Bryan Caplan  

Why Don't Applicants Volunteer Their Test Scores?

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When lawyers hear about the signaling model of education, they often invoke the Supreme Court case of Griggs vs. Duke Power.  Griggs created a strong legal presumption that it is "discriminatory" for employers to hire on the basis of IQ tests.  The lawyers who invoke Griggs often argue that, as a direct result, employers turned to educational credentials as a covert IQ test. 

There are two big problems with this story.  First, educational credentials paid long before discrimination laws were on the books; Griggs couldn't be the sole or even the main reason why seemingly useless degrees pay.  Second, and more strangely, courts have left a big loophole open: Employers can't safely request standardized test scores, but to the best of my knowledge, applicants can safely provide them. 

In equilibrium, then, we'd expect workers to do employers' dirty work for them.  Since firms risk lawsuits if they ask for test scores, applicants would volunteer their test scores without being asked.*  When workers don't deliver their scores, employers would quietly assume the worst and hire accordingly.

In actual job markets, though, voluntary revelation is a rarity.  (At least that's my strong impression; please confirm or deny in the comments).  Why would this be?  How come almost no one includes his SAT or GRE scores on his resume? 

Back in 1995, this very issue came up at an IHS career seminar.  Participants wrote mock resumes and did mock interviews for academic jobs.  One of the students included his GRE scores on his resume.  The faculty called him on it.  If I remember correctly, it was Randy Barnett who unequivocally told the student to delete his rather impressive scores.  Why?  Because, quoting from memory, "Departments are looking to hire promising assistant professors, not brilliant grad students."

Barnett's position, in technical terms, was that GRE scores on your resume are a mixed signal.  Yes, you show that you're smart.  But you also show that you're socially clueless; what you are doing "simply isn't done."  On net, you're better off keeping your scores to yourself.

Barnett's story made sense to me at the time, and still does.  What do you think?  Please share any relevant first-hand evidence you have, one way or the other.

* You might think that workers with below-average test scores wouldn't want to volunteer their scores.  But then employers would infer that anyone who didn't volunteer was at the 25th percentile of ability (the average below-average score), giving workers between the 25th and 50th percentiles an incentive to volunteer their scores.  This unraveling process would continue until virtually everyone revealed.

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COMMENTS (32 to date)
@bawld writes:

Applicants would, in this hypothetical world, be more likely to reveal their scores, across the entire score spectrum, when supply for similar jobs was more restricted. That is, the aggregate propensity to reveal would be an indication of how loose the labor market was for that type of labor.

We do something similar with GPA scores, which are more relevant as they apply more specifically to the field of study.

Stephen writes:

I think employers care more about GPA than they do about standardized test scores and justifiably so. Standardized test scores reveal certain qualities whereas GPA reveals certain others.

I myself am a poor test taker. I only got an 1170/1600 on my SAT and I only got a 157 on my LSAT. Yet at both my undergrad and law school (both top 50), I had a 3.8 GPA. I am not playing myself up, but only demonstrating that some people have good test scores but a lousy GPA and some people have a good GPA and lousy test scores. Now usually, people with high test scores and high GPAs overlap. But not always.

I always put my GPA on my resume both because I think it makes me more marketable but also because I think it reveals more than simply a test score. Your GPA is attained over a longer period of time and therefore a high GPA reveals something about work ethic and determination that a test score might not. Therefore, employers probably reason that GPA is a better indicator of the qualities they want in an employee such as consistent hard work rather than simply innate intelligence.

Colin K writes:

1. When I graduated in 1998, a lot of high-test hiring companies like finance and consulting did ask for SAT scores.

2. Most people don't know their IQ scores, or if they do, it's from grade school or something.

3. Recruiters and managers aren't skilled at interpreting what an IQ or SAT score means in context of hiring. If everyone put it on, you could rank them, but it one applicant out of ten does, it's not useful.

4. HR departments hammer home that you're not supposed to make decisions based on information you're not supposed to know.

