Flying Without the Test

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The committee gathers to vote on applicants — many without SATs

Should we give a spot to Susan? That's the question before a roomful of admissions officers at Mount Holyoke College. Susan, who has top grades and gushing recommendations, could surely prosper here. But what more, they wonder, would she bring to this cozy all-women's college in South Hadley, Mass.? Giulietta Aquino, Susan's advocate on the six-member committee, ticks off a few of her accomplishments. She is a decorated horseback rider aiming for the Olympics who commutes three hours a day between her home, school and horse barn but still finds time to tutor immigrant children and work as a physician's scribe in an E.R.

But the committee is still not sold. Though Susan intends to study literature, dean of admissions Diane Anci is worried because her transcript is "thin" in science credits and notes that she has progressed in math no further than pre-calculus. "Let's have a dramatic reading from her essay," says Anci. Susan's meditation on the ferryboats she rides across Puget Sound each morning to her Seattle school elicits approving chuckles from the jury. Anci is convinced. Moments later, the committee votes to rate Susan a 3 on a descending scale of 1 to 9 — high enough to earn her one of 300 remaining seats in the class of 2005.

Conspicuously absent from the determination of Susan's fate is any mention of her SATs. That's because, in the parlance of Mount Holyoke's admissions officers, Susan is a "score blocker." Last summer Mount Holyoke announced that for a five-year trial period, it would give applicants the option of withholding their test scores, allowing the college to test the effectiveness of the SAT as a predictor of college success. This fall applications rose 10 percent, with 1 in 6 scores withheld. Now it's crunch time for the school's admissions officers, who have holed up in an unassuming white clapboard house on campus to carry out the new policy. Over the past two weeks, Mount Holyoke has allowed TIME to sit in on its selection process, provided we did not use the real names of the applicants under discussion.

Like many highly selective small colleges, 164-year-old Mount Holyoke has traditionally required rigorous entrance exams. In recent years, however, the college has been relying less and less on tests, assuring applicants that other factors were more important. Still, students continued to obsess over scores. Four years ago, in an effort to ease some of that stress, Mount Holyoke cut back on the number of tests it required, making the more subject-specific SAT II's optional. But the admissions staff continued to hear SAT horror stories — about applicants spending $845 an hour on test prep, for example. So the college went a step further and conducted an informal study of the SAT's role in its admissions. It showed that the scores bore little relation to how well the students performed once they were on campus. A second analysis found that the SAT accounted at most for just 10 percent of each admissions decision. Says Jane Brown, the school's vice president for enrollment and college relations: "We concluded that the SAT was just a blunt instrument which doesn't help us cut to the core of who a student is."

To probe for this essence, officers now pore over transcripts, parse teacher recommendations and consult regularly with high school guidance counselors. Then they gather for closed-door deliberations that range from the celebratory (a budding feminist poet is crowned "the next Anne Sexton") to the snippy ("Her thank-you note to her interviewer looks like a third-grader wrote it"). Rarely, if ever, do these discussions touch on SATs, even for students who turn in 800s. The committee does dwell, however, on other scores, like those on Advanced Placement exams, SAT II's if students submit them and even state tests like New York's Regents Exams. For students who shield their SATs, these secondary scores inevitably take on more weight. The committee, for example, is divided over one straight-A applicant. Then assistant director Debbie McCain Wesley mentions that the student took just two AP courses out of 15 offered by her school — and scored 1 out of 5 on her AP test in U.S. history. "A 1 on an AP is really just showing up," argues her colleague Sara Schick. "I can't get past that score." Neither can the rest of the room. The girl is rated a 5, all but assuring her rejection.

The success of SAT blockers often turns on more subjective measures, such as a student's writing style — Mount Holyoke requires three essays and one graded writing sample — or her poise during an interview. The committee happily devours one student's account of her German ancestry, titled "Ode to Sauerkraut" but spends 20 minutes agonizing over an otherwise stellar applicant who wrote a "young" essay on the inspirational aspects of "Charlotte's Web." Despite her banal musings, she is admitted. But the panel is far less forgiving of an applicant whose interview was "enjoyable but not terribly deep." Her faux pas? She confided her aspirations to study fashion design, a major the college does not offer.

Mount Holyoke has high hopes that its future applicants will devote the hours they once spent fretting over word analogies to worthier pursuits like community service or starring in school plays. Best of all, says Jane Brown, "we also think we'll see high-scoring students who don't submit scores simply on principle." Lis Bernhardt, a senior at Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Conn., was concerned more with pragmatism than principle. She spent months "consumed" by the SATs, investing countless hours — and more than $1,000 — in tutoring to lift her scores. Then she toured Mount Holyoke, loved the campus and heard about its new SAT-optional stance. She submitted an early-decision application and received a thick acceptance letter in January. Says Lis: "It just appealed to me that they wanted to look at me as a person, the whole package." So she let them see it all — minus her SATs.