Developing a Bias-Aware Admission Process

Fall 2018

By Lisa Shambaugh

I remember an application from my first year as assistant director of admission at Barnard College. I met the then 11th-grader on a visit to her school. She told me that Barnard was her dream school, and she was earnest and passionate in her interview. Something about her story, in which she faced significant family challenges, tugged at my heart and stuck with me throughout the Fall outreach season. When we received her application, she had mostly A’s in the ninth grade but one alarming D, and an overall downward trend in 10th grade. Despite my pleas for the admission committee to give her a chance—she said she was working to improve her grades and was focused on getting into our school—she was not accepted. In subsequent committee sessions, I continued to argue her case. Finally, the slightly exasperated members asked me not to mention her again—the “no” decision was final. I still think of her, and many other students who have captured my heart over the years as I got to know them through their applications.

What is it about some students that causes us to feel so connected? More importantly, how does that feeling shape our selections? What unseen forces affect our application review and committee processes? We ask for a lot of information in our admission process: academic transcripts/grades, testing, teacher recommendations, and interviews. While many of these requirements on the surface seem to provide objective, measurable criteria by which to compare applicants, the truth is that subjectivity and bias can impact the process at every turn. Playing a role are varied educational opportunities students have at their previous schools, access to preparation for required admission tests, subjectivity inherent in teacher recommendations and grading, and perhaps most importantly, individual biases that show up in the admission process.

Over the course of my more than 15 years in admission, my understanding of bias in the process has evolved. We cannot create a “bias-free” admission process, and I question whether that should even be our goal. What we can do is shine a light on the many areas in which bias, preferences, and societal influences impact a student’s application. We need to create a “bias-aware” admission process that provides checks and balances for our own individual preferences and blind spots, while giving voice to different perspectives.

Reading and Rating: Process and Criteria

When I arrived at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MD) three years ago, the admission committee used a rating system without a rubric. While there was broad agreement on the criteria and on what the ratings meant, there was also a you-know-it-when-you-see-it aspect that worried me as a new member of the community. What if I saw it differently? Having worked in admission at four institutions, I can attest that different schools and committee members place a greater or lesser weight on certain applicant characteristics, and I wanted to ensure that our ratings were based on consistent criteria.

Working with the school’s academic leaders and drawing on my experience at other schools, we created three ratings. We defined one rating for “academic” criteria, based on grades and test scores. Borrowing from the school's research-informed effort grade rubric, we developed a second rating for “social/emotional skills”
and other factors, such as athletic or artistic skills and other community participation. Students then receive a third overall rating, an average of the other two scores. Finally, each application reader will recommend an admission decision, which is informed by the rating but not determined by it.

To ensure that committee members are consistent, and taking a page from college admissions, each year we begin the application reading season with a “norming” meeting. I explain the rating criteria, and then we review sample applications (created from past applications, with students’ identifying information removed) and share our ratings, discussing until our understandings are in alignment. While our ratings on individual applicants can and should vary based on details we discover in the application file, the idea is to ensure that we are agreeing or disagreeing on the basis of the same criteria.

There are several models for application reading, comprehensively listed and defined in the 2002 College Board publication Admissions Decision-Making Models: How U.S. Institutions of Higher Education Select Undergraduate Students: single reader (each application is reviewed by only one reader), team reading (readers discuss each file together and make a consensus decision), and the most common, multiple readers to committee (each reader reviews and rates the file separately without access to others’ comments or ratings, then the file is decided upon in committee). Two years ago, St. Andrew’s moved to the Ravenna online application, which has a setting that allows readers to independently record their reading notes, ratings, and recommended decisions without being able to see others’ comments or ratings. We have used this “blind reading” process as an enhancement to our multiple reader model.

