#admissionchat episode five welcomes Victoria Muradi, director of strategic initiatives at Durham Academy in North Carolina, along with Christine Thornton, associate director of admissions, and Jeanette WooChitjian, director of enrollment management and community engagement, at Marlborough School in Los Angeles. The group came together to discuss how their admissions teams utilize the Character Skills Snapshot, an innovative admissions assessment that measures a student's preferences, attitudes, and beliefs about their character.
Questions discussed by the group, include:
Daren Worcester: Welcome to #admissionchat. Let's talk about the Character Skills Snapshot.
Daren Worcester: Greetings, I'm Daren Worcester, and in this episode, we're going to talk about the Character Skills Snapshot, an innovative admissions assessment that complements traditional standardized testing, such as the SSAT, by measuring a student's preferences, attitudes, and beliefs about their character. To learn how schools are utilizing the Snapshot and why it's a good idea for families to have their applying students take it, I'm fortunate to be joined in this discussion by three wonderful private school admission leaders at Durham Academy in North Carolina and Marlborough School in Los Angeles. Thank you all for joining me today.
Jeanette WooChitjian: Thank you for asking us, Daren.
Victoria Muradi: Hi there, we're so excited to be here.
Daren Worcester: Great. It's going to be a very interesting conversation, I think very helpful to a lot of people out there, so I'm really appreciative that you guys have joined us. Let's start by having you all tell us a little bit about yourselves and your careers in private school admissions.
And how about Victoria? You go first, please.
Victoria Muradi: Sure. So my name is Victoria Muradi, I am the current director of enrollment management at Durham Academy, and I've had this role here for the last 14 years. And before that, I worked in boarding school as well as in higher education, all in admission. I absolutely love what we all do here, what we're here to talk about and I've actually had the pleasure of working with Jeanette in training people who are new to our profession. I'm a current EMA trustee. I've not had the pleasure of attending an independent school, I'm an immigrant from Afghanistan; I'm an ESL student and a first-gen college student, but I'm very much committed to this world in terms of access opportunities and I've seen it over the years with countless students and now with my own two children. So that's a little bit about me.
Daren Worcester: Great. Thank you. Christine, would you like to go next?
Christine Thornton: So I am a product of an independent school, I went to Newton Country Day, outside of Boston, and it's an all-girls school. My first position in independent schools was at Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, Maryland. I started that in my twenties. I was the assistant director and then eventually became the director of admissions, left education for ten years, came back, was the admissions director of a school in Tucson, and then have been at Marlborough for eight years, I think it's about eight years now.
Daren Worcester: Excellent. So you've seen a lot of different places on your journey?
Christine Thornton: Yes.
Daren Worcester: And certainly last but not least, Jeanette, please give us a little bit about yourself.
Jeanette WooChitjian: I'm Jeanette WooChitjian, I'm the director of enrollment management and community engagement at Marlborough School. I'm just coming off my 26th year. Like Victoria, I'm a public school-educated person, and so working at Marlborough's been my first and only experience at independent schools. Prior to Marlborough, I worked in higher education in the admissions world. And I think what I love so much about my job is the influence that I lead, the team that I get to lead, in creating community and culture at our school.
Daren Worcester: That is great. Thank you very much. Can you guys each tell us a little bit about your respective schools before we get in, and, Jeanette, Christine, how about you guys go first with Marlboro?
Jeanette WooChitjian: Sure. I'm going to take this one for both of us. Marlborough school is a girls' school in Los Angeles. We're, of course, an independent school that's been around for over 130 years and we have students in grades seven through 12.
Daren Worcester: Excellent. And Victoria, how about Durham Academy?
Victoria Muradi: Durham Academy is a pre-K through 12th-grade school with three campuses, about 1,230 students. We're located in Durham, North Carolina, very, very close to Duke and UNC Chapel Hill.
Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you. So our topic today, I think is one that all of you are probably going to have a lot to say about, but before we really dig in, let's quickly level set. Can you share with us how long you've been using the Character Skills Snapshot in the admissions process, whether or not you require it, because I know some schools that use it do or don't require it, and then we can get into the why you're using it after. So let's start Victoria, why don't you go first please?
Victoria Muradi: Sure. So we started using the Character Skills Snapshot about three years ago, in 2019. We were among a group of about 20 independent schools that benchmarked this assessment tool and, at the time, it wasn't so widely available. What we decided to do was administer it to our middle school students, so 372 students at the time, and we realized that it showed us a lot of information about students familiar to us. We found that to be a very useful tool and we've determined that we'd like to use it in the admission process. We decided initially, in our first year, that we were going to recommend it, and it was so wildly successful that now we are requiring it and have required it for the last year.
