Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Admission criteria to higher education

with 6 comments

An interesting post (unfortunately in Swedish) on SAT-like tests vs. GPAe as admission criteria to tertiary education has started an equally interesting discussion. Here I will elaborate on my own take on the issue, as well as discuss some opinions of others. (Note that the discussion is valid outside of the original Swedish context too.)

  1. A cognitive test (CT) is a better predictor of academic potential than GPA. GPA measures a mixture of potential, achievement of potential, and external factors, e.g. industriousness, motivation in high school (which need not be the same thing as motivation in college), how popular one is with the teachers, …

  2. Whether a CT or GPA is the better predictor for academic result will depend on a variety of factors, including the proportions of head-work (CT) and leg-work (GPA): Future mathematicians will likely be better filtered by a CT; lawyers by GPA.

  3. GPA becomes increasingly misleading, the higher the cognitive ability of the student. The raw brains needed to get a very high GPA are not stellar (high, but not stellar—and even less so in a time of grade inflation), while even the most intelligent cannot reach the very top without a considerable amount of leg-work or skillful manipulation of teachers.

    Add in that the most intelligent are less likely to have developed manipulation skills, are more likely to find exercises under-challenging and boring, often have their own intellectual interests that school gets in the way of, etc.—and a cognitive ability above a certain limit can actually be a hindrance for getting a good GPA in high-school, when compared to those somewhat below this limit.

    If more practical subjects (e.g. physical education or arts) are counted towards the GPA, the discrepancy grows even wider.

  4. Re-visiting the former item on the college level, we see that there is less direct interaction with teachers/graders, that courses tend to be noticeably more stimulating, and that the ability to choose courses is greater. The latter has a dual positive effect, in that 1. problems with motivation will diminish 2. problem areas of low relevance can be avoided: A mathematician does not need to be fluent in a foreign language, the historian does not need a head for math, and the professional translator who is bored by history need not be a poor translator.

  5. Combining the two previous items there is a distinct problem with popular educations: By the sheer number of applicants the GPA-cutoff will rise to a hard-to-reach level—and many of the best suited applicants will find themselves excluded in favour of industrious teacher’s pets. A CT provides a very valuable second road for these.

    I can cite myself as a case in point: I had a very good, but not extraordinary, GPA and it is quite possible that I would not have been able to get into the program and college I applied to based on GPA (the university, KTH, being Sweden’s MIT; the program being one of the most prestigious). I did have a stellar score on the Swedish equivalent to the SATs, however—and, once admitted, I turned out to be one of the very best students of the program.

  6. The original post is critical to the use of CTs on the basis that GPA is a better predictor for success. Apart from the discussion above, this reasoning has the very critical flaw that it is a statement about aggregates, not individuals: It is quite possible that he is right about the aggregate numbers, but relying only on GPA would result in an unfair assessment of many individuals; in particular, those of unusually high cognitive abilities. Notably, the purpose of an admission system is exactly to select the best suited individual applicants—not the best suited group.

  7. Looking at some comments, an attitude seems to be present that a “CT student” would steal an admission from a “GPA student”, having been to lazy to do his job in high-school and kicking someone out who was more deserving (i.e., in this limited view, working harder). This is a grave misconception for the reasons mentioned above, but also seems to go hand-in-hand with a too positive take on the value and forms of secondary education (respectively, the pre-tertiary school system in general). Education is good; conventional schooling need not be, and if someone finds more meaningful ways to educate himself, why should he be punished for that? (Cf. e.g. Issues relating to education.)

  8. There also seems (but here I speculate) to be a false impression that admissions would first be given to those with a high GPA and then to those with mid-range CT scores, unfairly leaving those with mid-range GPAs outside. In fact, it is better to view the system as a two-pronged admission, which simply reduces the risk for the better suited candidates to filtered out. The presence of a CT makes the system fairer and gives those who deserve it better opportunities—without hurting others of equal suitability. (Except in as far as every system can be unfair to the odd border-line case—while a GPA-only system will hurt many clearly on the right side of the border. Further, with reservations for implementation problems. Should such occur, however, they only imply that the implementation should be improved.)

