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The Numbers Game…Are we caught up in it?

We look at an applicant’s documents. Our goal is to evaluate whether or not: 1) from the perspective of the standards that we establish, is the student qualified to enter into our program; 2) how competitive is the student with the other applicants; 3) will the student be successful in our program; and, 4) will the student be able to fulfill his/her responsibilities in whatever the program is training them for (e.g. the management and care for a patient in any of the health care professions).

Do we consider this task as important as the actual training itself? Well, we would like to think so, because the bottom line is that when we select someone to come into our program, what we are indirectly doing is establishing a link between us and a patient, somewhere and at some time (The spirit of "six degrees of separation”?!).

Just what goes into this "selection process?” The whole process is probably based on four major assessments. One would be letters of recommendation. Another would be the candidate’s overall experience. A third would be someone’s or a committee’s personal impressions from an interview. The fourth would be numbers.

In addition we can basically divide the entire multi- process into two broad categories. One is an objective element, and the other being a subjective perspective. In the former, we are willing to share responsibility with whatever the sources of the numbers are and thus rely on our interpretation of someone else’s data. With the latter we probably feel more of a sense of ownership with our own judgment, based on some personal contact that we arrange to have. Of course we then fall back into the comfort zone of numbers when, in most cases, we rely on an admissions committee for a decision, e.g., four "nay”; five "yea.”

Do we, by design or inadvertently, tend to put more emphasis on one (objective criteria) or the other (subjective judgment)? When we look at objective data, what are the most data we consider? First there are undergraduate grade point averages (GPAs) to be considered. We frequently consider two such averages. The final Total GPA which includes every class taken, and the Science GPA which includes only the natural science classes.

When we consider GPAs we have to realize a few concerns:

  1. The concern over grade inflation. Admittedly college administrations are concerned over grade inflation within their own institutions. Is it a phenomenon borne out of parental / dollar donor pressures; competition among faculty for a variety of reasons including self protection or recognition. The bottom line, then, is how true are the numbers?
  2. How much more difficult is it becoming to attempt to compare similar classes at different schools? Is it fair or safe to assume that the B received in a biology class (e.g. freshman level 101) at one institution is better than a B in a similar level biology class at another institution? How sure are we that even though a "Nobel” prize winner is listed as the teacher, he/she and not a graduate student (TA or teaching assistant) is the actual teacher? After all, some professors while enjoying wonderful reputations are probably more valuable to the institution spending more time in the laboratory than in the classroom.
  3. Is it so reliable to assume that classes taken at "4 year” institutions are more demanding or "legitimate” than comparable classes given at "2 year” institutions?

After all, the chances are that a 4 year institution professor might be more pressured / involved in doing research because of the philosophy or needs of the institution. Whereas the chances are that a professor at a 2 year institution, without such demands to publish, might be someone more dedicated to teaching as opposed to research.

Another objective element we may consider is a national standardized exam, such as a GRE (Graduate Record Exam). One advantage that a national, standardized exam offers is that it is designed and evaluated by "objective” individuals and allows for a comparison of an individual to a national average without relying on a specific, potentially biased, curriculum. The authors of these standardized exams explicitly note that they are not designed to predict success. However they are helpful in comparing one individual to another, no matter where the two are from. One track in an exam such as the GRE offers a perspective on the candidate’s ability to read, deduce, rely on vocabulary, and communicate about something just read. The other track relates to the ability to remember and apply data oriented science or math. However in the final analysis numbers are still being crunched.

Even though there may be some ‘soft’ personal judgment in analyzing numbers, the bottom line is we more often will select a candidate with higher numbers.

If and when we consider letters of recommendation we frequently question the sincerity, or the seriousness with which the letters were written, or their reliability, or their completeness, especially if and when there is a short letter and the likert scales are used. Even considering these letters, they somewhat should fall under the broad category of subjective perspective. Evaluating someone’s experience would probably also fall within the category of subjective perspective.

Which brings us to the fourth assessment which is the personal impression. Although the recommendation letters and the candidate’s experience are subject to a degree of personal interpretation, the major aspect of the personal impression is most likely the feeling gotten, by the interviewer, out of the personal interview. In order to make the most out of a personal interview we generally have to recognize two perspectives. One is that there are qualities in an individual that are not seen in numbers. The other is the acceptance, the willingness, and the comfort of one’s own (the interviewer) personal, professional, instinctive ability to analyze and make a judgment on the candidate’s behavior. Even if we derived some sort of formula with which to attempt to standardize our personal impressions during interviews, it is still difficult to exclude a visceral, "gut-level” instinct that we may get. Then depending upon our level of self confidence and our professional experience, we somehow include this "gut-level” instinct in our total subjective analysis.

It would be less stressful to just sit back and rely on numbers. "She has the higher numbers, so she is in.” This probably would go a long way into allowing us to absolve ourselves of some responsibility.

The question is, however, do numbers give a whole and / or true picture?


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