Myth and Mystery
by David B. Mueller '72
The St. X admissions process
Depending on people's interests and obligations, certain dates during the year can affect the stomach more than others. Most adults feel a twinge at the mention of April 15, the dreaded tax deadline. Cincinnati marathoners feel butterflies (pigflies?) at the approach of the first Sunday in May, the date of the Flying Pig marathon. Many area eighth-grade boys feel nervous in November about taking the Catholic high school entrance exam and applying to St. Xavier.
Interest in St. Xavier has been keen in recent years. More than 800 students apply for the 390 places in the St. X freshman class.
This charged atmosphere gives rise to various myths about admission to St. Xavier.
Legacy fiction and fact
The most fevered myth is that "you can't get in unless you've got legacy." The school's current admissions policy states that special consideration is given to brothers, sons and grandsons of St. Xavier alumni as well as brothers of current students. About half of the students in an entering class have this family affiliation. It is important to note, however, that half of these students with family affiliation have such strong profiles that they are admitted outright - without need for special consideration.
That means that about 25% of entering freshmen are admitted due to special consideration for family affiliation. The flip side of this statistic is that 75% of each entering class is admitted without regard to family affiliation.
Recruiting for the games
The second myth is that St. Xavier recruits athletes. This myth probably arises from the notable success that St. X athletic programs have enjoyed in recent years. (I don't recall this myth being alive when I was a student and, partially because of my presence, athletic success was much more rare.) Athletic success has come from outstanding teacher/coaches working with diligent and, in some cases, talented athletes who benefit from very supportive parents and good school facilities. For example, the school does not recruit swimmers - but swimmers are drawn to the school by the quality of the program.
As principal, I participate in the deliberations of the admissions committee and am responsible for final decisions about admissions. Athletic talent rarely enters the committee's conversation about a candidate for admission - and never gets more attention than evidence of proficiency in the arts or scouts or science fairs or any other manifestation of talent. I have never admitted a student because of athletic talent.
Coaches do not lobby members of the admissions committee. They are not informed about the admissions status of a candidate until admissions decisions are released. Coaches know that state regulations prohibit them from approaching potential students as athletes. All communication with potential students goes through the Office of Admissions and presents the full range of information about the school - not just athletics.
Who are those people?
The school now houses a "black box" theater as part of its new arts area. Some people probably view the admissions committee as a "black box." They know that they submit their admissions forms to the committee and that a decision comes from the committee, but the workings of the committee remain a mystery.
The committee consists of the principal, assistant principal for freshmen and sophomores, admissions officers and faculty members drawn from among those who sit on the education committee of the board of trustees - about 10 in all. The admissions officers contribute their personal knowledge about candidates. The faculty members contribute their understanding of the admissions policy of the board and their judgment about what it takes for a student to succeed in classrooms at St. Xavier.
The first driving question is always, "Will St. Xavier be a good school for this student?" Does the student have the academic and personal skills to thrive in a program that will push him spiritually, academically and personally? As long as the school continues to attract more qualified students than it can accommodate, the next driving question must be, "Which of these students should receive offers of admission?" The committee arrives at decisions based on a disciplined assessment of a significant amount of reliable information about each student: entrance exam scores, other standardized test scores, grades in seventh and eighth grades, three teacher recommendations, an impromptu writing sample and a written application.
Making the call
The method is to look for the best in each student. For example, if the entrance exam score is strikingly lower than other standardized test scores, we assume that the student had a bad day and believe in the other test scores. Likewise, if grades in the seventh grade were weak, but teacher recommendations rave about a student's "turnaround" into a more diligent student in the eighth grade - and the eighth-grade report card substantiates their remarks - we believe the teachers.
While we look for ways in which the student puts his best foot forward, we are not swept off our feet. From experience, we know that students need a threshold of academic talent and skill as measured by standardized tests in order to thrive at St. Xavier. If it is not there, we will not admit the student because we will not set up a student for failure. In this regard, test scores trump other aspects of a student's profile. While we look for ways in which the student puts his best foot forward, we are also alert for indicators that a student will not succeed at St. Xavier despite outstanding test scores.
Mediocre performance in grade school as indicated by grades of C or lower undermines a candidate's chances for admission. In this case, the higher the standardized test scores, the lower the chances of admission will be. Likewise, teacher recommendations that indicate lack of motivation or poor behavior undermine a candidate"s chances for admission. We know from experience that a student with strong motivation can build threshold skills into excellent skills. We know, too, that the gifted student who coasts on his gifts does not succeed at St. Xavier.
The "black box"of the admissions committee contains 10 people who diligently use their knowledge of St. Xavier and their professional assessment of candidates' files to make the best possible decisions given the limits inherent in knowing candidates on paper rather than in the classroom.
Working on admissions is a privilege. It is a privilege to find out how earnestly parents want to find the best school for their children. It is a privilege to know how much elementary school teachers care about their students. It is a privilege to find out about the talents of so many students as they stand at the boundary between grade school and high school.
Mr. David Mueller has been principal of St. Xavier High School for 12 years.