The Hazards of Brainiacs on College Campuses

I’ve often wondered why colleges and universities are so fixated on admitting students with extremely high SAT or ACT scores.

Some of these teenagers only excel at taking tests and earning top grades, which can lead to awfully uninspiring young adults. I’ve heard admission folks privately lament that kids with high test scores can be duds.  If I was an admission officer, I wouldn’t be interested in some of the “brilliant” kids that I’ve met.

That’s why I wanted to share a wonderful op-ed piece in today’s Washington Post that Robert J.  Sternberg, a former Yale professor and a past dean at Tufts, wrote. Sternberg, who is now the provost at Oklahoma State University, was involved with Tufts’ innovative (and admirable) approach to measuring students beyond test scores and GPA’s.

Looking Beyond Test Scores and Grade Point Averages

Here’s an excerpt of what Sternberg wrote:

By and large, our best schools don’t always pick the best people in the first place. Many students who appear to have tremendous potential at age 17, based on their SAT scores and GPAs, don’t look so wonderful 20 years later.

An executive at a major investment bank told me awhile ago, looking back on his 25 years on Wall Street, that he had found that SAT scores predicted quite well who would be good analysts at his bank – that is, they predicted the technical skills needed to evaluate investments.

What they did not signal, he said, is who would be able to take the next step, who would have the capacity to envision where various markets are going, to see larger trends and to make decisions that go beyond individual stock or bond picks.

We can do a much better job of college admissions if we start thinking about student abilities differently than we have for the past century. We should assess and value analytical, creative and practical skills and wisdom, not just the ability to memorize or do well on tests. And we should admit people on the basis of their potential for leadership and active citizenship – people who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world.

Three cheers for Tufts for attempting to shake things up with its admission process. Here is the link to the entire op-ed: To Get the Real Star Students, College Admissions Should Look Beyond SATs.

And if you want to learn more, read Sternberg’s new book, College Admissions for the 21st Century.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Hi, Lynn:
    Once a while I would check your blog, mostly I found out very useful.

    However I disagreed this article. The standard of tests in USA is much lower than other countries. (no deepth.) I just doubt how a student possesses solid leadership if he or she can’t do tests well, (of course there are some exceptionals). We are losing real leaders.

  2. Great points here Lynn, as usual.
    Many of the top universities are moving toward a more holistic approach to their prospective students. We’ve been advising them to not only get involved outside of the classroom, but to take it a step further and take on leadership roles in clubs/activities that they can talk about in an interview situation.