5. I have seen something similar happen, where applicants who were disabled would volunteer information about their condition that suggested they would not need any more sick time or "accommodations" than a non-disabled person. You can't ask (or have to be very very careful) asking around this sort of thing. Anecdotally it tended to benefit the discloser.

Devon writes:

I recently served as the hiring manager on a government job for which most of the applicants were recent graduates. I received a few hundred applications, of which 5-10 percent provided SAT or GRE scores. Those scores typically put the applicant in the top couple percent of test takers and were frequently from Ivy League schools.
In spite of recognizing their accomplishment, I took the scores as a negative signal in the vein of Prof. Barnett. Did they have nothing relevant to the job for which they were applying that they could be using to fill that space?
It wasn't that I didn't appreciate knowing that the applicant was bright, but rather a lack of conformity to traditional resume guidelines. You are looking for a lot more than brightness when hiring. Initial hiring decisions (i.e. to interview or not) are based on just the resume (and transcripts, if available) and are akin to reading tea leaves.
All in all, those applicants probably faired slightly better than the ones that talked at length about their greek life and/or leadership role in the ultimate frisbee community.

david writes:

The motivation for the prohibition was disparate impact, not IQ testing in particular (although the precedent-based nature of US law means that employment IQ testing now has a considerable barrier in revival).

A policy of relying on volunteered information would (1) generate the disparate impact anyway, and (2) only require a single human-resources employee to blow the whistle and suddenly you look guilty as hell for having such an explicit policy but hiding it.

All this said, disparate impact has (at best) a tenuous relationship with hiring in general - employment requirements have a much wider variance than race can be said to have, even if your initials are SS.

Some simple non-signalling explanations are that perhaps tertiary education does provide something that a SAT holder does not have, that GRE and SAT test for the things tertiary educators care about but not what employers care about, or perhaps that there is no general factor of ability that reliably links GRE/SAT to employment performance...?

bobby writes:

As an entry-level actuary out of college I provided my (what I thought were impressive) test scores, and I was hired (not as a result, but not not as a result?)

I didn't think it was socially awkward at the time, but that was more my naivete than an astute observation. I subsequently took the scores off of my resume.

I note that I think your 25th percentile estimate (the worst half of the worst half) may be some rough average of rough averages, but this would certainly be industry-specific. If I had shown a 900 SAT score, just above the 885 SAT score (1000 - 1.15 z-score x 100 std deviation) that would have put me at the 25th percentile I almost certainly wouldn't have gotten the job.

Bob Knaus writes:

It worked for me, in 1996. As a high-school dropout with good tech experience but no credentials, SAT scores of 750 verbal and 735 math got me a position as a management consultant. Saved me all the time and expense of a college education.

David writes:


The decisions to show/not show scores is based entirely on the social context for this. In industries like strategy/management consulting, it is not uncommon (even for many partners) to show their GMAT/LSAT/SAT scores. When you're selling generalist "smarts," you're expected to use anything to your advantage.

When you're selling technical skills, you show OTHER qualifications - certifications (look at how popular PMP certs are in consulting... I have yet to find someone who was transformed into a better manager because of it... plus, I'd add a technical/vocational degree as a form of technical certification).

There is also the "success" bias in reporting this information. I will only report it if I rank much higher than average. This is why people with GPAs lower than 3.5 leave their GPAs off their resume.

nazgulnarsil writes:

The popular narrative is that people who place a lot of import on intelligence tests are closet racist/autists/eugenics supporters, etc. At least this is my experience whenever IQ is brought up among working professionals.

rapscallion writes:

What does this say about Robing Hanson?

ajb writes:

I say the fear of disparate impact and accusations of racism are everywhere. Bear in mind that not only do NAMs have lower SAT scores than the average but current research suggests their school performance tends to be even worse than predicted by their scores. So treating them according to their scores would actually overestimate their performance.

That is a double whammy for people afraid of stirring up trouble.

J Storrs Hall writes:

First rate people hire first rate people; second rate people hire third rate people.