Daren Worcester: Excellent. Thank you. I'm guessing that this one's going to be Christine answering?
Christine Thornton: Yes. So we decided to use it this year, it's our first year, this cycle that we used it, and we did require it for everyone.
Daren Worcester: Good. So my follow-up was going to be to start peeling those onion layers away and really ask, why did you decide to use it? So Jeanette, Christine, why don't you guys keep going with that one?
Christine Thornton: So we had been thinking about using it for a while. When we were at the EMA conference, we went to a session and heard someone speak about it, actually, I think it was Lakeside School that was using it, and then we did a demo. We really were talking about it, "it looks like an interesting tool to use," and then what was happening, what we're finding in Los Angeles, is that there are public schools that are no longer giving recommendations. So we were trying to tackle what we were going to do about that situation and then COVID hit. So it was like kind of this confluence of events that happened and thought, "okay, let's do it. Let's go for it." It's been a great piece of data, I would say, that that has helped us in our admissions process.
Daren Worcester: Excellent. Victoria, do you want to add to that please?
Victoria Muradi: Yeah, that's interesting hearing you say that, Christine. For us, it actually came out of mission alignment. And so our mission as a school, the purpose is to "prepare students for a moral, happy, and productive life." That is our mission statement, it's all over; I'm sure everybody's taglines and mission statements are branded all over their school, and that has been the case for us for some time. And about six years ago, we did one of those portrait of a graduate exercises that a lot of schools do to figure out, what skills and values do we want to impart upon our students? And our school came up with these 15 skills basically that were all part of "moral, happy, productive," but our team like our enrollment team kept wondering, how does "moral happy, productive," how does admission fit into them?
And so one of the things we wanted to do was just, sort of, design an admission process that informed that and align our admission process with really what we're saying our values are as a school. At the same time, our teachers were giving us feedback that the students we were admitting were very bright, they had high test scores, solid grades, but many of them were following solely academic pursuits. And as a whole, they weren't taking advantage of all the opportunities available at a school like DA, and they weren't necessarily as well-rounded as students in the past. So we were thinking, we do a really good job of identifying academics. We've done an inventory of all of our admission process, so basically, looking at every question we asked on the application and what does it tell you about us as a school?
And so we know we gathered grades and testing, but every question we were asking was academic and there were few opportunities for kids to insert personality. There were almost no questions about character or values. So we were basically trying to figure out, how could we identify some of the character traits that we're saying are important as a school during our admission process? And then, more specifically, how could we look for the evidence of those traits or at least the raw materials, with some of our younger students, in selecting the newest members of our school community? So we basically redesigned our entire admission process to be in line with "moral, happy, productive," and then the character skills was essentially a piece of that.
Daren Worcester: That's great. I love how you guys were able to kind of weave it in and evaluate your process and what you guys were looking at.
I think it's important to clarify for families out there that are unsure about what the Character Skills Snapshot is that it's not a personality test. I know there's a lot out there on those and that can easily get confused, so I want to make that clarification. Instead, it measures a student's preferences, attitudes, and beliefs towards seven different character skills that naturally evolve over time.
Daren Worcester: In your admission assessments, do you give equal consideration to all seven skills or do you focus on certain ones? Victoria, why don't you go first there.
Victoria Muradi: Thus far, we've actually been using the Character Skills Snapshot holistically. All of the seven areas actually align with the 15 character traits that I mentioned that Durham Academy had said were particularly important to us with our graduates. And, believe it or not, we have it within our office, a PDF that has all of our 15 DA characteristics and then the character skills characteristics showing how they line up color coded because they really go well and dovetail nicely with each other.
I will say that our admission committees, our faculty members on those committees, some of them are thinking, should we focus on one? And that's a conversation that I think we're going to have this summer going into the fall. Like, could we do more by focusing on one, could we get more information and really drill down on one particular one?
Daren Worcester: Okay. Christine, you had your hand raised. Did you have a follow-up to that?
Christine Thornton: Yeah, I was going to say ours is a little bit different. So when Jeanette and I went to the session at EMA, the thing that really came across was that it's hard to assess, to use all seven, right. And to figure out, hone it down to three or four. So we went to our faculty and asked them, "Here are the seven, which ones do you think that you see from our students and how they find success at Marlborough? What is it that you want to see?"
And so we brought it down to three and those were the skills that we were looking for in recs, in our interaction with the students. And we are looking at this as an evolving process that we will go back to our faculty with time and see as, these are the three. So the ones they actually selected were intellectual engagement, resilience, and initiative and we're not saying that those are always going to be the three, but right now that's what our faculty are telling us. And so we'll review that. We're thinking year over year.
