Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How to Admit Students to College

Colleges base their admission decisions on a variety of different criteria. One of them is how well the student can write. At present they have two ways of measuring that, neither of which is worth much.

One way is by the SAT writing exam. The problem is that consistent grading across a large number of students requires something close to machine grading, human graders checking the essay against a simple and objective set of criteria. That might tell you how well the student has trained for the test but it is not very good evidence of how well the student can write.

The other way is by having a prospective student send in an essay for the admission people at the college to evaluate. However good a job they do of evaluating the essay, they have no way of knowing who wrote it. The applicant may have written it entirely himself, he may have written it himself and had it gone over by someone more expert in writing, he may have hired someone to write it for him. I have no inside knowledge, but given how important college admissions have become I would be astonished if no such market exists.

There is a simple solution. Many applicants visit a college before applying. As part of the process, put the applicant in a room with a computer and a list of topics and give him an hour to write an essay. If the applicant is not going to visit the college, perhaps there is an alumnus living near him who would be willing to provide the computer and monitor the writing. If multiple colleges want applicants to write essays under controlled conditions, it should be in the interest of someone, perhaps the organization that now administers SAT exams, to arrange suitable facilities in cities scattered across the country.

It seems like an obvious idea and I do not know why, so far as I can tell, it has not yet happened.


Anonymous said...

I don't see how your proposal solves the grading the problem.

Greg Gruber said...

If I understand what Dr. Friedman is proposing correctly, the "grading problem" is actually removed, because the colleges are reviewing the essays themselves, rather than relying only on the SAT writing score. Perhaps a simpler way to achieve what you are proposing is to have the SAT essays submitted directly to the colleges instead of being scored?

Anonymous said...

I think that part of the reason is that colleges want to assess how students write about topics of they own choosing with time to research and polish the work. Sitting students in a room for an hour would not really achieve this.

Anonymous said...

Who gonna do the scoring?

Anonymous said...

in the Czech Rep. and surrounding countries, every schools sets their own rules of admission, which usually takes the form of tests in various relevant topics, or evaluation of your high school preformance which can give you an edge at the test, like a bonus 15 points or whatever.some schools allow you to study with no precondition but they compensate it with tough exams so 90% of admitees wont make it past the 1st or 2nd semester.
up until now the system was nice and decentralised but gov. smartasses are catching up of course. they want to have something like gpa on national level then european, etc.god forbid them not to fix something that is not broken.typical.
schooling is free of course, until the age of 26-7, that is, you can study 6-8 free semesters for BA and 4-6 of MA.if you run out of your free semesters you have to pay something round a thousand dollars per semester.i know a lot of people who paid several years of tuition just to be able to make one or two exams.

Tibor said...


I think that in Germany...or rather in some German is also centralized and largely based on the Abitur results. It is like this in Niedersachsen, I'm not sure about other states. Also, some parts of Germany have entirely tax funded schooling, some with some direct payments from students. I pay 250 euros a semester as a Ph.D. student in Goettingen and I would pay 750 euros if I were a Bc. or Ms. student. I don't know the prices in other states. The universities are state owned though. Also, lot is subsidized here. The Uni sportszentrum has very low fees for its courses (for example I'm currently attending salsa classes and I've paid 25 euros for 12 lectures (there are 56 atendees, but still)...this would be a price of a single one on one lecture of German language in a private school in Goettingen) and there are a couple of other things that have to make the university much more expensive (alltogether - the fees and the tax payments) than it could be.

Other than that, I have the impression that at least at the faculty of mathematics and physics in Prague, they are in favor of introducing fees. Still, I don't think fees itself would be that much of an improvement. As long as the education industry is this extremely regulated and controlled by the state, you are not going to see dramatic improvements. Also, again at the beforementioned faculty I heard a talk at the meeting of the staff of the probability department (while I was waiting for my professor) about alternative education schemes such as online education provided by some top universities either for free or very cheap.

The model is this:

You teach people a skill that someone is interested in. Say programming in Java. Your students enroll for free and finnish. Their results and names are kept secret by the university but they can be bought by those companies who are interested in hiring people who know this. Even if the students advertise themselves, without the university's certification you don't know if they are not lying. This way you provide cheap and good education and at the same time provide the businesses with exactly the people they need...and those people with jobs they look for.

Another (possibly combined with this) model is that you pay for the course partly by teaching. You finnish, then you have to do some grading, make tests and so on. That itself is a good way to learn something. Now that I sometimes teach here I realized that you really only know something proplerly if you can easily teach it to others. I heard it from a couple of people (David Friedman and my Ph.D. advisor included) and it really is that way. Teaching something is a great way to actually learn it properly (and I would say that if you cannot teach it to relatively able people, then you don't really know it well yourself). So this is a way to both improve the skills of the students and make it cheap.

