Scattergrams, the ubiquitous x/y axis graphs that have caught on like wildfire over the last twenty years because of their inclusion in Naviance Student, the online college counseling tool used by thousands of American high schools, purport to show a student’s chances of admission at different colleges and universities by plotting previous students from a particular high school on an x/y axis graph based on such students’ GPAs on one axis and their test scores (ACT or SAT) on the other.
Below is an example of a scattergram for a particular high school showing current students (and parents) at that high school how alumni from that high school fared when applying to University of Maryland College Park from 2010 through 2014.
Note that the below scattergram plots the SAT on the x-axis using the old 2400 SAT scale; however, the SAT is now scored out of 1600. Similarly, the high school in question clearly plots GPA based on a 4.0 scale, but some schools’ scattergrams will have very different numbers of the y-axis because scattergrams can have any sort of GPA scale on them (100, 20, 6, etc.) depending on a school’s grading scale.
The typical student seeing the above scattergram assumes, if he or she has a 3.6 GPA and an SAT score of 1860 he or she is definitely going to get into University of Maryland College Park. Most of the rest of students with that combination of grades and scores would assume, after seeing the above scattergram, that Maryland is at least a huge safety college for them. After all, all students from this high school in the past few years who land in that GPA/score range got into Maryland, as illustrated by all of those green squares.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
The problem is a student with this GPA/score combination could easily get rejected from University of Maryland College Park for any number of reasons that a scattergram will not be able to display. The most common reasons scattergrams lull students into a false sense of security are as follows:
- Many selective colleges get more selective every passing year, rendering antiquated past years’ admissions statistics.
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ extracurricular resumes.
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ essay writing skills.
- Scattergrams don’t show past applicants’ demographics (rich, middle-class, poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, International, etc.).
- Scattergrams don’t show past applicants’ legacy status (did a past applicant’s mom or dad attend the same college?).
- Scattergrams don’t show whether past applicants’ families gave money to the college.
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ teacher and counselor recommendation letters/evaluations.
- Scattergrams likely don’t account for whether or not past applicants submitted their ACT scores, SAT scores, both, or neither (in the case of test-optional colleges) to the college scattergram on which they are plotted.
- Unless the scattergram’s GPA axis is a weighted GPA, the GPA axis is not capable of communicating to students and parents the past applicants’ curricular rigor.
- Scattergrams don’t show past applicants’ grade trends in high school (colleges care so much about this).
- Scattergrams show past applicants’ final GPAs in high school, not their GPAs when they applied to college (usually in the beginning of a student’s senior year).
- Directors of college counseling (the leaders of college counseling offices) can be applicants’ best advocates or worst enemies depending on whether or not these directors have written a strong and compelling high school profile and done everything else they can do to encourage particular colleges to accept their students. Scattergrams don’t note when certain directors’ regimes began and ended; therefore, in a field where many directors of college counseling only stay in their roles for a few years before moving on, a five- or ten-year scattergram could be capturing admissions statistics for students applying from a particular high school under very different college counseling regimes. Some directors write bang-up high school profiles (which are sent to all colleges to which students apply in a particular admissions cycle) and some don’t. Some directors make calls for their students or their colleagues’ students, others simply don’t. Some are on a first-name basis with Ivy League admissions officers, some don’t know any. Scattergrams lull students and parents into thinking (just like point #1 above) that each student plotted on the scattergram had the same team behind him or her and faced the same college admissions rates from year to year. The fact is, high schools change and colleges change, and as a result, scattergrams fail at capturing subtle or quite large subjective changes to students’ chances from year to year.
In summary, so much of what colleges will ultimately base their admissions decisions on is NOT captured in scattergrams; therefore, don’t use them as the end all be all when it comes to determining whether a particular college on your list is a Safety, Possible, or Reach. Any college counselor, student, or parent who tells you otherwise has no idea what he or she is talking about.
I frequently get irate parents telling me that I am too pessimistic about their student’s chances at a particular college or university based on what the family sees on a particular college’s scattergram on Naviance Student. I remind them that I often know the back story on each applicant on the scattergram and/or that there are at lease twelve reasons why the scattergram is only part of the story – especially at the country’s most selective colleges and universities. Sadly, this does not often calm the parents down, and as a result, many parents hold months-long bouts of resentment towards me – usually until all admissions decisions are released in April, at which point reality sets in – for good or bad! With that said, I am happy when I have a student get into a reach college that the parents and student thought should have been classified a possible or a safety. It’s my job to help turn all colleges on a student’s list into offers of admission; yet, I need the student’s cooperation and effort if I can make this happen. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Scattergrams are far more trustworthy for colleges that primarily base their admissions decisions on applicants’ grades and scores only. Theses types of colleges are usually those that accept over 5o of applicants and/or large state universities that ask for the perfunctory essay and extracurricular list but which don’t have the actual manpower to review these subjective aspects of students’ applications. Such colleges usually simply default to determining whether or not to accept a student based on his or her scores and grades. Yet, even in such cases, a student who is quite deficient or exceptionally strong in one or more of the twelve areas listed above could easily become an exception to the rule that the scattergram seems to convey.
Bottom line: strong college counselors always explain this important, complex, and as you can now see, somewhat time-consuming information to students and parents. Such college counselors tend to lean towards being more conservative with their Safety, Possible, and Reach classifications for colleges on their students’ lists than those college counselors who take a relatively two-dimensional approach (x,y axis, anyone?) to college acceptance/rejection prognostication.