Redesigning Admissions in an Era of Grade Inflation

If GPA has historically been your program's major 'cut off' criteria, it's time to rethink the role grades play in deciding a student's academic fate.

A headline ran on September 20, 2018, in Quartz asking, “Is grade inflation just another way for privileged kids to get ahead?”

The question grew out of a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute showing that grade inflation occurs more commonly in wealthier schools than poorer ones in the United States.

North of the border, another story revealed University of Waterloo’s engineering program, one of the most prestigious in Canada, keeps a secret list to adjust high school marks for schools known to pump up their students’ grades for the admissions process.

More than 50 percent of American teenagers finish with above an A average in high school, and, although I couldn’t find a Canadian statistic to compare, I would not be surprised if Canadian high schools are producing similar scoring grads.

For example, in 2018 the minimum entrance grades at Canadian engineering programs like Queen’s, University of Toronto, and McGill all hover around 90 percent.

With the rise of common admissions applications, like the CommonApp or OUAC, students are also able to apply to more schools more easily. Today, a student who previously might have only applied to their top three schools now can apply to ten or twelve in less time.

Making college and university applications easier is better for students on the front-end. However, it’s leading many undergraduate programs to have more applicant files to review, making it more difficult for students to receive an admissions offer.

Even if the number of genuinely interested students hasn’t actually risen, in some cases students who truly want to go to your school are competing with students who simply ticked more boxes to apply at more schools using the same content.

The increased competition in admissions has a particularly negative effect on students who have not had the same opportunities to get involved outside of the classroom, or who have struggled academically.

And so begins the cycle:

More high scoring students apply for the same number of spots, driving cutoffs higher to narrow the pool.

As cutoffs get higher, teachers and students are under immense pressure to graduate students who can meet those cutoffs.

Holistic Admissions Through Supplementary Application Components in Undergraduate Programs

Holistic admissions processes were once limited to elite schools and competitive graduate programs. However, we now see more schools introducing supplementary admissions packages that include additional requirements like essays, personal statements, video assessments, and interviews.

With the increasing competition for spots at the undergraduate level, holistic review is becoming a welcome addition to the admissions process at many schools.

Take, for example, McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering.

Thousands of high scoring students compete for 900 spots in the program. Adding a brief timed video assessment gave McMaster the chance to actually hear from their applicants, evaluating their passion for engineering and communication skills on a level playing field.

READ: “How McMaster Engineering Uses Kira To Identify Well-Rounded Applicants”

At the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, their undergraduate program has introduced a personal reflection and an “artifact” to their admissions process. These materials are designed to evaluate applicants’ ability to articulate their “deep interest” in business beyond their in-class performance.

READ: “Here Are Our Favorite Portfolio Artifacts Ross Applicants Have Submitted Recently” on Michigan Ross’s Undergraduate Admissions Blog

At DePaul University, they introduced four essay questions at the undergraduate level that required short answers. These responses were evaluated against eight non-cognitive variables associated with success in college that have been established by Dr. William Sedlacek’s extensive admissions research. Over the years that followed, DePaul published the results of the change in “Linking Admission Strategies to Student Retention.”

READ: “Demystifying Holistic Admissions: The Comprehensive Guide to Holistic Review”

To learn more about holistic admissions, including case studies and how-to articles, check out more articles on this topic.


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