I think this kind of schooling would be soon dominant as it is cheap and convenient...were it not for state certification and regulation that favours traditional ways of (university) schooling.

dWj said...

I'm pretty sure some large standard post-graduate exam works the way Greg Gruber describes, and it seems like the right solution. Actually, I thought it was the LSAT, though I also think Prof Friedman would know that if it were the case.

dWj said...

Incidentally, I believed the "you don't know something properly until you can teach it" maxim until my own recent teaching experience. On my third iteration, I'm a better teacher than when I started, not because I have learned the subject better, but because I know better what the students are bringing with them; I'm far less often completely blindsided by the students' lack of something I assumed was covered by one of the prerequisites, and while it still baffles me that the students find some topics hard (even as they find some seemingly more difficult subjects easy), I at least know it as an empirical fact and can accommodate that in various ways.

Albert said...

Rather than having the student write yet another essay, a better solution might be that the College Board sends a copy of the SAT essay directly to each school, along with the grades.

Then if the college chooses, they can grade the essay themselves without concern that it has been written by a third party.

Mark said...

If they have access to the internet, either through the provided computer or via their cell phone, they can still get somebody else to write the essay for them.

I see two ways of inhibiting that: You can monitor them for the duration of the hour, which adds significant cost. Or you can search them, take their cell phones, and give them a computer without internet access, in which case you're essentially testing their ability to write an essay within a very short timeframe on a topic they didn't choose and on which they couldn't do any research, which is probably not what you want.

David Friedman said...

"in which case you're essentially testing their ability to write an essay within a very short timeframe on a topic they didn't choose and on which they couldn't do any research, which is probably not what you want."

I think it is pretty much what you want. The objective isn't to find out how good they are at doing research but how good they are at writing. The short time frame might be a problem--but you can reduce it by making it a reasonably short essay.

RKN said...

As I understand it, the analytical writing test in the GRE (general test) is scored by a trained human reader on the basis of the overall quality of the work. The reader's competency is then scored (not sure exactly how) by a computer program, and if the two scores align then the human score of the writing stands. If not, another human reader scores the writing and the final score is the average of the two human scores.

The GRE is closely proctored to avoid fraud, and the test taker decides which schools see the test scores.

Don't see why it can't work that way for the SAT as well.

Shaddox said...

I think the bigger problem is that there is little incentive for most colleges and universities to not accept an applicant.

Anonymous said...

So how prevalent is an essay requirement for college admission in the US?
I attended a state university in Oklahoma during the 1980s. Oklahoma uses the ACT rather than the SAT, which I believe is the case for several states in the middle of the country. The ACT has no essay portion, or at least it didn't back when I took it. And I was never asked to submit any kind of essay for admission-- the ACT alone was sufficient.

I know I've heard mentions of essays being required for college admission on TV and such, but I guess I always just assumed it was primarily just the elite schools that required them. Is it standard in most states?

David Friedman said...

My experience is only with relatively elite schools. That said, I think they all ask the applicant to write an essay and send it in. If the applicant uses the SAT rather than the ACT, I think the schools expect him to take the part of the SAT that includes an essay but I have the impression that they don't give very much weight to it.

Anonymous said...

When I applied for postgraduate course. My university asked me to do exactly what professor Friedman suggests. Only difference was that they gave me topic of my essay, pen and paper. This way I couldn't use spell check what made it a bit more difficult. On the other hand admission officehad to read my handwriting which is not very clear sometimes.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Poor admissions office.

I only know about the schools I applied to, but they all used the Common Application, which has at least one essay included in it - as well as their own supplements, which each requested about one more essay on a topic they'd chosen. I wrote so many essays...

... and got accepted by Oberlin, which had one of the awful ones. Sigh, such is life.

But yes, at this point there is a writing component to the SAT. It includes A) an essay and B) a bunch of editing questions. Any university that uses the SAT will probably require that - but, as my father says, I get the impression they don't give too much weight to it.

Also worth noting: to my memory, one college let me choose my essay topic for an essay unique to that college, and it was for a single optional essay in addition to the one whose topic they assigned. While many schools will let you choose from two or three topics, they aren't aiming for "topics of [the student's] own choosing." Or at least, the ones I applied to weren't.

And - Shaddox, why do you say that? I would think the universities have significant incentive not to admit anyone they think will do poorly. After all, the universities are ranked based on concerns such as class size (the lower the student/teacher ratio, the better) and how well their outgoing students do (by various measures), as well as quality of incoming students (usually by imperfect measures such as SATs, but still). If I were running an admissions office under those circumstances, I'd certainly want to be careful whom I accepted.