tips for parents

The X Factor: The Use of Non –Cognitive Assessments in Admissions

Written with Peter Gilbert, Director of Admissions at Salisbury School, CT We all know who we’re talking about. It’s that student who has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him an appealing applicant. Maybe it’s his bright smile or the ease with which he laughs at himself. Maybe it’s the way he talks about his friends or explains why he’s running for student body president. Maybe it’s even the way he describes his summer camp experience. But it’s something you can sense, without being able to articulate the reasons why, that this kid is a great applicant. And even though his grades and standardized test scores might fall a bit shy of the typical standards, this is a student you want at your school because you know he’s going to thrive.

While Simon Cowell refers to those qualities that make contestants stand out as the elusive “X Factor,” independent schools admissions offices have been working to define those intangible personal qualities that are strong predictors of a student’s success at their schools. Through the use of non-cognitive assessments, some schools are moving to a more holistic evaluation of their applicants.

Holistic Interview Formula Salisbury School observed that year after year, by the time they were seniors, some boys who had entered with comparable grades and SSAT scores were graduating with very different academic profiles. They started to think seriously about what qualities were nurtured at Salisbury that enabled some students to better achieve than their peers and developed metrics to evaluate the specific non-cognitive skills that they believed correlated with that success.

According to SSTAB’s Think Tank on the Future of Cognitive Assessment, while the qualities most schools agree that they are looking for in their applicants include “creativity, problem solving, curiosity, self-control, and motivation,” some schools also look for specific traits that align with their mission statements. After completing two SSAT validity studies, a college/outcome result analysis for three graduating classes, and an attrition study, Salisbury School worked to develop a holistic admissions formula that complimented the school’s mission statement. Priding themselves on graduating “men of character,” they began to look more aggressively for applicants who demonstrated creativity, integrity, leadership, respect, humility, and empathy with the conviction that their single-gender environment was optimal for boys to confidently grow their non-cognitive skills like curiosity, adaptability, benevolence, and optimism. Likewise, at Putney School, which has a strong social justice premise, John Barrengos, the director of admission, looks for students who believe that community service and “saving the world” are important to leading a meaningful and fulfilled life.

Creative Interview Format Not all non-cognitive assessments are equally useful. Some schools have realized that the traditional interview format does not always provide rich information about applicants, particularly in the younger grades. Once Noble and Greenough School started assessing middle school applicants by observing students’ participation in a group activity, they discovered that they were able to discern much more about the students’ character, interpersonal style, and problem-solving skills than they had been able to in a formal interview setting.

At North Country School, the interview takes the form of a “walk and talk” around campus and, in this more casual setting, students more freely share information about themselves. According to Libby Doan, the learning support coordinator, this conversation is used to evaluate how the student identifies their areas of strength, where they seek to improve, and if they can articulate their needs.

Schools are also encouraging students to spend more time on campus as part of the evaluative process. At Cambridge Friends School, prospective applicants spend the morning in class and teachers evaluate how well they listen, contribute, demonstrate flexible thinking, and share their knowledge. Kelly Baker, the director of admission and financial aid, believes that they are able to glean such valuable information about a student during the optional group assessment that they waive the standardized testing requirement for students who choose the participate.

At North Country School, students spend a full day on campus, visiting classes and having lunch with faculty and students. Through “intentional observation,” the faculty look for evidence of the student’s self-knowledge and relational abilities with adults and peers as well as their ability to engage in “spontaneous, exuberant conversation.” This information provides meaningful insight into how that student might take advantage of the opportunities offered at the school and how they might thrive there.

Risk Worth Taking So, with all this additional non-cognitive evaluation, are schools finding that they are admitting a pool of applicants who are a better fit than they might otherwise? Generally, the answer is, “Yes.“ While Putney, like many schools, has no firm cut-offs for SSAT scores, they are willing to take a risk on a student if they believe that the culture at their school will help that student to flourish socially and intellectually. According to Barrengos, “as our progressive educational philosophy takes broader grasp of the totality of the student experience, I have permission to unapologetically pursue the students for whom this pedagogy – across their experience, from classroom to barn to dorm to sports to arts – is an answer to their journey; either a salve for the boy who “got” school in third grade and is now bored to tears, or a salvation for the girl who never found her traditional model viable and has been chafing against its limits throughout.”

There are also incidental advantages to incorporating non-cognitive assessments in the admissions process. Schools are finding that this can “level the playing field” for some applicants as, unlike being tutored for the SSAT, there is no way to prepare. This process can also feel less daunting and intimidating. Salisbury School found this holistic review of applicants to be especially important for candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, those with learning differences, and, in general, maturing boys. Noble and Greenough School has found an increase in their yield of students of color in the middle school since implementing the non-cognitive assessment and Jennifer Hines, dean for enrollment management, happily observed that “students leave our office smiling, rather than feeling traumatized.” Doan, at North Country School, has had similar experiences. In fact, it is not uncommon for students at the end of a school visit day to ask if they can stay longer. To her, that is one of the best indicators that the student will be a good fit.