Victoria Muradi: I'm so glad that you've said that it's an evolving process because I think that is absolutely has been the case for us, where we dipped our toe in the waters the first year, realized that, "Gosh, this is a really useful tool. How are we going to use it? Let's just see and not require it." And then now we're requiring it and I feel like next year we can do even more with it.
Jeanette WooChitjian: I think also, selfishly for us, it pulled our faculty into our admissions process even more. I think that this is a process that Christina and I kind of take on together, but we want our entire community to be part of our enrollment management team and this was a way to say to faculty, "We want your input so that we can make decisions that are in line with what you're looking for in students and the students that you want to teach."
Daren Worcester: Excellent. I find it fascinating that you guys are all using it in different ways and then adapting it to your schools and in your belief systems in your schools, that is excellent.
Those evaluation markers for the Snapshot, they're not a traditional scoring model. I think people that are accustomed to standardized admission testings, like the SSAT, where you're getting a specific score percentile range, that throws them off, when they see this and they're not really sure what to make of that, right? I'm sure you guys hear some of that from the parents and families. So instead, the assessment model for the Character Skills is assessed on an emerging, developing, and demonstrating scale. I'm sure you hear from families that are apprehensive about that. You know, what would you say to a parent who might be concerned if their child's results are largely at that emerging level?
Jeanette WooChitjian: I imagine this is a process that is fraught with worry anyway, and so if you look at the results of the Character Skills Snapshot as being bad, good, better, you're right, parents are going to be anxious about the results that fall into what they feel are the lower areas. We don't see it that way. Out the gate, what we share with parents about any piece of data that's in a student's application file is, it is one piece of data and we are looking holistically at your child and never will we use one piece of information to determine an admissions decision—that we're looking for trends, we're looking for everything that's in her file to help us make the best decision for her and for the school.
The second thing that we remind parents is that, we're educators because we know that we're going to be able to work with students and watch them grow and evolve. And that's why we're using and why we love that the categories that students fall into are emerging, there's growth, there's opportunity.
And then the third thing I would say is to remind parents that it's called a Snapshot because it's a moment in time when a student is answering, in our case, her questions and on this, this evaluation or assessment, however you want to call it. It's a snapshot. And that tomorrow three months from now, three weeks from now, her responses could be different. And we're looking to see not only how she sees herself, which is what we love, and then be able to compare it to how her school might see her, how we might see her in the interview or the assessment, how she writes about herself in her writing sample, it's all a package of information on which we're making a decision.
Daren Worcester: Thank you for clarifying the snapshot part. I do think that's very important to understand in this process and Victoria, I see you nodding your head a lot as Jeanette was talking there. Do you have more to add to that?
Victoria Muradi: I do, and I love how Jeanette was talking about, it's sort of a continuum, we're coming at it really from a growth mindset. These are all malleable skills, they can be developed and we, as educators, it's our work to help students grow in these areas. And this is one tool among many, as Jeanette mentioned earlier, that we're trying to use to sort of get a sense of where they are. The only thing I would add that's different for that is, I honestly think it's not a snapshot, it's a selfie. And we joke about that in my office, but it is. It is truly that it is their sense of themselves. And when we were having this conversation within our admission committees, we constantly had to keep reminding, remember that the students, this is how they see themselves. You know?
Daren Worcester: I think to the earlier point, that's one of the big things that separates it from a personality test or something like that, right? It's really their self evaluation of how they see themselves. What other questions do you get from families? This is a relatively new way of assessing students going through the admissions process. I'm sure you have some families that probably went to your school with an older child who didn't go through this and so now, they're probably like, "Wait, we have to do this too? What's this?" So what are some of the other questions that you get from them?
Victoria Muradi: The first question we got when we've initially went to the Snapshot was, why are you adding one more hoop, one more checklist item for my family to complete? The admission process is already pretty complicated and arduous and long for many, many families. There's so many things that we require and so the question is like, why one more thing? And so we've always said, an applicant's character has always been an important part of our admission process, we just, honestly, haven't had a tool that we could use to help measure that. And so we were excited by the possibility of using it and it wasn't in any way to, sort of, mitigate the importance of academics, but it was honestly to elevate character to be at the same level. And that has been, again, pretty successful for us.
The second question that we've had is how will it be used? And I think we've all talked about, it compliments some of the other information network-leaning about test scores and interviews and grades and non-cognitive assessments and recommendations. So, so many other things. And just like we don't focus on one specific aspect of the application, we constantly are finding ourselves saying "We're not just also focusing on the character skills." It's part of a whole plethora of things we look at.
