Making Character Count in Admission

by Mark H. Sklarow, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Educational Consultants Association

Let’s assume you were an admission director for a day. One spot remains for the class of 2019 with two folders in front of you. Candidate A is a brilliant young woman, with a 4.0 GPA which she achieved without breaking a sweat. In fact, she cruised through high school, never once experiencing a downturn personally or academically. Candidate B achieved a GPA a bit lower, let’s say a 3.6. But she did it faced with challenges: personal, familial, and academic. She wasn’t scared off by tough classes and succeeded with grit, determination, and a healthy dose of persistence.

Who do you choose? A or B. Who is most likely to succeed: students with clear intellectual ability or those who demonstrate non-cognitive skills? The answer may not be so clear. Those who believe in the importance of “character” in admission like to say that these skills are what separate champions from semi-finalists. That a student with superior intellect may indeed cruise…until something goes wrong and then may lack the internal and emotional skills to bounce back from a setback.

I recently joined the Board of a national organization that seeks to restore character to the admission decision. The Board is made up of leaders in college and university admission, independent schools, and leading national organizations. It is led by Robert Massa, senior VP for Enrollment & Institutional Planning at Drew University and David Holmes, director of Strategic Initiatives, at the Community School.

More than encouraging the consideration of character strengths, the newly renamed “Character Collaborative” believes that instruments may be available to assist the admission office in measuring these non-cognitive intelligences, as author and researcher Daniel Goleman calls them. Among these skills valuable for school and life success: persistence, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, curiosity, self-control, purpose, grit, and zest.

For years, such demonstration of character strengths came through the application process via the essay, an interview, and recommendations. More recently, a review of an applicant’s social media life may get reviewed. But a new effort, spearheaded at the secondary level for independent school applicants, is showing promise. The so-called character snapshot, gained through an online survey completed by students, is being examined for validity. The early indications, with a pilot run of some 16,000 applicants in 2018, is that it is valid. It will be exciting to see the results from the Enrollment Management Association, whose Executive Director, Heather Hoerle sits on the Board of the Character Collaborative, as well.

The Collaborative is not alone. Many independent groups are resurrecting character as significant life skills to be taught, including such groups as Character Counts, Making Caring Common, and Turning the Tide. At the IECA Conference in Austin a few months ago, Denison University President Adam Weinberg sounded the same theme when he noted that Denison doesn’t just want smart kids, but rather those with other character strengths: kindness, persistence, community-building, and the like. He challenged IECA and its members to lead the charge.

And, for the first time, a student’s character and values made it onto our annual Rankings for What Colleges are Really Looking for in Admissions.

Many IECA members have already joined the Character Collaborative. Members interested in joining ($100/year for a personal membership) may do so at the web site:





Facing Deferment 

By Mark Cruver, MEd, IECA (GA)

Deferment can be equally as troublesome for independent educational consultants (IECs) as it is for students. After spending countless hours and weeks advising, coaching, encouraging, and motivating students to apply to first-choice colleges and universities, we all wait with anticipation for the news. When the moment arrives for some, the rattled voice on the other end of the phone communicates all we need to know. And then, much like our students, we wonder what went wrong.

The one undeniable truth is the increased number of deferrals. It has proven to be an extraordinary year in contrast to previous years. This year’s number of deferred students has echoed through the early decision announcements. What is it about these announcements that has rattled our minds, our hearts, and even our confidence?

Looking at the Numbers

Perhaps one significant reason for an apparent increase in student deferments can be found in the numbers—they surely tell a story. As noted in U.S. News & World Report (Friedman 2017), acceptance rates have dropped with an overwhelming rise in applications. More students are applying to more schools, but the number of students needed to fill an entering class changes relatively little. There are many factors, but to add fuel to the fire, colleges are placing a huge emphasis on early decisions, so much so that some are adding a second early decision window. That race, requiring the students’ best foot forward, is crowded and requires a calculated approach that shines.

