Holistic Approach Overrated in College Admission

17 04 2009

Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog
April 16, 2009
by Eric Hoover

Winston-Salem, N.C. — Many admissions officials insist on the importance of evaluating the “whole student.” That is, considering the talents and potential that grades and standardized-test scores do not reveal.

The trick is that holistic assessment is often unreliable, Scott
Highhouse said here this morning at Wake Forest University’s “Rethinking Admissions” conference. Mr. Highhouse, a professor of
industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, cautioned admissions professionals about the limits of holistic evaluations, such as the personal interviews that Wake Forest built into its application process this year.

To make his point, Mr. Highhouse cited several studies that undermine the notion that employers can reliably predict the success of workers they hire.

“People just aren’t very predictable,” he said.

So why do many people believe that an “intuitive approach” is better
(and fairer) than an analytical one when evaluating candidates for a
job? One reason, Mr. Highhouse suggested, was an “erroneous belief in prediction expertise,” or the idea that experts in a given profession
can tell who will succeed and who will not.

“We know that experts are less accurate than simple formulas based on observables,” he said, “and on-the-job experience does not improve predictions made by professionals in numerous fields.”

Furthermore, research suggests that a staple of the hiring ritual — the personal interview — is an unreliable way to assess an applicant’s potential. Highly structured interviews seem more reliable than informal ones, but they are perhaps more coachable, or “fakeable”. . .

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4 responses

19 04 2009
Crimson Wife

The alternative, however, would be admission by formula. Law schools already do this for the most part, so it’s not unprecedented. But I, for one, would not have wanted to go to a college where admission was solely based on standardized test scores and GPA. Some of the most interesting folks I met there were not the standard valedictorian 1600 SAT type.

19 04 2009
JJ

I read this comment after finishing the Sunday NYT Week in Review stories — this for example, but pick anything because the whole section is about imperfect categorizing of our information and choices, one way or another.

My favorite might have been George Lucas re-categorizing Dick Cheney as NOT Darth Vader. 😉

I also read Natural Happiness and the real-world research of “decision scientists” in the NYT Magazine — if we can educate ourselves with better information about how our own brains and minds make such complex social decisions, and why, then maybe we can manage our own ambiguity and flailing about and wiring for failure?

CW, you might like Bono’s rather artful piece on feeding soul and spirit both individually and as society or an economy. 🙂

I was just getting ready to blog all this as educational Power of Story, and here you hand me a custom-made connection!

So no formula or algorithm is perfect, from the Dewey Decimal System to personalized ad software, to college admissions and business staffing decisions. OTOH, intuition, nepotism, corruption, guesswork or being too overwhelmed to function don’t work any better. 😦

The overall findings suggest to me that no human decision- making process, by individuals only or groups only or any combination such as we use for parenting and culture, politics and policy, is ever really “natural” and “right” while all other approaches are manipulative, biased and wrong.

Each “has value” and also is “about values.” Which is both good and bad, functional and dysfunctional, at the same time in different applications, in various measure. Each has pros and cons, natural and hidden bias, etc.

There is a considerable mismatch between the world in which our minds evolved and our current existence. . . our minds were not adapted to cope with a world of billions of people. The life of a modern city dweller, surrounded by strangers, is an evolutionary novelty. . .

This history has left its mark on our minds. Children are irrepressible taxonomizers, placing the world of distinct individuals into categories based on their appearance, their patterns of movement and their presumed deeper natures. . .

Think of business managment and education administration decisions such as admissions, also all levels of government *including* church governance and its decision-making by individuals and groups.

Whatever one believes about the divine, it is clear that church governance is humans making decisions and thus imperfect, even as it promises and tries to deliver the reliable comfort of infallibility and tradition, definitions and ordering of knowledge, discernible identity and state of being.

(And historically, we know even scripture/gospel was selected, categorized and ordered by humans, with human biases and assumptions and uncertainties — so I’d argue the current research findings apply and can help us understand that better too, toward ultimate human goals.)

For example:

. . . as the United States and other nations look for lessons in the wreckage from the excesses of that period, political leaders are confronting uncertainty about what economic structures and values should define capitalism’s next chapter. Even before the current crisis, there were calls to rethink basic assumptions about the economy.

. . .Mr. Obama is stepping into the debate characteristically intent on avoiding polarizing labels, and his advisers describe his philosophy in terms of pragmatism rather than ideology. . . Mr. Obama, they said, simply wants a more stable economic model.

“It’s a strategy directed at having a somewhat different and healthier expansion than we’ve had in the past, driven by a sense that the expansion is likely to be more secure and its benefits more widely shared” . . .

But economic policy is never just technocratic, especially not when times are tough.

And this:

“What’s fascinating to people about torture is it gives one person absolute power over another, which is both alluring and corrupting,” said Dr. Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College.
Torture, like slavery, corrupts both individuals and societies . .

Senator John McCain, perhaps this country’s most famous torture victim, has often said about why the United States must not use it:
“It’s not about the terrorists,” he says. “It’s about us.”

. . .So far every new disclosure about the intimate brutality carried out in the name of national security has only provoked more questions.

20 04 2009
Thinking We’re Thinking Is What’s Wrong! « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Thinking We’re Thinking Is What’s Wrong! 20 04 2009 I’m elevating to post status this comment about ways to decide between competing college applicants: […]

28 04 2009
JJ

Here’s an older CEO sure that the holistic intangibles approach is the only way to hire. Huh.

****
Richard Anderson, Delta Air Lines, interviewed by Adam Bryant

Typically, when you’re hiring a vice president of a company, they already have the résumé and they already have the experience base. And so what you’re trying to find out about are the intangibles of leadership, communication style and the ability to, today, really adapt to change.

And there are a lot of ways to go at that. I like to ask people what they’ve read, what are the last three or four books they’ve read, and what did they enjoy about those. And to really understand them as individuals because, you know, the résumés you get are wonderful résumés. Wonderful education, great work history. So you have to probe a little bit deeper into the human intangibles, because we’ve all seen many instances where people had perfect résumés, but weren’t effective in an organization.

So it’s not just education and experience. It’s education, experience and the human factor. The situational awareness that a person has and their ability to fit into an organization and then be successful in the organization. It’s a whole series of intangibles that are almost gut instincts about people.

Q. What other questions do you ask?

A. You want to know about their family. Where they grew up. What their parents did. Where they went to high school. What their avocations were. How many kids they had in their family. You know, what their whole background and history is.

I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

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