Early Results from MHC Study Reaffirm SAT-Optional Policy

Published in the College Street Journal - March 18, 2005

Addition of Writing Section Considered Unlikely to Alter Policy

Mount Holyoke College students who chose not to submit their SAT scores with their applications are succeeding academically, further bolstering the College’s contention that the SAT is not essential to making good admission decisions and has limited value as a predictor of an individual student’s success.

Mount Holyoke in 2001 made the standardized test optional for admission, convinced that the SAT had become a negative force in higher education, and committed to casting a wider net for applicants with strong academic potential and exceptional talents who may have been previously discouraged from applying because of their performance on the SAT. The College is now in the final year of a three-year study of the effects of that policy, made possible by a $290,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Interim results from that study show no meaningful difference in academic performance between students who did not submit scores and those who did. The study shows that there is a .1 difference between the aggregate grade point averages of submitters and non-submitters. The difference is equivalent to approximately one letter grade in one course over a year of study.

“The fact is that the SAT does not add enough value for us to require students and their families to make such a large investment of time, energy, and money in this single, high-stakes test,” said Jane B. Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Mount Holyoke. “We would encourage high school students to focus instead on activities that promote long-term intellectual and personal growth rather than on time-consuming and often expensive strategies to raise their SAT scores.”

One early result from the study confirms what has been widely assumed: As families’ income levels rise, so too does the likelihood that the student has had the advantage of SAT training classes or special tutoring. More than two-thirds of prospective Mount Holyoke students from higher-income families took an SAT preparation course, and one in three had private tutoring.

The new SAT that will be administered on March 12 has undergone a number of changes, most significantly the addition of an essay-writing section. Given that Mount Holyoke has historically placed great emphasis on the caliber of applicants’ writing and currently requires the submission of several essays and graded writing samples, this new section is not likely to add to the test’s value to our admission process, Brown said. In addition, “this test is a formulaic writing exercise and is likely to be quite coachable,” she said.

“We look at students as individuals and take into account their academic records, their leadership abilities, and their performance over the course of four years,” Brown said. The SAT-optional policy in fact is simply the evolution of the College’s traditional holistic approach to the applicant selection process that includes, among many components, a comprehensive review of a student’s high school record, rigorous writing requirements including several essays, and submission of a graded paper from a high school course.

Admission officers also look for less tangible qualities such as intellectual curiosity, motivation, leadership, creativity, and a social conscience.

The ongoing study features six major elements, including an analysis of admission data; a survey of inquirers, applicants, and matriculants; the tracking of submitters’ and non-submitters’ academic performance; an in-depth persistence study involving student volunteers; assessments of admission committee ratings; and focus groups with guidance counselors.