Top Colleges Fight to Win the Hearts of Girls Who Love Math and Science

By Sam Rosensohn

If the mean math SAT score for students admitted to John Hopkins University’s engineering program was 746, why did they accept a girl who scored 530 on the math?

“I think there is an unwritten push for females to apply John Hopkins, who are interested in engineering and the sciences,” said John Birney, the university’s associate director of admissions, one of the more candid admission officers in the nation.

“We gave the advantage this year to women who are trying to enter a field that is underrepresented for their gender, but who didn’t have the highest scores versus their male counterparts,” Birney added.

Reviewing the current list of students accepted to the engineering program, Birney said, “We accepted one girl who scored 530 on the Math SAT. Her combined score for math and verbal was 1080; the mean score for the entering class of freshmen was 1447.

“We accepted nine females who scored less than 600 on the Math SAT II C,” Birney said. The mean score for the Math SAT II C test was 752.

David Hawkins, Director of Public Policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, calls it the “tip factor.”

“If a school’s mission is to draw more women into a specific program than once they have the applications, they start to say, ‘who will help us round out our institutional mission,’”Hawkins said.

This ought to be all the evidence you need, young ladies. Colleges and universities with undergraduate programs in science, math and engineering want you to apply to their schools. Hawkins notes that there are private scholarships and federal grants for girls interested in math, science and engineering programs.  Matter of fact, they’ll recruit you, if you show genuine interest.

Tim Napier, associate director of college counseling at the Hopkins School in New Haven, which is graduating 20 Ivy League bound seniors, says that since women are underrepresented in math and science programs, including engineering, they have an edge in the admissions process.

Top schools are not only recruiting high school girls, but they’re creating programs designed to attract them. Napier mentioned Dartmouth’s New Women in Science Program.  Incoming women are paired with a mentor, a female professor, who helps to reinforce the value of science for women. At MIT undergraduate women reach out to high school girls to dispel the myth that technical schools are cold, uncaring enclaves interested only in building better bridges and more efficient automobiles.

Napier, as he’s famous for doing, put his finger on a big part of why girls shy away from math and science programs. Women, he says, are more inclined to study subjects they find socially relevant.

“A few years ago Yale was concerned about attracting more women into science research, Williams was concerned about getting more women into their math and science programs, and Brown University advised this past year that they were really hoping to see strong women in their math and science programs,” Napier said.

Napier noted that a Hopkins student was accepted to Brown’s science program in biological research early decision, because “some of the excitement Brown had for her was her commitment to science.”

So I called Brown University to speak to the head of the math department to ask why fewer women perused undergraduate work in math than man. Dr. Joseph Silverman, a number theory scholar, a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, father of two boys and a girl, and chairman of the math department, said he had not quick answer.

Silverman cast back to when his children were in public school. He remembered going to his daughter’s elementary school, sometime before she entered fifth grade to teach a math class. The school had already separated students into level one, level two and level three math classes.

“My daughter was in the top math class and I did a math talk abut number shapes; how to form three dots and make a triangle, ten dots and make a pyramid like at a bowling alley.”

Silverman was struck most by the ratio of girls to boys in the class. “I told the teacher, ‘I can’t help noticing that there are 21 kids in the class, of whom five are girls.’ The teacher’s reaction horrified me, ‘Oh, I hadn’t noticed,’ ” she said.”

“I know they did some sort of standardized test, discussed each kid, and how to place them so I think it may start before high school,” said Silverman.

So why aren’t girls drawn to math and science like boys are? Why don’t girls strive for a career in engineering or computer science at the same rate that boys do?  I asked my friend, Regis Stirling, who taught math at Old Lyme High School for 32 years.

“I have struggled with that my whole life, and I really don’t have a clue. There every bit as good in mathematics as the guys. The most dynamic mind I ever saw belonged to a girl – how she came up with things amazed me.

“There’ve been lots of girls I taught that were super math students and very few went on and majored or even studied in a mathematical field. There’s still a stigma that math is a male subject.

Just before Thanksgiving vacation, Stirling used to ask the girls in his calculus class to share with their grandmothers over turkey dinner that they were studying calculus to see their reaction. “There are roles that women see themselves in, and math isn’t up there,” he said.

It took more than a few calls, but I finally caught up with Marilee Jones, director of admissions at MIT. Casual, friendly, down-to-earth, a keeper of the entrance door to one of nation’s most sought after universities, said MIT was actively recruiting women.

“Technical schools have to fight very hard to get girls interested in applying,” Jones said from her Cambridge office. “The crucial pulse-point is right there.”

MIT has a vast outreach program aimed at attracting girls. “We have undergraduate students who do literal outreach for us. People don’t understand the nature of a technical school. They think it’s competitive and cold hearted. It’s just the opposite.

“We’re chronically under enrolled – that’s the opposite of liberal arts colleges, they have more girls than boys,” Jones said.

An article in the educational journal, The Chronicle noted that “at a time when women make up the majority of undergraduate students in the U.S., and medical and law schools are close to gender parity, the portion of women in enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs continues to hover around 20 percent, according to data compiled by the Society of Women Engineers.  Despite repeated attempts to attract more women into engineering, the proportion was 15 percent 20 years ago.

Jones thinks things are going to change relatively quickly, because girls haven’t realized that engineering and technology are playing a large and growing role in the field of biology.

“Girls will come in when they think it has to do with life as opposed to do with machines. There has to be a human quality to the work they do. They may not be drawn to building bridges or making a car, it’s kind of a turn off for most girls, but when it comes to working with materials to be implanted in a human body to prevent disease – that’s when you’ll see the girls,” said the director of admissions at MIT.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com