Sep 16, 2015

No recommendations, no essays and sometimes no test scores

West Virginia University

This year’s change in Common Application membership requirements has produced some interesting
insight into the criteria used by a subset of less selective colleges and universities in their evaluations of candidates for admission.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Common App announced that colleges would no longer be forced to conduct ‘holistic’ reviews of applicants to be members of the Common Application organization. This was interpreted to mean that members would not have to require recommendations or untimed writing samples (essays) as part of the application process.

The change was enthusiastically greeted by colleges that never required these elements to begin with and wanted to join the Common App, as well as by those Common App members that never really considered either the essays or recommendations particularly valuable.  This was especially true of those institutions that offered applicants very simple alternate applications without either element.  

For some admissions offices, these requirements were considered unnecessary impediments to attracting large numbers of applications.  For others, the requirements didn’t seem to add much in the way of useful information, which could be used to predict who would be most successful on their campuses.

In fact, the bottom line for everyone—highly selective and not-too-select institutions—is that grades and strength of curriculum are the most important factors in the admissions decision. And over the past 20 years, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has consistently come to the same conclusion in their annual State of College Admission reports.  This holds true even though there is an acknowledgement that grades can be manipulated, inflated and are often subjective evaluations of student performance.

With the new Common App membership requirements in place, a number of colleges and universities took advantage of the moment to drop requirements.  Others simply expanded their application network and joined the Common App.  As a result, there are Common App members that have stripped down their application requirements to the point of no essays, no recommendations, and sometimes no test scores.

According to the 2015-16 Common App requirement grid, out of 611 Common App members, about a fifth do not require personal statements—the basic Common App essay.  Almost 40 percent do not require counselor recommendations and over 45 percent require no teacher recommendations.

And taking these all together, almost 90 Common App members require no essay, no teacher recommendation, and no counselor recommendation.  Among these are

  • Christian Brothers University, TN
  • DePaul University, IL
  • Illinois Wesleyan University, IL
  • Jacksonville University, FL
  • Johnson and Wales University (all locations)
  • Kean University, NJ
  • Marymount California University, CA
  • Ohio Northern University, OH
  • Old Dominion University, VA
  • Ripon College, WI
  • Roanoke College, VA 
  • St. John’s University, NY
  • University of Idaho, ID
  • University of Tampa, FL
  • University of Tennessee-Knoxville, TN
  • University of Toledo
  • Valparaiso University, IN
  • WestVirginia University, WV
  • Wittenberg University, OH

If you cross-reference this list with the list of test-optional/test-flexible institutions maintained by FairTest, you’ll find that some of these schools sometimes also don’t require test scores.

So what is the takeaway?  Grades absolutely rule, and transcripts considered together with high school profiles are the single most important elements of the college admissions process.  In fact, for a fair number of institutions, they are the only criteria used for admissions.

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