  9. An interesting twist is the misinterpretation that problems with personal chemistry with teachers would be the students fault, that he would be less inclined to do the work assigned because he disliked the teacher, and, by implication, has himself to blame form not biting the bullet (“bita ihop”). Such cases may well exist; however, the actual argument focuses on teachers who like or dislike students and give correspondingly faulty grades—even if unconsciously. This has nothing to do with hard work, but is a problem with the teacher. (And, make no mistake, this is a very real issue, which can be positively deadly for someone in need of a US-Style 3.8–4.0 GPA.)


Written by michaeleriksson

October 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Good article. Wish I knew enough Swedish to understand enough of the original.

    What I’ve always been suspicious of in regard to GPA’s is, give how far off any objective standard they are, they just reflect the kind of thinking that meets the approval of similar thinkers. A socialization that feeds on itself can easily become garbage-in/garbage-out.

    I would be interested to see a study that compared success rates (however defined) of those with high GPA’s vs. high CT’s limited to more objective, real world environments such as construction, manufacturing, engineering, applied biology, and to some extent, business.


    October 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    • I have no such study at my finger tips. However, a few related observations:

      o In my experience, success in the real world correlates imperfectly with ability: The most successful (in terms of e.g. promotions or money earned) X is rarely the one who is the best at X. The reason is at least partially the same as with GPA, e.g. that knowing whom to “butter up” can pay off, or that most bosses prefer obedient underlings to people who think for themselves and speak their mind. (This with great individual variation from boss/company to boss/company, however.) Many excellent examples can be found in e.g. literature or music.

      o Those with the highest level of competence often do astonishingly poorly through being square pegs in a world of round holes. Cf e.g. some anekdotes in “The Peter Principle”. One famous IQ researcher (possibly Richard Lynn, sorry for being vague) has claimed that there is a “comfort zone” of IQ, outside of which great problems with interactions start to occur, say when two people of IQs 120 and 150 (but not e.g. 120 and 135) interact. I expand on some similar thoughts in my discussion of the tall dancer phenomenon.

      o I have repeatedly heard of investigations like these in e.g. news sources. The analyses seem to focus on pointing to intelligence or IQ as “not all that”, often wishing to promote the need for social skills or networking in place of ability. (An attitude that I consider simplistic, possibly even destructive, in the light of the previous item and the implicit corruption/nepotism resulting from networking.)


      October 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      • A clarification to the last item: The investigations have not compared GPA and CT, but made comparisons of how either those highly successful in school (e.g. 4.0 GPAs or valedictorians) or those with high IQs have fared. In both cases, the claimed result has been “intelligence is not all that”.


        October 3, 2010 at 5:26 pm

  2. Yeah, that was more wishful thinking on my part than any realistic expectation. Nobody does the studies I’d like to see and the ones that they do leave me with more questions than I had before.

    Referenced this on my blog. Not that anyone reads it…OK, three people…maybe. But in regard to your comment “Future mathematicians will likely be better filtered by a CT; lawyers by GPA.”, that would tie into my jury duty experience (shameless plug: http://tinyurl.com/376qzd8). Trial lawyers are only interested in jurists they can socially manipulate. Critical thinkers need not apply.


    October 7, 2010 at 3:32 am

  3. […] Today, the best shot at a good selection appears to be the SATs (and similar tests) that try to assess scholastic aptitude, but even here the value of the test has, possibly by design, grown weaker over time—and there appears to be a trend for colleges to not require it anymore… Cf. also a discussion of test vs. grades. […]

  4. […] is particularly interesting in light of an earlier text on admission criteria, where I oppose the suggestion to remove Högskoleprovet (“Swedish SATs”) for admissions to […]

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