With that said, more students are identifying their top choice early. At Duke University for example, this year’s early decision students will make up 51% of the incoming class. With a record number of early decision applicants, up 16% over last year, came a decrease in early decision admits at Duke. This created an even greater competitive environment within the pool. A similar environment was seen on many campuses throughout the country, resulting in more deferred decisions than ever before.

Revisiting the Process

Building and recommending the college list for students is a process that IECs take very seriously. Understanding the students and matching them with colleges that fit them best are priorities.  But despite our best efforts, students still get deferred. Quite frankly, in most cases, there simply aren’t enough spaces for fully qualified students. Given the deeply invested process by both the IEC and the student, it is important to discuss the “what if” scenario to prepare students for that Plan B.

Remember, the process we take students on is a journey and with all the best research and confident selection, college admissions offices continue to hold the keys. When the doors remain locked, we question the process and selection, and the students question themselves. We do our best; the student does his or her best; and yet, many are deferred, denied, or waitlisted. Warikoo (2017) wrote that “Harvard President Drew Faust has said that Harvard could fill its coming class twice with high school valedictorians….So looking for explanations for why you did get in, or whether some groups are favored over others, misses the broader picture of the lack of clarity on what gets anyone into elite colleges. It also ignores the unequal opportunities young Americans have in the process.”

Dealing With Deferment

Evelyn Alexander (CA) (2016) recommends her students do the following if deferred or waitlisted:

• Go back to your college list and find one more reason why this college is a great match for you! They need to know that you know they are a good match.

• Identify any new information about you that has taken place since you submitted your application, such as a new leadership or volunteer role, job, activity, honor, academic award, or athletic accomplishment; anything that was forgotten or unknown; or an article or publication about you and your accomplishments.

• Reach out by email to the admissions counselor responsible for your geographic area and let him or her know about those new things and why you are still very interested in their college or university. It’s also a great opportunity to ask about the possibility of an interview.

Continuing the Process

It’s no secret how difficult the deferred decision is on students. They have clearly invested much of their college journey in making applications to their top choices. To receive news of deferment can be devastating. As IECs, it is our role to encourage, further inspire, and continue to speak well of the process and the journey. Depending on the school, the likelihood of admission after deferral varies greatly, and guiding students through what is realistic can be considerably helpful.

Expectations are at an all-time high, and for those students disappointed by deferment, there’s no better advice than this from MIT’s assistant director of admissions, Chris Peterson (2017), who recommends that students “take a deep breath, shake it off, and go crush the rest of their college applications this cycle.”


Alexander, Evelyn. 2016. “Wait Lists: What to Do.” [vlog]

Friedman, Jordan. 2017, September 28. “U.S. News Data: Admission Trends at Top Colleges.” U.S. News & World Report.

Peterson, Chris. 2017, December 14. “MIT Early Decisions Now Available Online.” [blog]

Warikoo, Natasha. 2017, December 13. “You’re not going to get accepted into a top university on merit alone. [blog]. The Conversation.

Mark Cruver, Capstone Educational Consultants, can be reached at [email protected]

Careful Assessment Leads to Proper Placement for Frustrated Learners

By Aria Carter, MSEd, Director of Admissions, The Greenwood School

I am often asked about admissions work in LD boarding schools for the frustrated learner. What is getting in the way of a student finding success in school? How do you know if what you are seeing is organic vs. situational or emotional vs. academic, and what can you do to tease it apart? Often, an honest, open dialogue between the admissions staff, parents, and the independent educational consultant can reveal the best placement for students.

The Many Sides of Tommy
Tommy is a 14-year-old in a fast-paced school system. His parents wrote that Tommy is an optimistic boy who is friendly, kind, and a bit naïve. At home, they say, Tommy is increasingly irritable and tension in the home has intensified. Academically, “he struggles with the English language because of his difficulties in reading, spelling, and writing. Otherwise, he is talented in numbers, logical thinking, music, and the arts. Socially, he sometimes does not like to participate in group discussions and tends to keep quiet, and he never makes friends easily. He almost always prefers to be alone.”

