13 April 2013

The Secret Behind Complicated Application Procedures

Take for example all the complicated and time consuming application procedures for getting admitted into a good university. Apart from having high scores on standardized tests, an applicant must fill in endless forms, upload a lot of documents, write motivational essays etc. Presumably universities want many students because it is one of the ways in which they make money. So, why is it that universities make it hard for people to apply for their programs? Is it because they want to not have too many applicants?

The answer to the questions above is that the complicated application procedure is in itself a part of the selection for admission process. One obvious element that is verified by asking applicants to go through a complicated procedure is motivation. Many people who would apply just for fun or to simply see what happens are discouraged to apply. This leads to avoiding an overload of the admissions office with applications from people who would no follow through.   

However, the motivation part is only one side of the advantages of having complicated application procedures. In order to better understand the other sides, let’s think a moment about the admission criteria and the profile of a good candidate. Although universities want many students, they also want good students who will be able to go through the education programs without too many troubles. Universities don’t want to have students who constantly fail exams and who need four years to finish a one year program.  This means that the education institutions want to admit candidates who have a good academic performance potential.

Recruiting and selection are mostly focused on assessing the personality of each candidate and making a decision on how well each personality fits with the ideal candidate profile. When it comes to academic, as well as job, performance there are two personality traits that are very good predictors, namely intelligence and conscientiousness. Intelligence can be defined in a nutshell as capacity of processing information and we have to admit that for academic performance the overall rule of the more the better applies. Conscientiousness can be defined briefly as ability to work hard, to work thorough on a task. Again, when it comes to reading textbooks, doing homework and other typical academic work tasks, the higher the level of conscientiousness a candidate has, the better the candidate.

Intelligence and conscientiousness are not the only predictors of academic or job performance, but out of the wide array of personality traits, they are the best predictors. So, universities want to get students who are highly intelligent and score high on conscientiousness. Although everyone seems to have an idea of what intelligence is, the reality is that this particular personality trait is not very easy to measure. In order to measure someone’s IQ, the person has to take an IQ test. Universities don’t explicitly ask for IQ test scores, since that would create endless controversies; what they do, is ask candidates to provide their scores on standardized tests such as the GMAT, in the case of business schools, or SAT. All these standardized tests are disguises for IQ tests. This is not to say that the GMAT is an IQ test, but rather to say that a candidate’s score on the GMAT is highly correlated with that candidate’s IQ score. To conclude on how universities assess candidates’ IQs is not by giving them actual IQ tests which would lead to controversies, but by using a proxy of intelligence scores, namely scores on standardized tests such as GMAT, GRE and SAT which are not subject to controversy.

Having clarified the way in which universities assess the intelligence levels of their candidates, it is time to look a bit on how they assess the conscientiousness levels of people who apply for education programs. The first way to assess conscientiousness is through the same standardized tests. If you have taken such a test, you probably noticed that they are completely unappealing and, in my humble opinion, really boring. In preparing for and actually taking such a test there is no intrinsic task motivation. The test has to be taken for the sake of taking it and with the only goal of scoring high.

A byproduct of the introduction and wide use of standardized tests is the development of a real industry of learning test taking. A quick search on amazon.co.uk with the key-word GMAT returned over one thousand results. This is only one standardized test and the search was done only on one website. The reliance on standardized tests led to a need of learning how to take the test. From a certain point of view, this is not exactly great, but from another point of view the difficulty of test taking is one of the key elements of standardized tests. By making a test difficult to take and by making people work a lot and prepare for taking a standardized test, the test actually measures conscientiousness. The higher the level of conscientiousness one has, the more she will work on the mostly pointless tasks of test taking and subsequently the higher the score on the test will be. In a nutshell, standardized test measure both intelligence and conscientiousness.

When it comes to assessing a candidate’s level of conscientiousness, universities go beyond relying only on the scores on the standardized tests. They also make the application procedure lengthy, complicated and somehow boring. By asking candidates to fill in endless forms, to write essays and to upload many documents, universities, in fact, assess the level of conscientiousness of each candidate. People who have a low level of this trait simply fail to complete the application procedure.

Before concluding this example of the up-side of making things harder, I have to make a final point regarding the predictive value of intelligence and conscientiousness on academic performance. Their predictive value is real, but applies mostly for average levels of the two traits. In other words, at the extremes of each trait, the differences are insignificant. For example, if one candidate has an IQ of 160 and another has an IQ of 163, the three points difference will not predict too much. However, a difference of three points between an IQ of 99 and an IQ of 102 will predict better academic performance. Extremes on these traits are very rare; there are very few people in the world with extremely high IQs and with very high scores on conscientiousness. Universities know this and act accordingly. In selecting future students who will perform well, the primary goal is not to get the exceptionally good ones, but rather to make sure that the not so good ones are not admitted. The complicated and time consuming application procedure will not distinguish between the people with very high and exceptionally high levels of conscientiousness. Rather, it will distinguish between the people with low and average levels of conscientiousness. 

No comments: