” I overcame as a high school student—but that takes distance and maturity.

    I think the schools that have you submit a graded term paper may also be on the right track–they get to see an example of student writing AND judge the teachers as well, so they can get a good feel for “grade inflation.”

  10. Am I correct in assuming that the technology exists to require a student to write a timed extemporaneous “in-class essay” online, with security to prevent ghostwriters? Perhaps at a Sylvan center, like they do for the GMAT? My junior and senior English classes frequently required about a (longhand) page in response to a prompt, which might be a quote (provide author, source and interpretation) or a question of literary relevance and we’d be given 15 minutes. This was preparation for college, which used that format often. Obviously, any literary sources would have to be pretty obvious, but since all US students must take US history, two or three history choices might be offered and a large enough total supply of questions would prevent prior preparation. Would that be feasible? I’m not enough of a computer person to know.

  11. Also, I’ve always wondered how the freshman class would look if individual departments were able to choose their students; I’m betting that they would look at student qualifications differently, particularly in the STEM and serious academic departments. Athletic coaches get to choose their players but academic department chairmen don’t.

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The freshman class would look strange, momof4. A lot of colleges don’t even let freshman declare majors, precisely because no high school student in America has the faintest frickin’ clue if they want to major in quantitative sociology until they’ve had a little exposure to sociology in their Intro class.

    Also: There’d be a lot of people in each class who were really good at BS-ing, at feigning a serious interest in something.

    Which, I suppose, means that maybe the freshman class wouldn’t change that much.