Three Years Post-COVID, Walls Overhauls Admissions with Essays and Recommendations
Funger Hall, a GW building where Walls previously administered its entrance exam / Credits: David Sipos
The School Without Walls admissions committee, a group of teachers and administrators, will add two new components to the upcoming 2024 admissions cycle: an essay and teacher recommendation letters. These additions significantly depart from the interview-based system Walls has employed since eliminating the school's standardized admissions exam in 2020.
In addition to their GPA, all applicants who would like to attend Walls in fall 2024 must submit two letters of recommendation from their middle school, one from a STEM teacher and one from a humanities teacher. The admissions committee will use these factors to decide who passes on to the next stage of the admissions process. Similar to the previous system, students who make the cut will be invited to the Walls building to interview with a teacher and student. Immediately following the interview, students will handwrite an essay in response to a prompt.
The administration is still determining whether to employ one or multiple prompts. According to assistant principal LaToya Grant, who is on the admissions committee, evaluators will examine students’ writing skills, use of grammar, reading comprehension, and analytical skills when grading the essay.
Adding an essay heralds significant new responsibilities for Walls’ admissions committee, including writing prompts and administering and grading the essay. The committee has already begun asking teachers, including humanities teacher Ginea Briggs, to write prompts. Despite declining the offer, Ms. Briggs nonetheless believes that “an essay could be good for children and the school, if done properly.” Ms. Briggs further elaborated on the benefits an essay could offer to humanities teachers in particular: “it could inform our curriculum and show us what we need to adjust to best accommodate new students.”
As a result of the added components, interviews will carry less weight in the overall admissions decision. Ms. Grant said, “we're not sure exactly how we're going to score everything, but final admissions decisions will be based on a composite of GPA, recommendation letters, interviews, and the essay.”
Interviews this year will follow a similar structure to previous cycles; it will involve a twenty to thirty-minute conversation with a teacher and student evaluator pair who ask applicants two questions from a list, and then ask parents one question. The teacher and student interviewer will each fill out a form scoring the applicant based on the composure, originality, thoroughness, and syntax of their responses, as well as on the extent to which those responses demonstrated the Walls values of academic curiosity, resiliency, community, and diversity and inclusion.
Fairness and equity rank high among the admissions committee’s priorities for the new essay. The prior interview system faced significant criticism for its subjectivity. Isabelle Pessey, an eighth grader at Hardy Middle School and current Walls applicant, believes admission decisions based solely on interviews disadvantage quiet kids. In the past two admissions cycles, interviews constituted 86 percent of the admissions grade, while GPA only made up 14 percent, according to a DCPS document. She said that, “more introverted students might not get in simply because their interview didn’t [go] as well as students with more charisma.” Marie-Celeste Pessey (‘26) echoed her sister’s sentiments, characterizing her own Walls interview as “very arbitrary.” She added, “depending on your mood or anxiety level, one bad day could make or break your interview, and thus your application.”
Ms. Briggs pointed out that “kids with siblings or friends at the school had more time to learn about and prepare for the interview.” Additionally, some teacher and student evaluators scored more harshly than others, meaning that who the interviewers were could significantly affect an applicant’s chances of being accepted to Walls.
GPA also played a crucial role in the old admissions system. According to DCPS’ webpage for Walls admissions from 2022-2023, interview slots were given to “top students with the highest GPA” from within a middle school. In practice, applicants coming from schools with more Walls applicants, such as Alice Deal, had to clear a higher threshold.
Avajane Lei, a Walls senior in the George Washington University Early College Program, said, “I know a lot of students who would have done well at Walls but never got the chance. They just didn’t meet the GPA cutoff.”
The new recommendation letter requirement will make GPA less important in the first stage of the admissions process. At the same time, it will increase the complexity of the process by requiring evaluators to read and subjectively assess hundreds of documents rather than simply ranking applicants’ GPA and selecting the best among them.
In many ways, Walls’ shift towards essay-based admissions mirrors recent changes in the college application process. According to U.S. News, approximately 80% of colleges have test-optional admissions policies in the 2023-24 admissions cycle, placing greater weight on admissions essays like the Common Application and school-specific supplementals.
Lei, who took the Walls entrance exam, said, “moving away from standardized testing towards a more holistic approach … makes sense. Testing is something many high schoolers struggle with, so I don’t think we should make middle schoolers take tests too.” Lei’s comment highlights one of the administration’s main reasons for instituting an interview, according to Ms. Grant, which is to have a “more holistic view of applicants.”
Walls’ former admissions exam tested both humanities and mathematics ability. Though the new essay-based admissions system will require a letter of recommendation from a STEM teacher, it will not directly measure math aptitude or provide any metrics for students’ math performance. Reuven Magder (‘25), who did not take the test, thinks that excluding STEM requirements from admissions could disadvantage mathematically-oriented students. “
Essay writing is a specific skill that some kids learn, and some don't,” Magder said. He added, “a test with categories like reading and math would more accurately assess students’ intellect.”
According to Ms. Grant, the Walls admissions committee recognizes the importance of math and provides a math diagnostic test during the summer bridge program and remedial courses for those struggling in the subject.
Walls’ application opened on December 11th at myschooldc.org.