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Admission to higher education

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Criteria for admissions

There is a debate as to what universities are looking for in their admissions: is it students who will be successful on their courses, or in the world at large? Some of the world's elite institutions, such as France's École Normale Supérieure, or Japan's University of Tokyo, look for academic success, whereas the US's Ivy League has justified its selection policy on the basis that it is not just looking for academically bright students, but also prospective leaders.

In many countries objective criteria such as exam grades and university entrance tests are the main means of entry to university. However, many institutions, particularly those who need to discriminate between a wide number of applicants, will also use more subjective, qualitative criteria, such as references, personal statements and essays, work experience, as well as evidence of personal qualities, enquiring mind etc., and evidence of other ability in an athletic or artistic field.


A former director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley has proposed that the objectives of an admissions policy should be to enrol a class of freshmen that is academically bright, that will benefit from learning, contribute to their community, be likely to graduate, reflect the state's ethnic diversity, and become loyal alumni, providing financial support to the organization.

A range of criteria should be used – high-school grades, test scores, and also:

"intellectual curiosity and accomplishment, extraordinary talent, leadership, service to others, motivation, tenacity, and demonstrated ability to overcome hardship" (Laird, 2005: p. 20).

The problem of discrimination can be exacerbated by the fact that the exam system can simply throw up too many candidates, as in the UK, where so many students get A grades in A-levels that these can no longer be seen as reliable predictors.


Imperial College London, ranked in the world's top ten universities, plans to introduce aptitude tests within the next few years to help select the brighter applicants (it already has them in medical-related subjects) and, from this year, will also impose longer interviews (Paton, 2009).

I shall now look in a little more detail at what these objective and subjective criteria entail.

Objective methods

School grades and university exams play an important part in university entrance all over the world. Australia, for example, selects students on the basis of their overall academic achievement, believing that to be the best predictor of academic success (although many universities also use additional criteria such as employment experience, portfolios, interviews, etc.). In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, the Universities Admission Index provides a percentile ranking of students against their peers, based on exam performance and continuous assessment.

In Egypt, students must pass the thaanawiya amma, or university exam, and a high score will open doors to dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and engineering and to prestigious careers, while low scores lead to no admissions or to fine arts, music education, social science, tourism or archaeology, where there are fewer job opportunities (Holmes, 2008).

Many UK universities have introduced admissions tests, and SPA has produced guidance [see], as well as a list of colleges which use them. Admissions tests are much more common in the US, in the form of the SAT. SATs are standardized tests which examine both general intellectual aptitude in verbal and mathematical reasoning (SAT I) and subject knowledge (SAT II). SAT I has been criticized on the grounds that the "intellectual skills" are ill-defined, to which the response is that they test important critical skills in the use of language and the ability to problem solve (Bollinger, 2005: pp. 5-6), for which the best preparation is wide and critical reading rather than cramming. Another objection is that the tests are unfair to certain groups, as the average varies by race and family background (Laird, 2005: p. 22).

Some selective institutions using quantitative methods use a particular formula. For example, until 1998 the University of Berkeley used grade point average × 1,000 plus SAT I and three SAT II scores; its current policy (as of July 2009 but shortly to be abandoned) is that students should rank in the top 12.5 per cent of California high-school graduates to be eligible. Institutions have also been known to look at the graduating records of entrants from specific high schools.

Subjective methods

The problem with using subjective criteria is that these still need to be fair and transparent. In other words, they need to be shared by all those involved in the selection process and relate to the needs of the course concerned. It's difficult to see how height and ear size relates to course achievement, but shyness might possibly be a barrier for public relations courses! It's therefore important to set out criteria which can inform subjective judgements.

Objective methods such as SAT can also be criticized for just focusing on cognitive skills. Some consider that it is also important to assess non-cognitive skills such as motivation and adaptability. Sedlacek (2005: p. 180ff.) recommends using a range of non-cognitive variables, including:

  • positive self-concept, which indicates strength of character, determination, and independence;
  • realistic self-appraisal and understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses;
  • ability to handle the system, which involves being assertive about any bias, i.e. not accepting it but being prepared to fight for improvement;
  • ability to prioritize long-term over short-term goals, i.e. to plan ahead;
  • availability of a strong support person;
  • experience of leadership and community service.

Such measures are particularly useful in capturing the potential of non-traditional students.

Schmitt et al. (2005) also argue that too much attention to cognitive skills risks missing out on qualities which help make students employable – for example, leadership and interpersonal skills, intellectual interest, the ability to understand knowledge in context, physical and psychological health, and social responsibility.

There have also been attempts to supplement the SAT: for example, the Rainbow Project piloted a test which used open assessment techniques such as storytelling and cartoon captioning to capture "successful intelligence", i.e. the ability to succeed by building on one's strengths and recognizing one's weaknesses (Sternberg, 2005: p. 167).

Interviews constitute an important element in the holistic assessment of candidates, providing the latter with an opportunity to display their communication and analytical skills, as well as their motivation. They should, however, be conducted in accordance with admissions policies, and SPA makes a number of recommendations, for example that at least two interviewers be present, that questions be open-ended, and responses scored against specific criteria on a standardized form (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2008).