Jeanette WooChitjian: We get that exact same question, Victoria, how are you going to use it? And what I love about it is this is student-driven, student-initiated, all about student, right? It's not somebody else judging a student, it's about how she feels about herself in the same way a writing sample is all student-driven. The other thing that we tell parents that we love about it is there's no prep, there's no way that you can prepare for the Character Skills Snapshot. And as Christine said, a couple of years ago, when we did the demo, we also realized there was clearly no right answer. And so you couldn't even have a parent sitting next to you and saying, "Oh, choose B, choose A," it it's just not going to work.
Jeanette WooChitjian: When parents ask us the "Why we use it," is because it's student-focused, it's student-centered.
Daren Worcester: You guys have teed me up for my next question really good in that parents are asking how you're going to use it. Because I did want to ask, I've heard of schools that are using it for other means than just admissions assessments, where they'll pass results along to advisors and educators, that sort of stuff, so that they get a better understanding of the students that they're going to be working with and can get some preparation work on how to best support those students. Is that something that's happening at your schools or something you've discussed doing?
Christine Thornton: So we're just starting those discussions with our middle school head. Mainly, I would think what sparked this was that when we were going through the files and going through all these results, the thing that struck us probably, and we are a girls school, so just know that, that we were noticing how sixth graders were answering, and I think Jeanette, you may have touched upon this a little bit at the beginning, and then how eighth graders, cause we enter at seven to nine, how they were answering were very different. So sixth-graders were more demonstrating and then as they were getting older, we noticed that eighth-graders were more emerging or developing and their teachers weren't seeing that, that was the interesting piece. So as an adolescent girl, what is happening through the course of years? And so we talked about trying to follow, potentially, our seventh-graders through this and maybe to have them take it again so that we have some meaningful data to kind of—is it just a one off that we saw for this year is this something that will continue?
Daren Worcester: That is fascinating. And I think for parents that are listening to this, probably reassuring to some degree in that, if their child is emerging when they're going through the admissions process, you're seeing that at all different grade levels and in different developmental stages that these children are going through. So it's really more about who they are and their journey necessarily than it is really evaluating them for specific items. So that, that is great. Victoria, did you have more to add to that?
Victoria Muradi: Yes, I think because we've used the Snapshot over a number of years, I think it continues to reveal itself to us that it's really a tool that can help us determine where we can help students grow and thrive. And so we've used it in the past for things like advisory placement in the middle and the upper school. So for example, looking at a group of students fifth-grade, and that is an entry point for us as well as sixth-grade, I probably wouldn't put a bunch of boys with emerging self-control in one advisory together. And so there's things that are really naturally easy to do that you have the data right there. And so we're able to do those kinds of things, just using it essentially in a very, I think intentional way, but again, it's all data that's already in our application process and we have it. And so we've used it over the past for advisory.
We've also used it, if you were to look at all of the students coming in new, where do they see themselves? Are there things we can do in terms of orientation, bridge programming that programmatically like put in place in order to help students with their journey into Durham Academy initially, or even along the way? The one thing that I think we're really excited by, and if it's a possibility is to potentially have, that the Snapshot be something we can administer to our current students, sort of, where do they see themselves? What do we learn about an entire class? Are there trends, kind of like what Christine was saying, by gender advisory group? And then, more importantly, how can you measure that over time? And I think the institutional researcher geek in me that part of me is like, "That would be really amazing to see." Are we having an impact as a school on those particular areas, because we know we can do that with other forms of testing.
Christine Thornton: You know, we, we not only bring students in, I think we're all very proud of that. Not only the transition, but we watched them all the way through, right? And so teachers come to us, our middle school director comes to us often, especially when they're working with the student and say, can you tell us a little bit about her background? Can you tell us a little bit about maybe the education, the system that she came from, or the formality or the informality, and those kinds of things, and the Character Skills Snapshot just gives us one more piece of data. If a teacher comes to me and says, can you tell me more about Christine? I can say, yeah, here's what her academic record looks like when she came through. And here's what her Character Skills Snapshot. Again, it was a moment in time, the selfie that Victoria discussed, right? I don't want her to be defined by it, but it is a piece of information that could be helpful in working with a particular student.
Daren Worcester: As a parent of a middle school boy, I completely recognize and understand why you wouldn't put a bunch of emerging middle school boys together with one advisor, though it would be a interesting social experiment. You could stand behind the glass wall and just watch it. But I am imagining, as that parent, I would kind of love to see these results for my children and think that there'd be some value for me in understanding where my children are developmentally and in their own self-assessment of themselves. I don't want to project that onto all parents. Do you guys think or see that there's some value there to parents as well?
