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Posted at 9:32 AM ET, 03/29/2010

Broaddus--The limits of proxies in college apps

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at the College of William & Mary.

By Henry Broaddus
A few years ago when a reporter from the William & Mary Alumni Magazine wrote an article about our committee process, he observed that we called applications "apps" as if skipping three syllables would save us significant time.

(He wrote his article, by the way, in early 2007 before the word app had been appropriated by Apple. Now anyone who talks about having thousands of apps sounds like an overzealous iPhone user, not an overworked admissions officer.)

Since the article’s publication, efficiency matters to us all the more. Saving time by the syllable is not a gross exaggeration of what necessity dictates when the same number of people evaluate more applications every year within the same span of weeks.

In our office’s vernacular, academic qualities are AQs. Personal qualities are PQs.

Extracurricular involvements are ECs. Teachers are TRs, and recommendations are recs. A write-up of a particular application might include the observation that the student’s increased leadership in ECs reveals much about her PQs and partially explains the decline in her AQs, as confirmed by the TR in his rec. The economy of alphabet also protects against writer’s cramp.

We recognize an important distinction, however, between shorthand and proxies.

While GPA is a useful shorthand for grade point average, 4.0 is merely a proxy for successful learning (and in an era of weighted grading scales, it’s usually far lower than the proxy for the most successful learning).

Grades do not abbreviate educational attainments; grades stand in for them. But good grades are neither the same thing as a good education, nor its primary purpose.

William & Mary’s provost recently described the danger of proxy measures in the context of the university’s strategic plan. In his example, the response to the question, "Has the quality of science education improved?" might be answered casually in terms of how many more dollars have been invested in laboratory facilities.

But that’s only a proxy measure, and it’s not necessarily an answer to the question at all.

Proxy measures provide simple variables for which we have empirical units readily available, but all too often they are used in order to avoid the challenge of assessing complex, often multivariate characteristics. Put a different way, the answer to the question, "Is Johnny a critical reader?" cannot be expressed as his SAT Critical Reading subscore alone.

In education, perhaps the use and misuse of proxy measures abounds precisely because education deals so much in complex characteristics. To borrow a few from Tony Wagner’s "The Global Achievement Gap" as examples of what everyone from school boards to admission offices wants to measure, they include students’ problem solving, collaborative ability, mental adaptability, personal initiative, verbal communication, analytical thinking, and intellectual curiosity.

Admissions officers trying to find evidence of these qualities—and of students’ potential to cultivate them—must look beyond grades and test scores, especially when reviewing a pool abundant with students at the upper range of those indices.

Even as we search for more, however, we do so within the severe limitations of what we reasonably can expect students to provide and the time they reasonably can expect us to spend.

Although app still works well as shorthand for the word application, the applications in their entirety are limited proxies for the students who submit them. They provide adequate information with which we can build a successful class, inclusive of the range of interests and backgrounds so crucial to a vibrant campus, but we do not delude ourselves that we know the hearts and minds of the individuals on the other side of the submit button.

On the mere basis of 15 printed pages and a few pieces of mail within a labeled and bar-coded folder, how could we?

Whenever I show audiences a video I wrote for William & Mary’s online application, they respond immediately to an early scene that makes this point. The word "these" appears as the camera pans file cabinet drawers filled with applications, and then the text changes to "will never be mistaken for this" as the images shift from files to faces.

Far from a cause for alarm, acknowledging that a few forms, school documents, test scores, writing samples and teacher recommendations constitute an insufficient shorthand for 17 years’ worth of experience and aspirations puts many families at ease.

Perhaps the only thing worrying them more than the cryptic reasoning they believe that admissions officers employ is the fear that some of us actually believe in our own omniscience.

Far from it. Whenever I put my pen to the summary sheet of an application after reading the analysis my colleagues have written there already, I recognize that we are composing an abstraction from an abstraction.

I am reminded that the paper on which Joyce Kilmer wrote the poem "Trees" was a better proxy for bark-covered trunks with leafy branches than any lines of verse he inscribed on it. Kilmer said, to the delight of elementary school children ever since, that he "shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree."

I’ve met plenty of students who are better than their applications.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 29, 2010; 9:32 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  college admissions, college applications  
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