In a test-optional world, when does international admissions become an educated guess?

Standardized testing is not for everyone

I don’t remember taking the SAT. That memory is buried deep, deep down with other stressful childhood experiences like skinned knees, flushed goldfish, and pretty much all of eighth grade. All of it.

So imagine my jealousy at the growing (daily, it seems) list of postsecondary institutions for which standardized testing is now optional. According to the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are currently 1,080 four-year colleges and universities that do not use the SAT or ACT in their admissions process (not including the very recent news about Oregon.) They even provide a handy searchable database. For anyone who skipped eighth grade math (again, just the worst year) that means roughly one in four institutions are now test-optional or flexible.

I’m not going to argue pro or con as far as test-optional policies go. However, there is one consideration that seems to have gone overlooked, especially when it comes to internationally-educated individuals: the burden these policies place on the transcript. For international students, the test-optional institution list is slightly shorter, but still well over 300. With test scores taken out of the equation, transcript data may be the lone numerical benchmark in a student’s application. So, it’s imperative that the individual reviewing an international academic record understands education in that country and how to convert it to this one. Especially if there are multiple people reading international applications, there’s a real danger as far as consistency in grade conversion and its effect on offers of admission, scholarship, etc.

Image: ECE Inc.

Calculating grades for admissions decisions can be tricky

Take, for example, South Korea. Secondary transcripts there may include two sets of grades: one based on aggregate marks and one based on rank relative to other students. Let’s say an admissions office at a U.S. institution has no official grade policy or standard on South Korea. They receive applications from two South Korean students. An admission counselor calculates Student 1’s GPA using the aggregate grades, while another uses the rank-based grades for Student 2. It’s certainly plausible that Student 2 may have done “better” than Student 1, at least in the way we think of grades. But because Student 1 was considered for admission using a different standard, they were awarded a scholarship and Student 2 was awarded zip.

There are myriad organizations providing information on how to convert international grades to the U.S. 4.0 grading scale (fancy name: Comparative International Education). But there is no single, accepted international grade conversion system, and creating one would be more or less impossible. There are far too many exceptions - cases where a grading system is a countrywide standard (except when it isn’t) or where a standard may not necessarily be available.

For another example, consider countries where students sit for WAEC (West African Examinations Council) exams. If a student from, say, Ghana applies to your institution for early action or early decision, the transcript you receive, in all likelihood, will be their internal secondary school record. That may or may not include a grading scale (probably around a 50/50 chance). Without a file of other transcripts from that school for comparison, any grade conversions are basically an educated guess. Having admitted (or denied) that student, you may be in for a surprise once their WAEC scores come in.

Focus on the professional development of your evaluation staff

So, what are we to do? The first step is recognizing that we may not even know what we don’t know. It’s very easy to find a set of grading scale conversion tables online which seem to make sense and just use those when considering students. And that’s fine! The problem is that too many people stop their training right there and don’t dive into the nuances of international education systems. Doing this right requires an enormous amount of attention. My evaluator colleagues at Educational Credential Evaluators (ECE) spend a minimum of ten months in training. Even then they’re expected to continue their training until the day they can Abitur no more. And we’ve only discussed calculating GPA’s. Detecting fraud in academic documents is another scary topic for another day.

There are two real solutions here, one internal and one external. The external answer is the easier one, in that there are oodles of training programs on this subject. Although credential evaluation companies may differ on grading scales and evaluation policy, the methodology is roughly the same, and certainly, there is great collected knowledge on country-specific educational systems. Members of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) are forthcoming about their policies and often have shared resources.

Other national organizations like NAFSA - Association of International Educators or TAICEP (The Association for International Credential Evaluation Professionals) provide workshops (including the online kind, for all of you playing from home). Devoting a day or two each month to a “lunch and learn” for your office and attending a webinar or e-learning are other great training opportunities. And don’t forget about your colleagues at the Institute of International Education (IIE) and at EducationUSA advising centers around the world. Forming relationships with EdUSA advisers on the ground is, to put it mildly, a good idea. They are fountains of wisdom. Finally, there’s good old-fashioned reading. Organizations like AACRAO (and NAFSA, too) have entire libraries on international education, as well as online resources.

Focus on building internal resources

Finally, there’s the tougher road to travel: building your internal resources. Keeping a credential library is an absolute necessity, allowing you to compare the documents you receive to those that came before. Here’s a scary question to ask your document processing team: “Do we scan or save envelopes?” True, the ways in which international academic records can be transferred electronically are growing in their use and sophistication. Organizations like PESC, the Groningen Declaration, and others are changing how our educational record can follow us around the world. But for some parts of the world, even where technology is plentiful, transcripts remain as old-school as Harvard. (I’ll pause for laughter.)

The security features on both documents and envelopes should remain fairly consistent in the short term, but any abnormalities in grades will stand out. (An A+++ in Advanced Chemistry? Really?) Even beyond that, though, it’s important to develop your institution’s own internal policies on a country-by-country basis. What documents will you require? Which set of grades will you consider? What grading scale will you use? That’s the best way to create consistency and provide fair consideration to all of your applicants. And only you can decide what’s best for your institution.

So, what’s the final word on test-optional admissions? There’s plenty of literature out there arguing that a holistic consideration of an applicant (paying special attention to their essay and involvement) is the best predictor of retention and success. The fact of the matter, though, is that U.S. admission policies are changing. The staff considering international applicants through the lens of those policies need to fully understand, literally and figuratively, what they’re reading. That’s only fair to the hundreds of thousands of students from around the world who hope to study here with us.

 Jack Nelson is Director of Sales and Market Development at ECE, an international admissions veteran, and NAFSA Trainer Corps member. He can be contacted at



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