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Differentiation between Elite Applicants Is a Waste of Time

What do medical schools and Ivy League schools have in common? Two recent news articles prompted this question. The first dealt with the projected shortage of 150,000 doctors in the next 15 years. The figure is based on current graduation and training rates provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The second dealt with the growing number of undergraduate applicants put on waiting lists at elite schools. Yale, for example, raised the number on its list by 21 percent this year. To put this into perspective, last year the school admitted only seven of the 769 on its wait list.

The two events suggest that the gatekeepers to these schools are engaging in a process that causes unnecessary anxiety in applicants, while at the same time producing no compelling evidence that the nation is being better served. That's because their admission policies serve as ideal laboratories for observing the principle of the flat maximum in action. Those at the top of any rarefied population pool are so tightly bunched together in ability that it's a fool's errand to try to differentiate between them.

Consider the following: In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School admitted 150 first-year students from a pool of 800 applicants. The Texas Legislature, however, then mandated that the class size be increased by 50 students, who were to be drawn from the bottom of the original pool. These students entered with inferior grades, poorer test scores and lower personal evaluations. Yet during every measurable step of their medical education and training, their performance as a group was no different from the rest of their peers, nor from the top 50 students in the class ("The Way We Live Now", New York Times Magazine, Feb. 17, 02).

Based on the evidence, medical schools need not worry about diluting their standards by admitting more students. The treatment effect of spending four years in medical school transcends the selection effect of trying to rank qualifications of applicants.

By the same token, most undergraduate applicants to the Ivies and other brand-name schools usually are so close in demonstrated aptitude and ability that any of them who were admitted on the basis of the toss of a coin would do as well as those who were admitted on the basis of traditional objective criteria. (I'm not talking about recruited athletes, whose academic performance both before and after admission on average is inferior to that of their classmates.)

The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg ((Viking, 2002) supports this view. For eight months starting in the fall of 1999, the author was allowed to observe the admissions process at Wesleyan, one of the most selective institutions in the country. During the time Steinberg was there, Wesleyan received almost 7,000 applications. In the end only one of ten was accepted. Despite the agonizing by the admissions officers, it was apparent to me that the overwhelming majority of those applying would have succeeded.

The entire issue was summed up nicely in a working paper issued in Aug. 1999 for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger concluded that "it is difficult to parse out the effects of attending a selective college from the students' pre-college characteristics." Attempts to justify the decisions made after the fact are contaminated by confirmation bias. It's something to think about before the fall application frenzy begins once again.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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