Aug 28, 2019

Colleges that invite graded papers

Last year, Princeton University began requiring a graded writing sample, preferably from an English, social studies or history course, to be submitted by all applicants for undergraduate admission.

According to the Princeton website, the paper “will further the holistic understanding of the student’s application and help admission officers evaluate the student’s potential contributions to and ability to thrive in the University’s rigorous academic environment.”

Asking a student to provide a graded paper in the admissions process isn’t anything new. Colleges and universities have been doing it for years.

But requiring a graded paper from all applicants represents a major departure from usual practice. And making the announcement in the context of no longer requiring the writing sections of the SAT or ACT gives food for thought. In fact, the new requirement 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 policy. In fact, according to a list maintained by the Compass Education Group, only 12 out of 365 “popular” colleges require the writing sections of the SAT or ACT and nine are from the University of California system. The vast majority are labeled as optional, which suggests the possibility that a college might take them into account if they’re submitted.

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

For the coming year, several Common Application member colleges, including Agnes Scott, Amherst, Brandeis, George Washington University and Stetson University have 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.  And with this in mind, several Coalition members also give students the option to upload graded papers including Austin College 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.

“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 graded papers. 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.

So how does an applicant find out if a college requires or invites the submission of a graded paper 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

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):

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

Note that not all colleges, after experimenting with the graded paper option, became convinced of its value in the admissions process. Both the University of Chicago and Brown dropped the idea for this year.

But even knowing how frequently these things can change, 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.