Arts & Culture

The great college admissions riddle

Book review

Geoff Kabaservice ’88, ’99PhD, is the author of The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment.

View full image

Robert J. Sternberg '72 flunked his first-grade IQ test and therefore, in the views of his elementary school teachers, was destined for a life of failure. Then, miraculously, one fourth-grade teacher chose to look beyond the test's verdict and tell young Sternberg that he might yet make something of himself. Thereafter he became a straight-A student, graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, and served a stint in Yale's admissions office. He has dedicated his distinguished career as a psychology professor and academic administrator to attacking the limited view of human potential inherent in the IQ test that wrote him off at an early age. Payback is sweet.

Now Sternberg has written a book that will cheer up anyone who has ever felt that standardized tests like the SAT failed to convey their multidimensional abilities and unique human worth, which is to say nearly everyone who has ever taken such a test. Drawing on a wide body of research into human intelligence, he argues that the century-old SAT is at best a rigid and partial measurement of a college applicant's analytic skills and ability to memorize and regurgitate large chunks of information, but does not assess other qualities that are equally important to college and life success. These "hidden" talents include creative abilities, practical savvy, and wisdom (by which Sternberg means community-oriented ethical judgment). He claims that other elements of the college admissions process typically overlook these critical qualities.

Unlike many critics of testing, Sternberg thinks that it's possible to build a better mousetrap. As a professor at Yale, Sternberg helped create a battery of tests that assessed high school students' analytical, practical, and creative skills. The practical skills section included a movie scenario of a problem that might confront college students, such as finding that a professor you've asked for a letter of recommendation doesn't appear to remember you; test-takers had to explain how they would respond. The creative skills section required students to solve math problems with novel premises, write a short story on an unusual theme such as "The Octopus's Sneakers," and tell stories based on picture collages. The test results offered a substantially improved prediction of students' first-year college grades than that provided by the SAT and GPA, while also narrowing the performance gap between whites and "historically disadvantaged groups" such as African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

When he was dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University, from 2005 until earlier this year, Sternberg saw an opportunity to make Tufts "the national leader in enlightened admissions policies," as he told the Tufts Daily. If he had found some way of getting applicants to take the test Yale devised, bettering Tufts's ability to select the students most likely to excel while minimizing affirmative action, he might have achieved his aim. Unfortunately, if Tufts or any other university were to require applicants to subject themselves to an additional two to four hours of mental poking and prodding beyond the SAT, the number of high school seniors applying for admission would drop substantially. That drop in numerical selectivity would have a negative impact on the institution's reputational ranking and even its Moody's credit rating.

Instead, Tufts now offers applicants the option of writing a short response to one of several questions intended to measure creativity, practicality, or wisdom. An applicant might write a short story on "The End of MTV," or assess whether Kermit the Frog was correct to lament the uneasiness of being green. Applicants also have the opportunity to produce a short video that conveys something of who they are. The additional information undoubtedly is helpful to admissions officers, but it's unlikely that Tufts has significantly changed the admissions process.

Sternberg does an excellent job of laying out the dilemmas that confront the admissions departments of selective universities, a category that now includes many more institutions than it would have even 10 or 20 years ago. He is evenhanded in explaining the shortcomings of the traditional admissions process and the reasons why, even with their flaws, such elements as the SAT, geographic preferences, and athletic considerations ought to be retained. "In admissions, ideals are continually bumping into reality," he notes, "and the chosen solution often is not perfectly principled but ultimately is made for pragmatic reasons."

But Sternberg is hardly the first to traverse the bloody ground of college admissions debates, and his insights are not as new as he seems to assume. Arthur Howe Jr. '43, Yale's dean of admissions from 1956 to 1964, experimented with tests to assess applicants' creativity. In the 1970s, Worth David '56 allowed Yale applicants to submit nontraditional evidence of their abilities and interests, evidence that ranged from hand-forged chain mail to freshly baked cakes. The SAT was not historically the tool of upper-class domination that Sternberg claims, but rather provided the means of opening the top universities to students who were not affluent WASP males. The most selective institutions might not assign numerical values to applicants' creativity, practicality, and ethical judgment, but they have been actively seeking out these qualities for many decades.

Sternberg contends that the college admissions process is not working well, in that many of those students who were not admitted to the selective colleges would do better academically than the ones who were. Personally, I doubt that the Insanely Selective Institutions—the places like Yale that reject more than 90 percent of their applicants—are admitting many underperformers. The major problem the ISIs face is their astonishing lack of class diversity. When fewer than 15 percent of Yale undergraduates come from families that earn less than $60,000 a year, $8,000 more than the national median income, there's a serious danger that the country someday will end up with a closed and self-perpetuating leadership caste, even if it's a multiethnic and multiracial caste.

The tests Sternberg and his colleagues devised at Yale might be useful in identifying potential applicants who appear to be both economically and competitively disadvantaged by the current admissions process. It's possible that a consortium of institutions might administer such tests in impoverished rural and urban areas to turn up talented individuals who might not otherwise think of applying to selective universities, or perhaps any university at all.

Sternberg doesn't ask whether more and better testing will fundamentally improve an admissions system that devotes less and less personalized attention to individual applicants as the overall numbers grow. What he does recognize is that many universities claim to admit applicants on the basis of their leadership potential, but don't do much to select for or develop those qualities in their students. His book is a provocative contribution to the coming debate over the real worth of college education, one that could be even more controversial than the current debate over admissions.  

The comment period has expired.