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Didn’t ace SAT? Just design microbe transplant research

Mary Backlund, director of admission at Bard College, whose applicants now have the option of writing four, 2,500-word research papers. Nathaniel Brooks/New York Times photo

Mary Backlund, director of admission at Bard College, whose applicants now have the option of writing four, 2,500-word research papers. Nathaniel Brooks/New York Times photo

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From page A16 | December 20, 2013 |

By Ariel Kaminer

High school seniors with poor grades and even worse SAT scores, you may be just what one of the nation’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges is looking for.

You need not be president of the debate club or captain of the track team. No glowing teacher recommendations are required. You just need to be smart, curious and motivated, and prove it with words — 10,000 words, in the form of four, 2,500-word research papers.

The research topics are formidable and include the cardinal virtue of ren in Confucius’ “The Analects,” “the origin of chirality (or handedness) in a prebiotic life,” Ezra Pound’s view of “The Canterbury Tales,” and how to design a research trial using microbes transplanted from the human biome. If professors deem the papers to be worthy of a B+ or better by the college’s standards, you are in.

The college is Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and it says the new option, which has not previously been announced but is to begin this fall, is an attempt to return the application process to its fundamental goal: rewarding the best candidates, rather than just those who are best able to market themselves to admissions committees.

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview. Saying the prevailing system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning,” he hailed the new approach as a “return to basics, to common sense” and added, “You ask the young person: are they prepared to do university-level work?”

Botstein said he is not just out to change admissions at Bard, but to “start a debate about the kind of dishonesty that prevails” in college admissions.

His timing is propitious. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has called on colleges to consider eliminating the SAT and the ACT from their admissions requirements (as Bard, among other colleges, has done), saying the exams underrepresent the abilities of some students, in particular minorities, while favoring those who can afford coaching.

This month, a coalition of private nursery and grade schools in New York recommended that its member schools stop asking very young applicants to take a standardized admissions test, also because of concerns about coaching. And new evidence shows that few low-income students attend elite colleges, despite the financial aid they offer, a problem that Bard hopes its new approach can address.

Beyond its philosophical appeal, the experiment has certain practical advantages for Bard. It plays well to the college’s strengths, emphasizing its individuality and academic standards. This past year, the college received 11 applications for each seat in its 500-member freshman class, whose average high school GPA was 3.6.

At the same time, the new option compensates for some of Bard’s short suits, attracting attention in a way that does not require either lavish new campus amenities or elaborate marketing campaigns, both of which, Botstein acknowledged, are prohibitively expensive.

Over recent decades, Bard, which charges $45,730 for tuition, has developed a reputation as a college proudly out of step with the times. In an era when many institutions are promoting professional training, Bard encourages broad intellectual experimentation. Its faculty attracts many celebrated scholars and artists, foremost among them Botstein himself, who when not consumed with his work as a president or a scholar has traveled the world as an orchestral conductor.

This is not Bard’s first attempt to shake up the admissions process. In 1978, it began inviting applicants to campus for a day of academic seminars and meetings with admissions officers. Within two days, the students, who must also submit standard application materials, are informed of their fate. That avenue will remain in place, as will the common application, a more conventional form used by over 400 colleges. There is no set number of how many students will be admitted through each method.

Jim Rawlins, who just ended his tenure as president of the admissions counselors group, said many colleges experiment with the admissions formula, but few quite this drastically. “I really do think we’ve heard about every scenario,” he said. “But every once in a while we go, Wow, haven’t heard that one before.”

Bard’s audition is open book: Along with the menu of 17 questions, the college’s Web site will provide all the relevant source materials — from a Nobel lecture about prion disorders to the United Nations Charter to an Aeschylus play — with which to address them. (Additional research is permitted if properly documented.) Mary Backlund, Bard’s director of admission, said that that access will place students who may not have encountered the subjects in school or do not have good local libraries on equal footing with those who attended elite high schools.

Nicholas Lemann, the author of “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” a book about the SAT, warned that solely merit-based admissions standards were all but impossible to create. “I appreciate the incredible appeal, especially to Americans, of canceling out background factors,” he said, “but it can’t be done if you’re looking at people at that age on basically educational credentials.”

To participate, students will have to sign a pledge that the work is their own. If they are accepted, they will be asked to provide a character reference from their school. As to the possibility that some applicants might violate their pledge, Botstein has decided not to dwell on it. “Why not show a measure of trust?” he said. “Go the other direction, not assume the kid is going to cheat on you. Let’s take the high road.”

A bigger obstacle may be the sheer effort that this assignment entails. Students will be expected to write essays totaling 10,000 words — about one-sixth the length of many novels. “You could probably do it in a weekend,” Backlund said. “Let’s say a week, without disrupting your personal life too much.”

Yao Wen, 17, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, had a different assessment: “Four research papers consume a lot of time. I think three months,” the time between the posting of the questions and the deadline, “is not enough.”

An English teacher at Stuyvesant, Walter Gern, noted that one essay question concerned a 1633 poem by George Herbert, which by chance he taught in class on Friday. For students whose schools do not expose them to that poem — or to German philosophers or Russian novelists — he said, “I can’t imagine a kid doing it on his or her own.”

But Caspar Lant, 17, a senior at Stuyvesant who said he did not have the best grades, said the new option would be “really attractive to a student like me.”

Botstein acknowledged that the workload might be impractical for some applicants. But he finds a virtue in it, too. “The great thing is, anyone who completes it is better for it. No one,” he said, “is better for having taken the College Board.”

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