Answer Choice D: Four 2500-word research papers

Bard College in New York recently announced that it is veering drastically away from the standard US college admissions practice that requires students to submit transcripts, standardized test scores, and teacher recommendations as part of their college application. Instead, this private liberal arts college is inviting applicants to write four 2,500-word research papers on college-level research topics.The essays, submitted online, will then be graded by Bard professors, and those who get at least a B+ will be offered admission.

The topics span three categories (Social Science, History and Philosophy; Arts and Literature; and Science and Mathematics), and students must choose at least one topic in each, reflecting the curriculum requirements typical of undergraduate liberal arts programmes. Students who opt for this admission process are provided with access to the source materials they need to complete the research papers, although students are also “encouraged to research broadly”.

The college’s argument, of course, is that these research papers ask students to do what they will need to do in college. They are asking students to read source texts closely and carefully, do some independent research, think critically about what they’ve read, and present their ideas and findings in a cohesive, logical and well-written paper, AND demonstrate that they can do so across different disciplines.

And I agree. I agree that students who can get a B+ on these essays most certainly have the ability and readiness to succeed in college — even if they do have poor SAT scores or inconsistent grades. I agree that it offers students who don’t test well an opportunity to showcase what they can do.

What I’m not sure about is whether it will actually “level the playing field” in any meaningful way. From the college’s press release, it seems that administrators believe that by shifting the focus away from standardized test scores, they will be able to identify high-achieving and motivated students “from different backgrounds”. They refer to students that are home-schooled or “students from rural or inner-city schools who might have less access to such resources as standardized test preparation or intensive tutoring programs, and who might not be in a position to present themselves as strongly through the standardized testing process.” But are these really the students who will be opting to write these essays?

After all, the topics are challenging, and students who choose this route will have to believe that their research papers will show them off better than their applications in the more conventional processes. They will have to believe that their own reading, critical thinking, research and writing skills are already at a B+ college level, and it seems to me that one of the primary reasons they would have to believe that is if they’ve done similar work before. 

Don’t get me wrong — I like that the topics are challenging. I like the expectation that all students applying for college should be able to handle writing research papers on these types of topics. But if we’re talking about increasing access and student body diversity, I’m not convinced that high schools everywhere have these expectations of their high school seniors and have held their students to these same standards. For if students have not faced these types of expectations before and have not had the opportunity to meet or exceed them, what would give them the confidence to do so in the high-stakes game of applying to college?

The NYTimes article interviewed teachers and students from Stuyvesant for their perspectives, which ranged from skepticism, because of the difficulty of the topics and the time required to write four 2500-word essays, to appreciation of the new option. That being said, however, those are students at Stuyvesant — students who are set on a college-going track from the moment they step through the door; who are told when, how and how often to take the SAT; and who have teachers that teach poems that could potentially come up in one of the topics.

I doubt Bard will release details about the types of students who select this new admissions process and whether it actually does add to campus diversity, but I hope the college does track the students admitted through this process to see whether there are any differences in terms of retention, graduation rates and academic performance compared to those admitted through the conventional applications. If such an application process does more effectively identify successful future college graduates, then perhaps more colleges will follow Bard’s lead, and all the time currently spent in high schools and tutorial centres on standardized test prep can be re-allocated to helping students hone the learning, thinking and writing skills they need — in college and beyond.

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