Tommy’s parents are anxious to know what is going on, and their concerns are validated by a psychoeducational assessment. The evaluator wrote: “Tommy is a loner and teenagers are increasingly feeling threatened by him; he often ignores peers when they greet him and is seen lashing out at classmates; often bullies others; refuses to join group activities, etc.” Academically, Tommy cannot decode words with more than one syllable, makes careless mistakes, struggles with phonological and orthographic processing, and has limited working memory and a depressed processing speed to name a few. According to the testing, however, Tommy’s emotional regulation challenges come to the surface as his primary difficulty.

And what does Tommy think about all of this? Tommy stated that his teachers “look for the bad things that I do,” and “They get mad at me for no reason.” Once a happy kid, Tommy now has elevated areas of depression, and he is beginning to show more serious signs of withdrawal.

An IEC’s Assessment
As Tommy’s struggles continued, an independent educational consultant (IEC) was hired to find a school for Tommy that would best address his needs. When she called me, she explained that she had a great conversation with a sweet, intelligent, young boy—Tommy. She said that he was currently in a classroom of 60 students and was always getting into trouble. He was “disruptive in class, excessively questioned the teachers, called out, moved around the room, and avoided work.” She described Tommy as a fish out of water who was finding little to no success in his current environment.

We talked about all the struggles that Tommy was experiencing and tried to determine the root cause: were those struggles organic or situational, emotional or academic? After many conversations, a therapeutic program within a gentle milieu was chose as the place for Tommy to address his challenges. During his time in the program, Tommy demonstrated significant emotional growth and self-awareness. He was described as “respectful with adults, very tolerant of his peers, holds no resentment, and likes to learn from others. Tommy has no problem following the rules and is so creative when given opportunities to show his talents.” And the praise continued.

The Right Placement
LD schools are typically not designed to work with students who have significant therapeutic needs, so it can be challenging to consider a student who appears to have presenting issues that are not primarily academic based. It does not always happen that way, but in Tommy’s case, it was truly the environment that was the root of his behavioral struggles—getting in the way of his success and masking his incredible potential. Following his successful completion of the therapeutic program, Tommy enrolled at Greenwood so that he could address his primary academic needs and complex profile. Now, Tommy is described as “a deep thinker, perfectionist, a comedian with a wonderful and sarcastic sense humor,” and even better, “there are no signs of emotional or behavioral difficulties.” In fact, Tommy is often described by his peers as the “best roommate ever.”

The relationship that a school has with an IEC is one of the most important pieces of the admissions process. School advising is most successful when there is an open and honest conversation, fueled by a mutual desire to find the best placement for the student. In Tommy’s case, nobody knew how he would respond to a therapeutic environment. But through many phone calls, open conversations, and a truly collaborative process, Tommy’s challenges were identified and supported, and he was finally given the opportunity to maximize his potential and feel good about himself.

Aria Carter can be reached at [email protected].

Decoding Transcripts from China, Russia, and the United Kingdom

By Sarah Contomichalos IECA (ME), Jack Cao, IECA (China), and Elizabeth Cashel, IECA Associate (NY)

International students are an important population for US high schools. Although admissions officers are very aware of the positives this population brings to their schools, it can be challenging to understand and correctly interpret their credentials. When working with the British, Chinese, and Russian elementary and high school national curriculums, for example, it is necessary to understand the grading systems, external exams, how to differentiate the level of the student within each system, and other cultural considerations. Independent educational consultants (IECs) are key to helping schools understand how to read international students’ qualifications.

United Kingdom
In the British system, the arts, including music and drama, are considered an important component of a student’s education in addition to the traditional academic subjects and are required up until year 10. School consists of 13 years and the calendar age cut off is August 25. Britain has a robust boarding school tradition that may begin as early as age six or seven. Students start in reception at age four and begin year one at age five. Junior school consists of reception through year 6. Senior school consists of years 7 to 13. External testing may be introduced as early as year 9 (US grade 8) in English, math, and science. Grades and half-term grades are given, and grading up until the International Diploma Program is done using A–F with effort noted on a scale of 1–7.

The middle school curriculum consists of years 7 to 11 (US grades 6–10) and is designed to be a sound preparation for the International Baccalaureate or AS & A levels offered in years 12 and 13 (US grades 11–12). In years 10 and 11 (US grades 9–10), students prepare for examinations set by the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) for international British schools or GCSEs for UK students. Those examinations are specifically designed to test a wide range of skills in addition to those normally associated with written examinations, such as field work in geography, practical work in science, and oral communication in languages. US high schools should request copies of any external testing as part of the application as well as school transcripts. Many colleges ask for copies of the IGCSE or GCSE certificates as part of the application process.

In China, the middle school education (grades 7–9) is the final part of the nine-year compulsory education (grades 1–9). Most of the US boarding school Chinese applicants submit applications when they are in MS. The three-year MS curriculum is standard nationwide and required subjects are Chinese, mathematics, English, history, ideology and morality, information technology, and PE for three years; biology, geography and music in grades 7–8; physics in grades 8–9; one year of fine arts in grade 7; and chemistry in grade 9. The MS education is driven by Zhongkao, a three-day strict high school entrance exam taken in June of grade 9 at the provincial level. The subjects tested vary by provinces. In Beijing and Shanghai, students sit for Chinese, mathematics, English, history, physics, chemistry, and PE. Each high school sets its own minimum Zhongkao scores to admit students. The more prestigious the school, the higher its cut-off score. Admission is based solely on the student’s exam grade. This undermines the importance of the learning process that is recorded by grades. In China, the students are graded twice each semester on the basis of mid-term and final exams, which count for 40% and 60% respectively in the overall semester grade stated in the transcript. Homework does not count in the grading system.

Many schools implement strict transcript policies to protect their academic integrity, although some are still flexible regarding transcripts, which means the grades may be enhanced as the result of parental pressure. US boarding schools—based on years of experience reviewing Chinese applications—do not rely that much on Chinese transcripts because they lack confidence in the transcripts’ accuracy. Instead, they rely more heavily on standardized test scores, such as SSAT or TOEFL, and the campus or Skype interviews or the third-party interviews offered by Vericant or InitialView. The Zhongkao scores are reliable but are not available until the end of grade 9. If the Chinese applicants apply to repeat grade 10, they should be encouraged to submit their Zhongkao scores because they accurately reflect their academic level.

Education in the Russian Federation is predominately provided by the state and is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Science. General education in Russia has an 11-grade system comprising three stages: primary (grades 1–4), lower secondary (grades 5–9), and upper secondary (grades 10–11). Basic education curricula typically stipulate 34 weeks of study with 27–38 hours per week. The school year extends from September 1 to the end of May and is divided into four terms or two semesters, depending on the school. Upon completion of lower secondary school students take the State Final Appraisal exam and are awarded the certificate of basic general education, which entitles a student to complete secondary education or move to a vocational education track. After completing upper school, students must pass a state exam to be awarded a Certificate of Complete Secondary Education (ATTESTAT).

The Ministry of Education establishes the minimum content of education and the workload of the students. The state prescribes a basic curriculum of compulsory fields of study: humanities with a special emphasis on Russian language, literature, social sciences, and physical education; sciences with emphasis on mathematics; or technology. Each school designs its own curriculum that is based on that basic standard. There are specialized schools that offer advanced programs in select disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, foreign languages, and humanities. Those elite academic schools require a special exam and interview and are frequently called gymnasiums, colleges, or lyceums. In addition, students who are interested in music, art, or sports attend specialized schools after their academic school day. Upon completion of middle school, the ninth year of schooling, some students attend a technical or vocational college or a highly competitive music or art college. These four-year colleges (called uchilishche) are the equivalent of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college in the United States.