Daniel Carroll writes:

I conducted a natural experiment a few years back on this. I was looking for a job, competing against ivy league types. Initially, my call back rate was about 5 percent. Once I put my GRE score on my resume, my call back rate jumped to 80 percent (for targeted applications). I wouldn't argue that this works for all jobs, and now my experience trumps test scores, but in the investment industry, it makes a difference.

Jody writes:

Back when I was getting my PhD, I managed several research projects for which I hired the GRAs. I recall most cvs including GRE scores.

Now I own a business and still hire people, but I never see SAT or GRE scores listed on resumes.

So maybe it's partially a social convention.

Andy writes:

I've rarely seen test scores on resumes. But if I did see them it wouldn't make much difference to my evaluation of an applicant. Similarly GPA is pretty meaningless.

PrometheeFeu writes:

First, I don't believe you are allowed to rely on such information whether it is volunteered or asked for. I once mentioned my immigration status and another time I told my interviewer that I was married. (both are protected categories) It was in passing but the interviewer's reaction was the same. They were obviously shaken and made a point to tell me that it was not relevant to the process. Of course, a small organization could make those decisions informally and take such information into consideration. But an organization of any significant size will need explicit hiring policies.

Anyways, I think your GREs or your SATs are not a particularly good signal compared to your educational outcomes. Your SATs show you to be intelligent. But employers also value hard work and self-discipline which your educational outcomes demonstrate. And anyways, SATs are highly determinative in college applications. So your education outcomes already integrate your SAT scores. The extra information isn't particularly useful.

My understanding is that there are some cases where your SAT scores are expected: internships while you are still in school. That works very well with my theory: before you have gone through the whole gauntlet of college, your SATs do tell something.

Scores show potential, not ability, and men prefer to base their status on achievement. Most men do not want to promote themselves with a score that says nothing about actually having done anything, and that is why they seem socially clueless when they do volunteer their scores.

I would guess that women also do not report scores even though they like credentialism, since they do not like open competition, and comparing scores is pretty stiff competition.

MG writes:

Including test scores (non-conforming practice) when your CV already has conforming validation (IVY League or similar schooling) should subtract value; but, as Bob Knaus shows, when it is the best validation, it should. When applying for jobs valuing "general smarts" (having them or selling them), it should also.

michael svehla writes:

"A's hire A's, B's hire C's."

Yes, you show that you're smart. But you also show that you're socially clueless; what you are doing "simply isn't done."
This line looks odd: it isn't done because "it isn't done"?

I thought the question was: "Why isn't it done?"

I offer three partial explanations:

1. Employers honestly believe that GPA and educational pedigree is a better predictor of career success than test scores. (We all know smart slackers.) The same thing goes for publications. ("He needed a few more mediocre articles in his CV.")

2. Employers aren't equipped to interpret and verify scores in large quantities, so this would end up being a noisily dishonest signal.

3. Most jobs aren't particularly G-loaded. The ones that are heavily G-loaded are governed by the standards and practices that regulate the ones that aren't G-loaded.

Tracy W writes:

Speaking as a non-American, I put my Bursary results on my CV when applying for my first professional job, but haven't bothered since. Advice is that after that first job your employment record is more important.
Admittedly, Bursary was exams tied to specific subject areas, not a general skills test.

Daniel Klein writes:

Fascinating thread. Bravo.

Suppose Sally is submitting a resume to employers. Suppose she has really high SAT scores, and that she has skipped going to college.

Could Sally overcome the impropriety of including the SAT scores by saying:

"As I have not followed the usual path of going to college, I here provide my SAT scores ..."


Andrew writes:

Bryan wrote:

"In equilibrium, then, we'd expect workers to do employers' dirty work for them. Since firms risk lawsuits if they ask for test scores, applicants would volunteer their test scores without being asked.* When workers don't deliver their scores, would employers quietly assume the worst and hire accordingly."

Does this slight edit change the signaling?

In equilibrium, then, we'd expect workers to do employers' dirty work for them. Since firms risk lawsuits if they ask for Facebook passwords, applicants would volunteer their Facebook passwords without being asked.* When workers don't deliver their Facebook passwords, would employers quietly assume the worst and hire accordingly.

