Field Notes: Using self-reported academic records in the admissions process

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org. 

By Nancy J. Walsh, Director of Admissions Operations, Undergraduate Admissions, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Several colleges and universities around the country have turned to collecting self-reported academic records during the application process rather than official transcripts. The University of California system has used this practice for many years, while others such as Rutgers University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington have moved to self-reported over the last several years. While some institutions use self-reported academic information at all applicant levels, this article will mainly focus on this process at the freshman level.

Institutions collecting self-reported academic information are typically using their application of admission to do so. Some schools may have also developed a system outside of the application in which such information can start to be collected at any point during the student’s high school career, like Rutgers has done. The Coalition Application, which will launch this summer, will include a self-reported academic collection feature for those member schools who wish to use it. The collection itself can vary among institutions as well. Some may only ask for a self-reported high school GPA and/or class rank, while others will ask for much more extensive information – a listing of all courses, grades, subject area, when taken, level of course, etc. In the latter example, it’s basically a replication of the student’s transcript.

Why collect self-reported information?

You may be asking why the transcript isn’t just requested if the self-reported academic record is a mirror image. A major advantage of collecting self-reported information through the application process is the match to the applicant’s file. As Phyllis Micketti, Director of Applicant Services at Rutgers, puts it: “It’s an immediate and 100% accurate matching of academic record to applicant and elimination of most paper processing.”

So, while the applicants are being asked to do a little more work on the frontend by completing the self-reported academic record, they don’t have to worry about the prospect of a transcript being lost somewhere between the high school and admissions office, which may make them miss an important deadline. There is certainly less demand on the mailrooms in admissions offices, but on the high school side as well during application season.

Matching is only one of the advantages of using self-reported information. Paul Seegert, the Director of Admissions at the University of Washington, feels that the holistic review process is improved by using self-reported since files are available to readers much quicker and the academic record is in a uniform display, much different than the various formats of high school transcripts. The University of Illinois also allows its readers to reorganize the self-reported information to aid in the holistic review. Readers can sort the courses by subject area, grade or course level as well as chronologically which can give a 360-view of the applicant’s high school career.  Automated processing can also be used on the self-reported data, such as high school course pattern analysis and GPA calculation. Both of those tasks are done manually on many college campuses using the transcript data. Rutgers also analyzes the course level data each year to improve application review, communications and student retention. That information is already stored in a database and does not have to be manually entered from transcripts.  

Challenges to self-reporting

As with all systems, self-reported can have its challenges as well. It can be difficult for applicants from non-traditional high schools to complete the self-reported academic record, especially if narrative reports are used instead of grades. International applicants can also find it more challenging since most colleges and universities design their applications around domestic applicants. The University of Illinois added a new section to its application last year which enables international students from exam-based educational systems to report their exam results separate from the academic record. 

Regardless of type of applicant, many may not complete the self-reported academic record correctly, which could result in an incomplete application or an inaccurate decision made on the file. Staff at the University of Illinois check each self-reported academic record for accuracy before the file is moved on to the review stage. Staff members have the ability to fix common mistakes (e.g. miscoded a course subject area) by internally editing the self-reported record, or if the mistakes are widespread, that section of the application can be returned to the student for more extensive editing.  And, of course, it does take more time for high school students to complete applications for colleges and universities who use a self-reported system.  Lisa Micele, the College Counselor at University Laboratory High School, says that her students don’t necessarily mind self-reporting as long as the information can be shared with multiple campuses in a portal-style system like the University of California. Having to complete individual self-reported records can be much more burdensome to students.

Colleges and universities using a self-reported academic record in the review process then require students who plan to enroll to submit official transcripts to verify the self-reported information against the official documentation.  At this stage, the collection of the transcripts is on a much smaller scale since the population of enrolling students is much less than the number of applicants. Each institution using self-reported has its own verification process, but the vast majority tend to report that the number of cases in which the self-reported and official documentation are significantly different are quite small. Only four students had their admission offer rescinded last summer at the University of Illinois for discrepancy reasons out of almost 7,600 freshmen who enrolled in fall 2015. Self-reported institutions may also choose to rescind admission offers from students who do not submit the official academic records by set deadlines as well.

Considerations

If your institution is considering moving to a self-reported system, make sure these points are part of the conversation:

  • Technical resources – having full access to technical resources is key to the process unless you are planning to use a vendor product. If you want to do automated calculations with the data collected, programmers will be crucial in developing those processes.
  • Communication – make sure your prospective students, high schools and campus partners are aware of the switch. Don’t anticipate that the sending of high school transcripts will magically end. They will still arrive, but you can choose to ignore them.
  • Continual tweaks – be open to learning from the behavior of your applicants and making tweaks both externally and internally to your self-reported system. It will never be perfect, but making the reporting of the coursework from the students’ side as easy as possible should be your ultimate goal, while also collecting the adequate information needed to make an admission decision.