The Russian grading system is based on a five-point scale with 1 rarely used. Both 1 and 2 are equal to failing and do not appear on student records. A grade of 5 is equivalent to excellent or an A, a 4 is equivalent to good or B, and a 3 is equivalent to satisfactory or C. If students receive a 1 or 2, they must retake the exam; two attempts are allowed. GPA is computed using the five-point scale.

Obtaining transcripts for Russian students can be challenging because sending students’ transcripts to international schools is not standard procedure in Russian schools. The most common documents available are:

• ATTESTAT—awarded for passing the Unified State Exam

• Excerpt from examination grade book—a copy of the grade book that lists all courses taken each semester, including the number of academic hours and grades received.

Reviewing international students’ applications begins with understanding the country’s curriculum and grading system. Equally important is recognizing the differences among schools within each country as well as the cultural norms that influence outcomes. To evaluate students from these systems, IECs and admissions officers should request any available external exam results as well as a copy of the school profile that the high school is providing as part of the university admissions process. It is also important to note that most educational systems focus on leaving exams, which minimize the relevance of semester and yearly grades and transcripts.

Sarah Contomichalos, Educational Advisory Services LLC, can be reached at [email protected]
Jack Cao, DY Oceanic Consultants LLC, can be reached at [email protected]
Elizabeth Cashel, Cashel Educational Consulting, can be reached at [email protected]

The Growing Use and Abuse of Digital Media

By Cosette Rae, MSW, LICSW; Alison Takenaka, MA; Johnny Tock, MS, LMHC; and Gail Curran, MS, MBA, IECA (AZ)

In this era of high-speed technological discovery, technology is everywhere: in our schools, in our homes, and in the hands of millions of youth worldwide. Our children’s dependence on technology now often starts before they can walk and talk.

US University Options in Europe 

By Laura O’Brien Gatzionis, MEd, IECA (Athens, Greece)

There are numerous ways for students to gain global experience and increase their transferable and marketable skills while broadening their horizons. Study abroad has become a typical college experience for many students. Gap years are another fascinating possibility. Many universities, including Tufts, Princeton, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Harvard, actively encourage entering freshman to consider a well-planned bridge or gap year. Families are interested in learning more about English-taught, bilingual or immersion bachelor programs outside of the United States, which may be ideal for independent, adventurous, curious personalities.

Social Media Audit 

By Brittany Maschal, EdD, IECA Associate (NY)

High school students today usually know what to remove from or make private on their social media accounts, but it’s far better to be safe than sorry when the time to apply to college comes around. What you don’t know can possibly hurt you, which is why I conduct a social media audit on all my students, and I often ask that parents do the same. I let students and parents know through my monthly emails, so they know it’s not targeted or personal.

Generation Z Comes of Age

By Mark Sklarow, CEO, IECA

It seems like just yesterday when admission reps and independent educational consultants rushed out to attend workshops and seminars to better understand millennials—roughly those students born from 1977 to 1995. Those students are now close to ending their college careers and are firmly established in the workplace. Their quirks, priorities, focus, and work style are something we baby boomers and gen Xers are now seeing up close: they are our coworkers and, increasingly, our bosses.

Cognitive + Character: Measuring What Matters in Admission

By Heather Hoerle, Executive Director, The Enrollment Management Association

When my daughter was applying to independent schools just a few years ago, I was keenly aware that there was more to her than her academic record. Would a file, for example, share the story of her deep empathy for others? As the executive director of the Enrollment Management Association (formerly SSATB), a nonprofit membership organization for independent schools and the governing body for the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), that personal experience was especially meaningful because it brought to light the need to help admission professionals go beyond the transcripts, teacher recommendations, and cognitive test scores. Traits that are hard to measure, such as teamwork, empathy, and integrity, are signs of values and character in action and part of what independent schools are looking for in children who apply for admission.