Candidly, this blind reading is not one of my more popular admission policies, because some committee members felt it was inefficient, and newer committee members thought it was intimidating. However, the power of this approach becomes evident when members differ in their responses, and we can delve into those important conversations from our different lenses. Using this system, a new teacher has an equally important voice and rating as a senior academic administrator or the director of admission. Application reading sometimes resembles detective work, and I am amazed each year that a reader will find a detail that everyone else missed, which may have a significant impact on the decision.

Admission Committee Structure

The membership of admission committees is as important as the structure, and ideally, the admission review committee should reflect the diversity of the applicant pool. At St. Andrew’s, we have four divisional committees, which include admission staff members, teachers, division heads, and learning specialists. I invite members to serve for two years, and we intentionally try to create a diverse group, including longtime and newer faculty, people with differing racial and gender identities, and teachers from different departments. No committee can be 100 percent representative, but creating a diverse group can help to ensure that students will have someone at the table who might see their experience as a mirror of their own, while others might gain a window into a different path and identity. Luckily, this has been an area of focus at St. Andrew’s for some time, and I continue to be attentive to the makeup of the committee when appointing new members.

The timing and duration of admission committee meetings are also important to consider. Several years ago, an economist friend asked me if I was familiar with the study “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” by Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso. The authors found that Israeli parole boards were more likely to favorably grant parolee requests early in the day and after lunch or snacks. The study resonated with me, because in my experience, timing can have a significant impact on admission decisions. Applicants presented to committee in the later afternoon often have a shorter discussion time than those in the morning, as the day draws short and pressure mounts to finish in the allotted time. While this can’t always be avoided, we are careful at St. Andrew’s to vary the order in which students are discussed (not always proceeding alphabetically, for example), and to take breaks. We owe it to the students we are considering— and to ourselves—to refresh our decision-making abilities by taking short breaks to eat a snack, taking a walk outside, or sharing a laugh.

Outcomes and Further Exploration

In the 2017-2018 school year, I wanted to dive deeper into our own individual biases. As an opening exercise for the norming meeting with the admission review committee, I asked members to read and discuss “Nine Forms of Bias in Admissions,” a blog post by Molly McCracken, Kira Talent admissions editor. She lists common forms of bias in higher education admission, including Groupthink Effect, Halo Effect, Ingroup Bias, Stereotype Bias, Bizarreness Affect, and others (see sidebar, “Where’s the Bias?” above).

As our committee members discussed the different forms, we talked openly about the how these and other forms of bias could impact the consideration of candidates, and we added to the list, to include bias around ability, race, regional locations, language, and family structure, among others. We started with an assumption that we will all bring our own perspectives and biases to our review of candidates. This framing provided us with a more honest, although perhaps uncomfortable, place to start. We only need to examine the history and demographics of independent schools to be aware of ongoing work that we need to do to see the ways in which we may be advantaging some candidates in the review process.

Just as it’s hard to quantify the impacts of bias on admissions, it’s difficult to measure the impact of the changes we have made to our process. However, I asked committee members to reflect on the impact, if any, of open discussion about bias. One member said, “I felt like the article you shared, and the group conversation and exercise that we participated in, helped to make me more intentional in both my reading of files and interactions with families.” Another member said, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to recognize your bias and name it; you want to have as many perspectives represented at the table as possible. Sometimes we’re trying so hard to be neutral that we do a disservice to our applicant families.”

Every student deserves to have a full, thoughtful, and balanced review of their application. The student who I met many years ago and passionately fought for at Barnard will never know of my advocacy, and I’ll never completely understand why I connected so powerfully with her story. However, there were several thousand other students who applied that year who deserved equal consideration. Rather than pretending that we can create a biasfree, objective admission process, we need to create an environment in which we operate with full awareness that bias can, does, and will continue to shape our choices. A bias-aware approach to admission can help to ensure that we don’t create or perpetuate a system that unfairly overlooks or advantages some students, and that a broadly diverse group of decision-makers will have the opportunity to fiercely advocate for all of those students whose potential may be overlooked.
Lisa Shambaugh

Lisa Shambaugh is director of admission at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland.