Capstone Diaries: Inequity in College Admissions

Capstone Diaries is a feature where CGS sophomores share their Capstone experience week by week, from choosing an idea to completing their oral defense. This installment is by Sarah Eckerson (CGS ’21, COM ’23), a student on Team U whose project focused on inequity in the U.S. college admissions system.

Sarah Eckerson (CGS’21)

Week 1: Kickoff

Capstone 2021 kicked off on Friday, March 26th. In the few weeks prior to our kickoff meeting, students on Team U had been encouraged to form groups with peers on the same team or make a post on our Capstone Blackboard page looking for students with similar topic interests. Kickoff consisted of a team-wide Zoom meeting with Professor Cohen, Professor Grasso, Professor Vail and all 80+ students on Team U. In this meeting, our professors briefly summarized the syllabus, outlined strategies on how to succeed, and answered questions.

I formed my group with 5 other CGS students: Hannah Degraw, Taylor Brown, Evie Lipsig, Sueda Nalcaci, and Eliana Bortman. During the weekend following kickoff, our group created a group chat and began communicating about meeting times, topic ideas, and overall strategy. We planned our meetings for the week ahead and conducted individual research. We also created a spreadsheet where every group member chose 3 topics from the syllabus that interested them, making it easier to see any overlap in our desired topics.

Week 2: Choosing and outlining a topic

Week 2 was a busy week as our group got ourselves organized and began the big undertaking of Capstone. The six of us met on Monday via Zoom to get to know each other, brainstorm ideas, and organize a timeline. Most of us had never met each other in person before, so it was an adjustment to work on such a notable project with people I didn’t know very well. However, we all did our best to get to know each other and cooperate with each other’s’ ideas, writing styles, and schedules. During our first meeting, we analyzed our spreadsheet to rule out topic ideas and further explore ones with mutual interest. One of my group members, Sueda, suggested a topic that was not on the syllabus: the inequity of the U.S. college admissions process, specifically financial inequalities and disadvantages. All of us seemed to love this topic immediately, so we decided this would be the focus of our Capstone.

Once we decided on our topic, we began working on our team contract, a preliminary group outline, and general research, all of which were due by Tuesday for a meeting with our professors. In this meeting, we presented our professors with our topic and got approval for it, as it was not included on the syllabus. Our initial sources and bibliography were approved, and our professors provided insight into how we could narrow down the focus of our content, who we may present our solution to, and what past higher education legislation may guide our proposal. This feedback was very helpful and ended up being crucial to how we wrote our proposal, so listening to this advice and taking notes during meetings with your professors is highly advised. Our group met four times throughout Week 2 to discuss research and key subtopics; we learned that planning multiple meetings a week, even when it seems like overkill, is essential to success.

Week 3: Research and writing

During Week 3 we completed the bulk of our research. We all chose a specific part of our topic to research in depth, such as standardized testing and legacy admissions, and we spent the week individually compiling reliable sources. Our group agreed that by Saturday night, we would each have around seven pages of writing about our individual sub-topic. Four of us were tasked with writing these body paragraphs, and my other two peers chose to write about our proposals once that research was done. I compiled my resources through BU’s online library and newsworthy stories pertaining to the college admissions process. I compiled over 15 sources and had nine pages of writing. Knowing that our group would ultimately cut out a lot of writing, most of us wrote more than we needed so we could pick and choose the parts most central to our topic.

This week was valuable for me to continue my research skills and selectively choose the best sources for my writing. I wrote specifically about legacy admissions; I learned so much about the history and overall inequity of the process, and it truly changed the way I view that system and other parts of the college process. Having a “due date” for our individual writing was a great way for all of us to keep each other and ourselves accountable and ensure we all had time to individually read through others’ writing. Our group designated Sunday to be a reading day; we all read through each others’ pages, which were in a shared Google Drive folder, and left suggestions/edits along the sides of every piece of writing. This ensured we were all ready to discuss new ideas or constructive criticisms at our meeting on Monday.

Week 4: Writing and editing

Week 4 for my group was less focused on the research and more focused on the writing. Most of our main research was completed, and we met five times throughout the week to discuss each individual’s writings, analyzing where we could expand on or cut out content. By our Monday meeting, we all had time to review our peer’s comments on our own work and we made changes together in our meetings over the following days. In addition, the two students who chose to write about our proposals began writing their parts during Week 4, as they wanted to understand what everyone else was writing about before embarking on our solutions. We brainstormed potential proposals together as a group, suggesting all possibilities and narrowing them down one by one. We wanted to ensure our proposals were the strongest, most effective way to enact change, so we ensured that we could defend their validity and why we chose them.

Meeting multiple times to discuss criticism and feedback was a great way to get everyone involved in the writing process. Some of the subtopics, such as mine, required much more background information and therefore had longer page counts than other subtopics, so incorporating everyone into the editing process ensured that everyone’s ideas were represented in our work. Our professors reminded us throughout the process that it was okay for everyone to not have “equal” parts of writing in the final paper, so making sure we were all present in the editing process ensured we all carried our weight and represented our opinions. We emphasized several times throughout the process that criticism was never personal– we were never criticizing an individual but simply wanted to ensure we created the best piece of work. We often faced disagreements over content and format, but civilly talking through our issues allowed us to move past any issues and keep a positive and effective group dynamic.

