College admissions talent selection is imperfect

College admissions asks a simple question: how do we determine who would be the best fit for our university?

Answers prove impossibly complex.

Even when student performance at college correlates positively to standardized test scores, there are competing variables that suggest test scores may be a symptom of other things like income or race. Universities have a pretty good idea of what types of students may succeed on their campuses, but many high performing high school students fizzle out and some students who barely make the cut end up excelling.

How do college admissions, and thinking more broadly, institutions select for talent that has the highest probability of success? Why do some succeed where others fall short?

A recent article in the Atlantic sheds light on how difficult talent selection is for sports, businesses, and hiring new teachers. “The Science of Smart Hiring” examines how we select for the best teachers or why sometimes those top NFL draft picks bust while we have otherwise overlooked talents like Tom Brady flourishing in the right environments.

“It will always be difficult to predict fit and performance because humans are complex, and humans interacting in human systems are even more complex. The right lesson is more subtle: Hiring is hard, and nobody is very good at doing it alone, whether you’re a Google boss, a high-school principal, or a sports general manager.”

Google has experimented with a number of strategies including brain teasers, conducting a battery of twenty-five interviews, or having prospective employees submitting a three-hundred question interview. Most of it proved inconclusive.

Like modern-day human resources that utilize data-driven strategies, college admissions gives the impression sometimes that it is scientific. Just because admissions review is often rigorous and involves multiple rounds with many sets of eyes, admissions seems more art than science. Just because something is rigorous and quantitative does not imply scientific precision or accuracy.

There are general indicators that may suggest student success as a student’s transcript and performance in the classroom. On the aggregate, college admissions appears to get things mostly right in crafting a class of students with high probabilities for retention and success. But recognizing that the process is imperfect helps digest both the positive and negative surprises that come with receiving your application decisions. Especially for honors programs and most selective universities, plan for the worst and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised when good news comes.