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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Bard College offers new admissions option

Published: January 24, 2014
Section: News

A small liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley of New York has recently made headlines for making a change in their admissions process that will give a radical new option to prospective students.

Bard College, located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, between Albany and New York City, is allowing high school students to apply to the elite liberal arts school without submitting standardized test scores, recommendations or transcripts prior to admission. The college’s Bard Entrance Examination allows interested students to write four 2500-word research papers in lieu of the standard admissions process. The essays will be graded by Bard faculty members and if the average grade of the papers is at least a B+, the student will be admitted. Once admitted, students will need a character reference and transcript from their high school, but they will do this with the assurance that they have been accepted.

The exam includes questions from three topics: social science, history and philosophy; arts and literature; and science and mathematics. Students who choose this application method will have to submit one essay from each of the categories plus another one from any of the three. The use of the distinct categories will allow Bard to be certain that the applicant is able to work and learn in differing disciplines but the B+ requirement will allow the student some leeway in making up for a lower performance in one category with a great score in another.

There are a total of 21 question options broken down into the three categories. The questions are not standard Common Application or even high school-level questions; they are at college-level and will help judge whether students will be able to handle the kind of courses and assignments that college students must complete. The questions include analyses of Kant, Confucius, Chaucer, Gogol and Feynman, scholars that many high school students may not have heard of in their high school courses. Though applicants may not be very familiar with the information and work behind the questions asked in the Entrance Examination, Bard believes that their unfamiliarity will allow for greater freedom and equality than most admissions processes allow and enable a process that more closely parallels college academics.

The Bard website states that the exam is “not a test of what you already know; rather it is an opportunity to demonstrate close reading, critical thinking and the ability to interpret problems.”

Students will have months to complete the papers. Bard will provide relevant materials but encourage applicants to delve deeper into the subjects using various resources. The college believes that this will allow students to learn and work for themselves to provide a better idea of a student’s work ethic. Although easily corruptible, students will have to pledge that their work is their own. Applicants applying through the free entrance exam will receive their admissions decision by the end of January. Applicants that receive a B will be allowed to complete the Common Application and considered to have met the Jan. 1 deadline. The admissions department has stated that students’ performance on the entrance exam will complement their application during the regular admission review process.

The Common Application essays often include short essays about why the students want to go to the specific school. Many students receive outside assistance from parents, teachers, counselors and private tutors on the Common Application essays as well as the rest of the admissions process. Bard hopes to level the playing field.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard, told The Huffington Post, “We are interested in recruiting students who have real curiosity, motivation and ambition.” He went on to say that the common admissions system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning” and believes this new method is a “return to basics, to common sense.” Botstein has been the president of Bard College since 1975 after having served as president of Franconia College since he was 23. He is also the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.

He also pointed out that an increasing number of students are coming from abroad and are not used to the standardized tests that are common in America. Bard was one of the first schools to make standardized tests optional, a practice that hundreds of institutions across the nation have adopted. More schools will likely make standardized tests optional as the National Association for College Admission Counseling has recommended that colleges eliminate these requirements because it gives an unfair advantage to students who can afford test coaching. Despite the school’s optional SAT/ACT policy, 60 percent of Bard applicants still submit their test scores.

Students may continue to apply in the usual admissions method. Some believe that it is unreasonable to expect high school students to write papers accumulating to 10,000 words in such a short period, especially while they have many extracurricular going on and are applying for admission to other colleges. Botstein believes that students may start the research papers in their junior year or the summer so that they will have ample opportunity to write the papers.

Bard also has a unique non-binding Immediate Decision Plan option that allows applicants to take a seminar on campus, be interviewed the same day and receive an admissions decision by the following week.

The school has pointed out that the new admissions option was announced too late during the current admissions cycle but that they believe that it will make a larger impact next year. It will not be evident for a few years if students gaining admission through the exam may end up having higher grade point averages or graduation rates than peers earning acceptance through the conventional method. It will be interesting to see what effect the Bard Entrance Examination has on its student body and the admissions process at other schools. It may be a more effective way to judge which students will be able to thrive at the college level.