PBL And College Admissions

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Project Based Learning (PBL) is educationally sound and a wonderful way to energize and engage students in the learning process. Students learn how to develop and apply critical thinking skills as well as how to develop clear and effective presentations and then communicate their accomplishments both orally and through journaling or written reports.   They learn how to work collaboratively with others as a team.  These important skill sets also prepare students for success in college.  

PBL is also great for college applications as students can demonstrate their creativity, talent, knowledge, and skills through PBL projects and the learning process itself.   More and more colleges are moving away from standardized test scores for admission purposes and are considering other factors in lieu of test scores, and PBL assessments could be used in a similar fashion.  The goal of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (fairtest.org) “to reduce the role of standardized tests as gatekeepers to higher education has never been more important - nor has it had as much support. Nationwide, scores of colleges and universities are reexamining their admissions policies and de-emphasizing test scores.”  As reported on fairtest.org, over 900 colleges and universities do not use college admission exams (SAT or ACT) to evaluate students for admissions. PBL projects could certainly be used with many of these colleges as a substitution for test scores or an enhancement to students’ college applications.

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In addition, many colleges value portfolio-based applications, and again PBL projects would tie in nicely with this type of application. The new Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org ) application provides students with access as of ninth grade.  The overall goal of the Coalition application, as stated on its website, is to provide “a single platform of online tools to assist in the experience of applying to college. With the Coalition platform, you can find out more about Coalition schools, share your locker with counselors, teachers, and mentors, and submit applications with ease. The Coalition is designed to be convenient, straightforward, and easy-to-use.” Students in PBL high schools or who use the PBL approach can start uploading their projects as early as ninth grade.  One of the online tools is a student locker where students can upload artistic, scientific, and any other portfolio-based applications which can then be shared with colleges during the application process. The goal of the Coalition application process is to provide students with earlier and broader access to college admissions.  

One of the main elements of a college application is the personal statement or essay, which is an important opportunity for students to convey their values, passion, ideas, and personality.  Writing about learning in a PBL school or about a particular project is also a wonderful topic for a college essay. Students can give admissions officers a window into their academic interests and thoughts about the learning process by detailing what they learned, how they learned it, and what the learning process means to them.  They can talk about achievements or any setbacks and obstacles they experienced during the PBL process, and what they learned about time management, critical thinking skills, teamwork, leadership style, and other important strategies or skills they acquired.  

As you can see, PBL is closely aligned with the college admissions process and lends itself very well to promoting and demonstrating student learning.  An outstanding by-product of PBL is that students will be ahead of their peers in many skills that will well prepare them for success in college and beyond.
Karen Wolf is a college and career counselor at Morristown High School and a former Associate Director of College Guidance at Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns (HAFTR) High School in Cedarhurst, NY. She is on The Idea School Advisory Board.