No two 90% students are alike.

Yet, the traditional admissions evaluation process is designed to make a 90% Science student be identical to a 90% business student to a 90% music student. Of course, different programs have different admissions averages, but for all intents and purposes the operative with all of these students is the average, not their discipline. Some ranking systems put an emphasis on a university’s overall entering average and scholarships are primarily determined by averages. Other “elite” incentives related to undergraduate research opportunities, residence preferences and experiential learning opportunities are used to leverage “top-tier” students, again based on averages. The commonality is only the entering grade and this takes away from what education is really about, the individual.

I am the last person to diminish the value of aggregating data, but to predict a student’s ability to succeed takes more than narrowing the scope to GPAs and standardized test scores. It is important to look at the individual, their character and attributes. There is so much emphasis on experiential learning at the higher education level. Investment and resources are poured into the development of co-ops, internships and internationalizing your degree, but when it comes to deciding who gets in, the conversation is diminished to “what is your average?”… face-palm.




[av-er-ij] average

Noun – a quantity, rating or the like that represents or approximates an arithmetic mean

Adjective – typical, common, ordinary


How did your first year of university work out? Probably had some bumps in the road, had to learn how to learn all over again. Universities anticipate a drop in averages in the first year of studies with the expectation of grades to trend back up, but how much is a reasonable drop, 5 – 10 percent? Currently, a popular topic amongst academics is grade inflation, what can be done to mitigate this grading trend and trying to figure out when the bubble is going to pop. At universities in Canada and North America for that matter, students are experiencing approximately a staggering 18 – 20% drop in 1st year university studies. Bloating averages and grade cookers are creating a wide range of problems from driving up admissions averages, mental health cases, inability to cope, performance anxiety, retention rates and so on. This is one wicked problem, with no clear-cut answers.


The University of British Columbia

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a conference that featured a representative from the Ministry of Education, Ontario. During this conference the representative defaulted to the usual defensive rhetoric when challenged by the greater university community about the inflation trend. In this Globe and Mail article, a spokeswoman for the Ministry said “We expect grades to accurately reflect student achievement and that teachers will use their professional judgment in assessing a student’s work. It is important that end-of-term or end-of-year marks do not misrepresent the student’s actual achievement”. This is the start of the problem. The Ministry in each respective Province or State needs to monitor high school evaluations more closely and not just expect accuracy to happen. It is 100 percent impossible to enter every class and evaluate teachers’ grading habits. But, with the power of analytics, Ministries could be more focused on first and second year aggregate university results, as this can be an indicator of schools that cook the grades. The government can continue to ignore this trend, but I can assure you that it isn’t being ignored at registrar offices across the country. It is only a matter of time until more universities start implementing sliding grade conversion scales to differentiate accurate grading schools from inaccurate schools. Right now only a few schools have implemented these measures and to be honest, can you blame them?

Standardized testing is more prevalent south of the border, with the exception of a few provinces. In some cases, this can be used in a complimentary fashion to aide evaluating on a course-by-course basis, for a positive example please see the Ministry of Education website in Alberta. However, standardized testing isn’t always the best tool to use in a predictive format. According to studies conducted in both Alaska and California, “high school [GPA] explained more of the variance in college performance than did standardized exam scores”. The study finds that standardized testing was a better indicator of success if it was used with individual courses. For the US, this is very alarming, but also why more institutions use an increasingly holistic approach to admission consideration.

Some universities in the US still practice more traditional, binary approaches to admission and in Canada, the majority do. However, many Medical Schools, Business Schools, Law Schools and some entire institutions like UBC in Canada and UC Berkeley in California review applicants in a more individualized manner. With this approach, an applicant is considered for their GPA, Standardized Test (SAT, ACT, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT) and with a supplemental form, an interview or both. This approach puts more emphasis on the individual away from quantification in grades. They are looking for complimentary skill sets with strong academic performance. Typically the results are a more diverse, engaged student population.

How would you answer the following admission questions reported by Business Insider?

University of Chicago

Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage preservatives, notions of bigness… and dozens of ideas about both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super huge-mustard.

University of Pennsylvania

 You have just finished your 300 page autobiography. Please submit page 217.

Kalamazoo College

 What invention would the world be better off without, and why?









Tufts University

 Kermit the Frog famously lamented, ‘It’s not easy being green.’ Do you agree?


University of Notre Dame

 You have 150 words. Take a risk.

 The holistic approach to admission consideration is far from an absolute, but it is a start. If we want to continue talking about grads needing better soft skills and needing more experiential learning opportunities in higher education, then we need to start talking about evaluating those skills-sets when discussing admissions.

And if we don’t want to start talking about this approach, well, pop goes the world!


4 thoughts on “Pop Goes the World

  1. Great post! Lots of food for thought. We know that success in life – especially in terms of generating something new – is not always tied to success in academics. Is there any information on how interview/essay performance is used in conjunction with academic average? When it comes down to it universities are geared to admit students who will be successful academically; past academic performance is the predictor of choice.


    • Hi Pat, thanks for the read and comment. I am planning on writing a post specifically on holistic admissions that should be published in the near future. The quick answer though is the essay/interview evaluation is used to supplement the evaluation with academic performance. Universities historically were geared to admit students who would be successful academically, but now the definition of academically successful has expanded to include learning outcomes and professional success. To ensure the other aspects of success, past academic performance isn’t reliable enough on it’s own.

      For specific examples of this process, look no further than the CASPer test for Medical Students or Interviews for MBA students. At the undergraduate level, here is UBC’s instructions for their evaluation approaches –

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Braden! The process is improving but still looks a little fuzzy to me because I don’t see a commitment to assign a fixed % of consideration. For example the academic average weighted 90% and the other 10%. I will look forward to your post on the subject!


  2. The % commitment will vary from school to school and program to program. I’ve found as little as a 2% impact all the way up to a 50% impact on the consideration. You will never find a rubric on the evaluation for the same reason that it is rare to find a school indicating a specific cutoff. If this is stated, high schools and agents will write to the supplemental form template and cook grades to meet cutoff averages and the evaluation loses efficacy.


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