Stuart Buck writes:

Why is it "just not done"? I think because it breaches some sort of signaling manners. You're supposed to signal how intelligent you are, but not quite so directly and blatantly, which may come across as announcing that one is better looking than 85% of other people.

Richard writes:
The popular narrative is that people who place a lot of import on intelligence tests are closet racist/autists/eugenics supporters, etc. At least this is my experience whenever IQ is brought up among working professionals.

My experience is that people who care about IQ do tend to be more likely to support eugenics and believe in innate racial differences. But does anybody else think that this is rather well known, even among nonintellectual types?

Steve S writes:

What I remember from the process is that I included my GPA on my resume right out of college. Contrary to another comment, it was 3.1 and, yes, I still included it (mean was below 3, it was a tough engineering school).

After that first job though I stopped including it. I had more concrete, real-world ways to signal my knowledge and abilities than a composite number of grades.

Emily writes:

My immediate response to this seems to be no one's else's response: why would you believe them? Schools get official ETS score reports. Employers would get someone volunteering their test scores with no way to confirm this. Applicants mostly put things on resumes that can be confirmed by the applicant's schools or former employers, and tend not to volunteer other pieces of information that a) aren't able to be confirmed and b) have things that can be confirmed that proxy pretty well for them. Even though employers don't confirm everything on the resume that could be confirmed, I'd expect that the fact that they could would make applicants a lot more honest. But some of the comments say that some industries do use self-reported test scores. Do you not worry that you're being lied to?

Anand writes:

Management Consulting firms do ask for test scores. One of them (McKinsey) also administers a test that could be seen as a proxy for IQ tests before granting you an interview.

David P writes:

The internet has a time-honored tradition of mocking people who send out braggadocios resumes. Both Aleksey Vayner and Mark Rich can attest to this.

Ari Tai writes:

Sal Khan ( hints in his MIT Club talk at an e-world where we return to (virtual) one-room schoolhouses where (older) (able) students teach and teachers coach - and who better to testify to a student's suitability for a job than their coaches?

It's not just (appropriate) (intellect and) skills an employer needs - it's judgment and temperament suitable to the tasks. An oral exam where you deliberately put the student under some stress can tease this out. But better are those willing to vouch for the person especially if they have something of their own at risk.

Khan and others have suggested offering a bond in lieu of credentials. The bond (funded by the students, a testing body, the coaches and an association of employers) would warrant that this candidate has the characteristics that will allow them to succeed at a specific set of first jobs, else an arbitration process will compensate the employer.

A side effect would be to return teachers to the small business professionals they used to be (perhaps coaching out of their own home) - and the relabel the existing institutions to what they really are - daycare.

Bryan Willman writes:

The "education as human capital development" versus "signaling" versus "daycare" issue matters, and in many jobs "did not cause any crises in daycare" would be a very important credential.
In the recent issue of cutting tool engineering a columnist writes how in spite of efforts to have a decent workplace, somebody defecated on the men's room floor and stuffed all the toilet paper into the plumbing. A truly disgusting mess and a costly repair bill. This sort of issue is probably the number reason to not hire people in general and persons in particular. Test scores won't tell me how likely you are to miss work because you got arrested, or the odds you'll set the company car on fire in a fit of rage. But your college degree, with all credits at one institution, suggests you survived there 4 years without being thrown out. It also suggests you can do something more or less on schedule.

Bryan Willman writes:

And again, there's a theme here (and in Khan's remarks) of the form "why don't we let people be independently developed for maximum human capital" which misses some key reasons for requiring degrees. (I'm all in favor of human capital development.)

a. It does indeed show you survived the college process without being thrown out.

b. It shows some ability to do some things more or less on schedule. (Taking 7 years to get your BA is NOT a good plan.)

c. It assures you are either of a particular minimum age, or a degree of maturity that you might as well be. (I was once flat out told by a recruiter for a software consulting firm that they wanted people with master's degrees - why? They are 2 years older... Period.)

Having a good career in any real job trumps all of that, or bloody well ought too.

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