Yet, non-cognitive assessment isn’t a great dust pan that gathers up those candidates who are on the fringes of admission. In fact, the careful use of these metrics can rule out some students who otherwise would be attractive candidates. For example, students who aren’t able to self-advocate and who are used to being taken care of by adults as well as students who have stopped being engaged in their learning, their communities, and their relationships might not be offered acceptance because they don’t have the appropriate non-cognitive skills to succeed.

In the end, however, the schools we contacted were pleased with the caliber of the students who were matriculating. Each year at Salisbury’s graduation prize night, it is poignant to reflect on the place where each boy started. Last spring, the two students who were awarded the general improvement prize by vote of the faculty were boys who earned admission because of their non-cognitive skills. It was powerfully affirming to see that the qualities Salisbury sought in their applicants translated into social and academic success. It has been said that cognitive ability predicts educational attainment and that non-cognitive skills predict a life outcome. The success of theses two graduates, and others like them, speaks to the value of including non-cognitive assessments in a holistic admission process.

Parenting Through the College Process

Time and time again parents sit in our office and reflect, “I don’t remember it being like this when I applied to college” and, indeed, the process has changed in some important ways.  More colleges are making standardized testing optional, admissions is increasingly competitive, students are completing more applications, and parents are more involved in the process than ever before.  For parents of college bound students, we offer these words of advice to help make the college process more successful and rewarding:

  • Focus on Fit: Help your student remember that college is first and foremost about the academic experience.  Colleges offer some very enticing options including gourmet food options, dorm suites outfitted with full kitchens, athletic centers featuring state-of-the-art equipment, and cyber-cafes at every turn.  All this is can distract from what should be at the center of their college experience – the academic program.  Help your student assess the quality, breadth, and depth of the curriculum and the level of academic rigor and type of academic support.
  • Accommodate your student’s style: If your student has been a procrastinator for 17 years, the college process isn’t going to draw out Type A qualities.  Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses and proceed accordingly.  If he is disorganized, set up organizational systems.  If time management is a struggle, set up timetables.  If visiting a lot of colleges will be overwhelming, limit the search.  Learning and behavioral styles are hard to change, so play to your student’s strengths and support their areas of weakness throughout the process.
  • Keep your student’s needs primary: Remember, you are not the college applicant.  While your college years may have been the best of your life, that doesn’t mean that your alma mater is perfect for your student.  Support your student’s decision about which college is the best place for them to spend their undergraduate years and avoid the temptation to compare it to “your college.”
  • Listen more, listen better: Starting sentences with “Tell me what you think about …” rather than “I think that…” will encourage your student to open up and will also send the message that you trust and value their opinions. While there are certainly times when a parent should share their perspectives, doing so too often is more likely to shut down conversation than to encourage honest dialog.
  • Allow plenty of time: Applying to college is probably the longest, most involved, and most difficult decision your student has ever had to make. There is also a very complex emotional component to this process – your student is leaving the comfort of school, friends, and family to venture into a world filled with unknowns.  Give them plenty of time and space to research and evaluate the tangible and intangible components of their decision.
  • Focus on the process:  The process of applying to college as just that – a process.  It has a beginning, middle, and an end and each student will go through the process in their own way, in their own time, hopefully taking on increasing responsibility and ownership. Ultimately, this is not just about “getting in”, but about developing self-awareness, clarifying values, and becoming self-sufficient.  When parents become too involved, the student loses the opportunity to go through this very maturing, self-actualizing process.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a spectator: First row seats don’t always provide the greatest view. Sometimes the best place to be is cheering from the bleachers.

The college process provides a unique opportunity in your student’s life to look back and be proud of what they’ve accomplished, think about who they are, articulate what they value, and consider where they want to go from here. Don’t rush the process to get to the finish line – this is an opportunity you may not have again to teach your student many important life lessons. And, just as you will come to know your child better, so too will they come to better know you.




The College Layette

Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home A friend called me a few weeks ago to report that she had just finished buying all the pieces she needed for a layette. "For whom?" I inquired, anxiously, knowing that her youngest child was 12. "For Ben, of course" was the reply. I couldn't help but laugh - Ben is 18 years old and headed off to college this week. In just the way she had prepared for his arrival into this world, his college layette included all the sheets, towels, blankets and toiletries he would need to embark on his new life. The important difference being, of course, that his college layette is a gift of the things he needs to start his life away from her, and independent from her.

This moment of separation seems increasingly difficult for parents who aren't ready to say goodbye, even after they have moved their child into their freshman dorm room. Colleges vary in response to this separation anxiety in various ways but many are becoming increasingly clear about when it is time for the parents to leave and for the college to take over in its roles and responsibilities.

Ben is going to be just fine in college - his parents have spent 18 years teaching him how to be self-sufficient, independent, and self-confident. He will stumble, he will make bad choices, and he will recover. But, most importantly, he will do all these things without his parents looking over his shoulder because he can. And on really bad days, he'll have a nice blanket to wrap himself up in.