Victoria Muradi: I do, I can start by just saying, I actually think there's a lot of value to both the student and the parent. For the student, I think that it's a tool that is a good opportunity for them to reflect about how they learn, how they see themselves, how they work in a school setting. And so I think it's a helpful exercise, kind of how we make students do that in the essay, or we have teachers reflect upon that, it's just another opportunity and another lens in which that we get to see how students think about themselves. And I think for parents also to see the results and say, "These are some areas that I want my children to work on" that I think there are areas that they have particular strengths in. And I think, as a parent myself, I think our kids are growing and changing all the time and sometimes it's hard to figure them out because the rate at which that happens sometimes can be very fast. And this is just another tool in your parent toolkit, as you're trying to figure them out and figure out how you can support them.
Daren Worcester: Yeah, I think too, what we see at home, and what you see at school, and how they evaluate themselves are probably three different things. So that's why for me, I was thinking that would be fascinating. Jeanette, Christine, either you have more to add there.
Jeanette WooChitjian: I'm a parent also have two grown children, and I can say that, as a parent, I, and I'm going to guess all parents, it's hard to be objective about your kids. And so it is telling, again, this Snapshot, because I don't want to define my child by this one assessment, but it is telling to see how she thinks about herself. And, and maybe question if I see her differently, why do I see her differently? Why does she see herself differently than I see her? And then to tie that back into the school piece, are her teachers seeing her the way I am? Why not? Are her teacher seeing her, the way she sees herself? Why not? It's just a great tool to ask some clarifying questions.
Christine Thornton: You know, and we talked a little bit about this. I think when some parents see these results, they panic, right? Like "Why is she emerging that I don't see that emerging." And it's not a negative, right? It's a glimpse. You are given an opportunity to see your child in a way that a lot of parents, it's hard unless you're taking an assessment like this, you don't have the opportunity to see this. And so I think anytime that you have more information about your child and how he or she is seeing themselves, it can only help you navigate different areas of what you want to work on or what you think your child, a little bit with Victoria was saying, maybe push them in a certain direction because maybe you're seeing something that you can bring out that side more or the other. Conversely, areas that, so maybe we have to work on that. Maybe that's something that's worth spending some time on.
Daren Worcester: That's such a great point. This seems to be sort of a theme of our discussion today. You know, it keeps coming up and I kind of equate it. I think the moral of the story connected to what Jeanette said earlier is that, emerging doesn't equal bad. That's that's not how your schools are viewing it, correct?
Jeanette WooChitjian: Absolutely.
Daren Worcester: We're kind of getting to the end of our time here. This has been wonderful. Thank you all. Do you have any last advice for families or thoughts for them as they look at whether or not the Character Skills Snapshot is something that they want to do?
Victoria Muradi: I would say that the whole admission process is honestly an opportunity for self reflection for the student and learning for the parent about the student, and that's why you're trying to figure out and see some mission alignment between the school's mission and your family's values and where you hope your child will be at some point. And so I think this is an opportunity to dig into that a little bit and I would not hesitate at all about taking the Character Skills Snapshot, I think it's an excellent tool that our schools value and it's an opportunity for you to learn more about your child,
Daren Worcester: Jeanette, Christine, any last pieces of advice from you guys?
Jeanette WooChitjian: My piece of advice would be that there's a reason why we're called admissions offices because we're looking to admit students and our goal is to admit students who are going to thrive in our institutions, not just make it but really thrive. And the more data we have in making those decisions, again, recognizing that some of it is science and some of it is art, but the more data we have helps us ensure that we're making decisions that are in the best interest of students.
Christine Thornton: I would look at this as a really nice opportunity, a great opportunity, I think, to be given some information that I don't know in what other setting you would get this. And taking admissions outside of this, you know, removing that. I think that it's just an interesting piece of information that you can glean from about your child. And my hope is that your parents will take that regardless of the admissions part process and any decisions that are made. And it's, it's a really positive, and I think powerful tool for a family to be able to have that information about their child.
Daren Worcester: That's wonderful. This has been a great discussion. I've certainly learned a lot and I'm sure it will be helpful to families as well. So thank you all for sharing your insights today. It's much appreciated.
Christine Thornton: Thank you.
Jeanette WooChitjian: Thank you, Daren.
Victoria Muradi: Thank you, Daren.
Daren Worcester: And for everyone listening, thank you for joining this #admissionchat. Please look for another episode soon and for more insight into the private school application process, visit Admission.org and check out our Admission Academy live webinar series. Thank you. Take care, everyone.