Chip Away at Bias in Admissions One Step at a Time

November 18, 2019 Bridget Janicki

Without us fully realizing it, implicit bias creeps into our thoughts and decision-making because it operates at the subconscious level. Unwittingly, we all bring our own slant or preference to work. But to achieve authentically inclusive school communities we must embrace a more holistic approach to create equity in the admissions process.

Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington, wanted to reduce bias, add more perspective, and increase the predictive power of its admission process. Associate Head of School and Admissions and Financial Aid Director Booth Kyle partnered with Nathan Kuncel, the Marvin D. Dinnet Distinguished Professor at University of Minnesota, to tackle these goals. With 850 students enrolled in grades 5-12 at Lakeside, subtle changes could make a significant impact.

Kyle wanted to do better work—to innovate, but where do you start? Kuncel suggested a new, more effective approach to interviews: structural or behavioral interviewing.

Chipping away at bias isn’t as easy as it sounds. After decades of adhering to a routine, it’s hard to imagine doing things differently. Plus, demanding schedules and availability of interviewers in our busy schools offer further constraints.

What was the tipping point to Lakeside’s start? Kuncel flew to Seattle to offer a four-hour workshop to a couple dozen admissions officers in the area, upsizing the importance of reducing bias to the local community rather than a single school. It also fostered a diversity of perspectives. The workshop sowed the seeds for the team at Lakeside and they got to work growing a better process.

First big step: Move away from open-ended questions, which don't necessarily uncover the information you seek. Instead, ask questions that put the student in a moment in time or a hypothetical scenario. For instance, ask how they resolved a recent conflict with a friend rather than how they get along with friends generally.

Moving to these more behavioral questions really gives us a better signal of how the student will do,” Kuncel explains. “The student doesn't always have to give a good answer. What matters even more is if they've learned from it, that they have a better sense of how to handle themselves and get along with other people.

With decades of experience in independent school admissions, Kyle likened the pivot to teaching an old dog new tricks. Undergoing the shift in perspective, the veteran interviewer realized that while he felt comfortable in those interview settings, the student didn’t always feel the same way. He looked at previous assumptions he made about students based on their reactions to questions—which he recognized as a biased approach.

“When Nathan introduced this idea of asking these more structured questions, it kind of blew my mind,” Kyle describes, but I got it because it suddenly was sort of leveling the interview playing field for all the applicants because they were going to get the same sort of questions—and not the questions that were just comfortable for me to ask.

Now during a typical half-hour interview, Kyle spends the first 10 minutes shooting the breeze and making the student feel comfortable. Then he segues to 20 minutes of more structured questions. The Lakeside team focuses on two major areas: resilience and open-mindedness—a high priority for the inclusive school.

To better gauge other attributes they seek in students, Lakeside requires all applicants to take the EMA Character Skills Snapshot. Kuncel helped EMA develop this admissions tool that measures essential character skills like initiative, intellectual engagement, open-mindedness, resilience, self-control, social awareness, and teamwork. Using multiple tools to gain information helps reduce bias.

Here’s a quick recap of ideas to help your school reduce bias in the admissions process.

  • Have more than one observer in an interview to gain a variety or perspectives.
  • Standardize behavioral interview questions for every candidate (bypass open-ended queries).
  • Add a personal reference form that differs from teacher evaluations.
  • Use multiple independent evaluators of admissions files.
  • When evaluating a student, forgo the photo.

Essentially, you want to gather information across multiple domains from multiple perspectives. Kyle sums up, The spirit of holistic admissions and eliminating bias, I think that it is something you have to chip away at. It's not something that you can just wave a wand and eliminate. You really have to do it one step at a time.

Hear more about Lakeside’s story in the EMA podcast Reducing Bias in the Admission Process.

What does your school do to reduce bias in admissions? Please share your ideas in our online community. Good luck in your efforts to create inclusive school communities!
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