Sep 17, 2009

You're More Than Just a Dot

In case you haven’t heard, scattergrams, such as those produced by Naviance (or Family Connections to you guys in Fairfax County) have become the latest obsession of college admissions junkies. Parents are more likely to fit in this category than students, but the growing fixation on the power of a dot to determine where a student may apply to college is truly troubling.

If you think about it, heavy reliance on Naviance—whether by parents, students, or guidance counselors—represents yet another step toward the total automation of counseling services. Since school systems have overburdened their counselors with myriad responsibilities from test administration to lunchroom duty, time for any kind of counseling within the school day is severely limited. So, we go to computers to provide data in place of personalized college guidance. And, this is a real problem insofar as folks are taking the information as gospel and using it to limit opportunities or lower the bar for their applicants.

In a nutshell, Naviance (Family Connections) scattergrams are graphs of SAT scores on the horizontal axis and GPA on the vertical axis. Thanks to the magic of computer gimmickry and proprietary algorithms, a separate graph is generated for each college to which students from a specific high school have applied within the last (typically 5) few years. A mark is made on the graph for each applicant that shows (supposedly without identifying the individual) their GPA, SAT score, and the outcome of the application (accepted, rejected, waitlisted, accepted from the waitlist etc.). Because they seem so full of useful information, scattergrams are like a drug to the truly addicted, as clusters of little green dots appear to foretell a student’s acceptability at any given college or university. And everyone in the college admissions race craves insider information. Only these dots are no more predictive than your average crystal ball, as past performance is no guarantee of future results!

Here are a few reasons you should kick the scattergram habit:

  • Scattergrams can’t predict anything; they only provide a historical reference.

  • Graphs tell you nothing about the stories behind the applicants—quality of essays, recommendations, or the level of extracurricular involvement.

  • The scattergram can’t tell if an application was poorly prepared, sloppy or late.

  • The data doesn’t report if an applicant is a recruited athlete, first-generation, a legacy or has parents who built a new library.

  • The GPA data comes from final transcripts not what colleges saw at the time of application, and there is no accounting for individual trends in GPA (upward or downward)—the number is absolute.

  • The scattergram doesn’t say a word about suspensions or other disciplinary actions that may be very confidential and have a huge impact on acceptances.

  • No information is provided on whether an application was submitted early decision (ED) or early action (EA) which can sometimes have an impact on admission.

  • The scattergram doesn't indicate if a student arrived late, texted, or chewed gum during his or her interview.

  • There is nothing on the scattergram that speaks to majors or if a student indicates an interest in a major that doesn’t even exist at a particular school.

  • Scattergrams are based on SAT scores, but an increasing number of students are submitting ACT's only and their applications are judged on the basis of those scores.

  • The GPA data doesn’t tell how many honors or AP classes a student took nor whether a student fulfilled the academic prerequisites a college requires or suggests.

  • Nothing in the system takes into account a student’s need for financial aid which can have bearing on acceptances to “needs sensitive” colleges.


  • Output is only as good as input so if students elect to "opt out" of the system or if the data is carelessly entered, results are compromised.

  • The system is of no value if no one from the high school has ever applied to a particular college.

  • Individual data can sometimes be easily identified and result in a public airing of acceptances and rejections.

A scattergram is only a guide, not a promise. While the dots may suggest a general trend, students should not be overly intimidated or put off by threatening clusters. College advising is an art not a science. Talk to your counselor. In the end, we’re all potential outliers!


  1. Thank you for this. My son has a 3.0 GPA and a 1150 M/V SAT, and it is a little tricky to find schools appropriate for him. Right now, we're focusing on liberal arts colleges, which is nice because they seem to give more individual attention in the admissions process.

  2. Excellent approach! Be sure to check out the schools listed in Colleges That Change Lives. You can probably find the book in your local high school College/Career Center or you can go directly to their website at

    It sounds like you're on the right track!