Sarah Eckerson (top center) with her Capstone team

Week 5: Making final edits

All of our group’s writing was mostly done by the beginning of Week 5. Our final proposal was due on Friday, so we met every day throughout the week, sometimes multiple times a day, to ensure every detail of our paper was up to our standards. We began the week on zoom with the whole group going through our full paper draft page by page. We had divided each subtopic into even more specific subtopics, such as: “Legacy Admissions” → “Background.” We talked through all new peer comments and made mostly unanimous changes; once a section was fully edited, we transferred it into our “Final Proposal” document. This allowed us to visually see how many more pages we had left to edit and to go through the paper in its entirety as a group. It was a great strategy for our organization and ensuring no part of our proposal got overlooked.

Once the entire paper had been read through and approved by our group, we had a 45 page final draft compiled by Wednesday. At that point, we had decided on the final order of our content, and a few group members worked on adding in all of our footnotes and bibliography citations to ensure accuracy and a consistent style. The rest of us broke up the final writing tasks; we wrote a short introduction and conclusion to our proposal as well as individually skimmed the paper for any final content or grammatical changes.

The day before our proposal was due was definitely the longest, most challenging day of Capstone for my group. We began our Zoom meeting at 12 p.m. and, with only three short breaks in between, we stayed on the meeting until 1 a.m. when we submitted our official proposal. During this long meeting, we went through our paper line by line; and no, that is not an exaggeration. We read over every word and comment in the margin and sometimes spent over 20 minutes just trying to find the right word for a sentence. In hindsight, those specific words did not make or break our paper, but we all felt so strongly that every part of this should be intentional.

Once we finally agreed that every aspect of our proposal was the best it could be, we added in our cover page and table of contents, which finalized our complete proposal. One group member emailed our proposal to our professors around 1a.m. on Friday, March 23, 11 hours before it was due. Despite Thursday being an incredibly exhausting day, being done with our proposal was the greatest feeling. We were all extremely confident that we had written the best paper possible and were excited for our professors to read about our ideas. One of the biggest goals we had from the beginning was to ensure this proposal would not be six separate pieces of writing, but rather one cohesive body of work. Our meticulous editing and mutual collaboration ensured we accomplished this, and the pride we felt after submission knowing the content and flow of our paper was so intentional and exact was a great feeling.

Week 6: Preparing for the oral defense

After our submission, all that was left of Capstone was our oral defense; our group was scheduled for Friday, April 30. We took a few days off from Zoom and met again three days before our oral defense. Our professors assured us that extensive preparation was not necessary, as we had just spent five weeks becoming experts on our topic. In our meeting, we refreshed on a few of our central points and discussed Zoom etiquette for our defense. We talked about ways to get everyone involved, such as noticing when someone unmutes to talk and waiting for at least 2 people to talk before you talk again. In addition, we had compiled a list of questions that the professors may ask us, so we made sure to solidify our proposal from all angles of attack.

On the day of our oral defense, I was admittedly nervous. However, once we entered the Zoom meeting, our professors helped to ease our anxieties and conversationally asked how the overall process went for us: what we learned, how our group dynamic was, how COVID impacted our process, etc. I personally touched on the fact that it was rather odd to be working so closely with people I had never met in person while also highlighting that we were still able to work effectively together, despite the natural group disagreements that arose throughout our process. In addition, all of our group members agreed that we learned a lot about the college admissions process and that our eyes had been to the financial inequalities in education in the U.S. Once our professors started asking more serious questions, our flow from person to person was smooth and mostly everyone got the chance to speak equally. We answered with confidence, ease, and no awkward pauses. Our preparation seemed to serve us well, as we were able to defend all the questions our professors asked us to their satisfaction.

It was very rewarding to hear how much they enjoyed reading about our topic. One reason we chose it was we hoped to provide a fresh topic for them to read, and they praised the order in which we set up our paper, the extent of our research, and the cohesiveness of our writing. As I mentioned earlier, a main goal of ours was to ensure this paper was a cohesive body of work, so hearing that success be recognized was well worth our 25+ hours of meeting over five days. Overall, our oral defense was a great success, and I think that I can speak for my whole group when I say that we were very proud of not only our written proposal, but also our strong oral defense dynamic that met and hopefully exceeded our professors’ expectations.

As a whole, Capstone was a challenging undertaking, especially in the time of COVID-19. However, it was a great experience that strengthened my problem-solving skills, helped with team collaboration, and gave me more confidence in my writing. It felt good to meticulously write and edit this paper from beginning to end and be a key player in such a substantial task. In addition, my final individual grade–consisting of the group paper grade, my individual grade from the oral defense, and the grade given to me on peer evaluations–resulted in an A, so all of our hard work and sleepless nights were well worth it to see its success.

— By Sarah Eckerson