Q: What is the scariest thing for a high schooler applying to college?
A: A Naviance Scattergram!
This is an old college counselor joke (hilarious, in certain circles). But in fact, at least once every few Halloweens, I have seen a creative senior dress up as a scattergram complete with green dots, green triangles, and plenty of red x’s.
For the uninitiated, admissions scattergrams are tools used by college counselors to plot students’ relative chances of college acceptance based on GPA and test scores. Naviance, the popular college admissions software used by millions of high schoolers throughout the US, is the primary supplier of these panic-inducing tools. The scattergrams work a bit like this: student “A” has a 3.6 GPA and a 1340 SAT score. “A” is eager to know her chances of admission to “College B.” With her college counselor’s help, she selects “College B” on Naviance; a chart appears with SAT scores on the x-axis and GPAs on the y-access. Somewhere towards the middle of the plot (and veering towards the upper right corner), “A” sees clusters of icons representing acceptances or rejections from previous students at her school, plotted based on their own GPA and test score data. She is now able to estimate, based on where her personal scores lie in that cluster, whether she has an average, above average, or below average chance of admission to “College B.”
Though Naviance scattergrams are one of the most common tools that high school counselors use to help demystify the “what are my chances” part of the application process, they should be used mindfully. At their worst, the scattergrams can crush dreams; at their best, they can provoke mild anxiety in students. Neither of these outcomes is completely fair; scattergrams can actually be very useful tools for getting ahead in the admissions process. Here are a few important things to keep in mind in order to make the most of this tool:
You’re only looking at your own school
Naviance’s data are local, which means that the scattergrams are only plotting students who attended your high school. This is a good thing, since it prevents you from comparing apples to oranges. For instance, if a college brags that 90% of students are in the top 10% of their class, it really does not mean much for an individual applicant. Many schools do not even rank students, so it makes this metric… not so useful. How can you know if you would be in the top 10% at a different school? Same goes for “average” GPAs: every high school has different grade scales, course offerings, and weightings. You can only really compare yourself to other students at your own school, and that’s where the Naviance data come in handy.
Grades and test scores are important
While grades and test scores are not everything, they are primary factors that college admissions officers will be looking at when assessing applicants (the exception to this would be schools that are test-optional).
But, they aren’t the only important factor when it comes to college admissions….
You can think of grades and test scores as the factors that “get you in the door.” This means that they are important, but they are not everything. Other factors including your recommendations, essays, extracurricular activities, interview, talents, background, “hooks” (including legacy status and athletic recruiting) all matter too. These other factors are what move you from a “maybe” to an “admit” in the admissions process.
Scattergrams don’t predict the future, but they do help you build a balanced college list
The focus of scattergrams should be on trends and not on absolutes. The best question to ask yourself is whether you are an outlier on the scattergram: does it look like you are a slam dunk applicant? Or have very few students from your high school with your grades and test scores been admitted? This can help you put together a balanced list. It’s good to have reach schools, but you do not want all of your scattergrams to be too “risky.” You’ll be better off having at least one or two schools where, according to the data, you are very likely to be accepted.
The Bottom Line
Naviance scattergrams are a great tool for students, families, and counselors to use in the admissions process. While students should not obsess over the stats or take their position on the scattergram as the only factor in their future success, scattergrams do provide an objective perspective on a student’s admissions chances.
For upcoming applicants, I’d suggest using scattergrams for what they’re best at: Helping build a thoughtful and varied college list.
For high school seniors waiting on admissions decisions: Congratulations. Now it’s time to let the scattergrams go.