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  • Josie McCartney and David Sipos

Add an Entrance Essay to Walls Admissions

The Walls building in February / Credits: Meerabela Kempf

Walls has striven to improve our selective admissions process since 2019, seeking to make it accessible to all, while remaining true to the spirit of the school. We wisely abandoned a standardized entrance exam in 2021 and it hasn’t returned since.

But we’ve moved from one broken system to another.

Now, Walls invites anyone to apply — yet it only takes the applicants with the top 500 GPAs to an interview at the school. The 501st applicant is rejected instantly. That interview then makes up the overwhelming majority — 86 percent — of each applicant’s score, with their GPA making up the rest.

Using GPA as an initial limit on applicants is a poor system. We end up leaving many otherwise ideal students behind when we use an imprecise methodology and focus on middle school grades.

Middle school is not particularly challenging for most, and recent grade inflation makes a high middle school GPA easy to achieve. The difference between getting an interview and automatic rejection is a matter of decimal points, excluding many who may have simply had a bad month or semester in one class, yet remain strong students.

Furthermore, differences in middle schools’ calculations of GPAs are not taken into account. For example, one of us finished middle school with a GPA above 4.0 because she was encouraged to take high school classes with greater weight. But the other finished middle school with a GPA below 4.0 simply because his school considered an A 96 percent and above, whereas DCPS and Walls mark it at 92.5 percent.

Setting GPA as the prerequisite puts prospective Walls students on a plainly uneven playing field.

The interview process is similarly uneven. Seeking fair judgment of 500 interviewees is a difficult task, and Walls has failed it. The questions are vague, as is the rubric. They leave too much open to interpretation and can be very subjective, depending on the attitude of the interviewers.

Further, an interview as the sole factor relies too much on personal charisma. Charisma in an interview, while it may impress the interviewer, does not paint a complete picture of the student. Rather, charisma makes analysis of other important traits more difficult. An interview benefits the smooth-talker with nothing to say, yet hurts the brilliant but nervous or uncomfortable student.

So, in the face of these issues, what do we propose? All applicants with at least a 3.5 GPA should be invited to write a two-hour in-person essay. Students would respond to a broad prompt designed to elicit responses that demonstrate their individuality and scholarship. These essays would be scored, and the writers of the top 500 essays would then be invited to an interview.

This solves the fatal flaw of the current system. In offering an essay to all applicants with a decent GPA, we move toward a more even playing field and a more accessible admissions process. No longer would it arbitrarily filter out good students based on an imprecise metric of GPA. Rather than rely on a questionable system that varies between schools and between teachers, an essay relies on a common denominator students: the ability to write and form complex thought.

An essay also returns to the selective spirit of the school. Lately, we’ve scarcely been a selective school: we’re the only selective D.C. public school that doesn’t require a letter of recommendation, and one of only two that don’t have an essay. Instituting an in-person essay ensures we stay competitive but still fair.

An essay is also true to the idea of Walls as a college preparatory school. The best colleges adopt a holistic approach towards admissions. Rather than looking at a singular aspect of a student, like an interview making up 86 percentof the score, the admissions process is broader and more balanced. An essay combined with an interview and a GPA is a holistic approach that a college preparatory school should aspire to.

Requiring an essay has broader implications for the nature of School Without Walls. As a humanities-focused school, we ought to place the greatest emphasis on writing. If strong writing is not our foremost focus, we risk losing sight of our mission as the only selective humanities school in D.C., and the loss of this emphasis will be seen in the writing of incoming students.

An essay at the start of the Walls admissions process proves that we are serious about our commitment to writing. It restores that emphasis at step one. Prospective students will recognize this and enter Walls accordingly.

Our recommendation will preserve our mission for years to come. It will ensure that incoming Walls students hold both complex thought and a strong grasp of writing. We aren’t necessarily looking for the best writers. While we expect proficiency when it comes to the mechanics of writing, most important is the ability to convey sophisticated and unique thought. An essay accomplishes this.

We recognize that this is not a complete recommendation. Should the Walls administration and DCPS heed our call for change, the implementation of the essay will not be identical to what we write here. There remains the issue of who will grade the hundreds of student essays and how these will be graded. For the former, we suggest small panels of Walls faculty, and for the latter we suggest a rubric that balances writing quality and originality of thought, but we look forward to engaging with the administration over this.


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