Bryan Caplan  

A British Perspective on American Signaling

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Fun footnote from Gregory Clark's new The Son Also Rises:

In my second year as an assistant professor at Stanford University, I was assigned the task of mentoring six freshmen.  Each appeared on paper to have an incredible range of interests for an eighteen-year-old: chess club, debate club, history club, running team, volunteering with homeless shelters.  I soon discovered that these supposed interests were just an artifact of the U.S. college admission process, adopted to flesh out the application forms and discarded as soon as they have worked their magic.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Probably something in the middle. High school students are largely cognizant of how it looks on an application, but they also load up on activities out of genuine interest.

College just comes with more... distractions. Dropping some activities in college and focusing more exclusively on your highest interests doesn't necessarily mean it's signaling.

Jay writes:

Daniel, that may be true for some high-achieving students, but the median highschool student is always told to load up on extracurricular activities to look good on applications but very few of them actually WANT to do these things with any passion. As long as schools are interested in these things, you're going to rewards students who fluff their applications with activities. The only shocking part is a professor who wasn't aware of such things.

Tracy W writes:

Why do American universities require so much diverse extra-curricula activities? Was it initially an impulse to help out disadvantaged students?

(Note: my university application process went: "I want to go to engineering school. There are two engineering schools in the country. I have a lot of family living near one. So I'll go to the other one.")

Foobarista writes:

Where I live, college resume-stuffer activities are well-known to be exactly that. Every kid has to volunteer at some NGO or another, ideally one dealing with homeless or stray varmints. (Since there aren't many of either locally, there are often far more kids working at these places than actual clients.)

And they try hard to come up with a "hook" to dodge the fact that they're nearly all Asian grinds with 4.5+ GPA's, near perfect SAT's, deep experience in piano and/or violin, and lots of years on the swim team, which causes admissions officers' eyes to glaze over if there isn't a "hook". Typical hooks are joining a garage band or some NGO that does "activism" of various sorts.

But they all come with tiger-mom as standard equipment, managing the process carefully...

RohanV writes:

@TracyW, I think it's just a side-effect of the intense competition among top students for slots at the elite universities.

Let's say you have two applicants with near perfect SATs and both in the chess club. But one is also on the debate team. Which applicant do you choose? The one with the extra qualification. So that starts an arms race to load up with qualifications.

The real issue is that the non-elite schools don't have anything to offer a top student. If you are a top student, you should target an elite school. The quality of instruction, teachers and peers will be much higher, as will the reputation signal of your eventual degree. Cost is not an issue as you can get loans fairly easily.

But the competition is fairly intense for slots at elite schools. If you don't play these games, odds are you'll be rejected. Someone with only one or two interests will be rejected unless she is definably world-class in that interest. And extraordinarily few teenagers are world-class just yet.

Taeyoung writes:

Re: Tracy W:

Why do American universities require so much diverse extra-curricula activities? Was it initially an impulse to help out disadvantaged students?

How could extra-curriculars possibly help out disadvantaged students? Most of those cost loads of money, which is the whole point. When it was just grades and test scores, the elite schools got too many Jews (and later, too many Asians), so they introduced a lot of other factors into the review process and made it as much of a black box as possible, thereby giving themselves maximum freedom to pick the right sort of people, and exclude the wrong sort.

Nathan Smith writes:

But do colleges value extracurriculars for *signaling* or for *human capital* reasons? Did the kids *learn* from the extracurriculars even if they didn't take a very genuine interest in them?

Fazal Majid writes:

Their primary purpose is plausible deniability by introducing subjectivity in the admission process. The legal cover this fig-leaf provides is used to continue discrimination against overachieving yet undesirable groups - Jews before 1945, Asians nowadays.

Bostonian writes:

"The quality of instruction, teachers and peers will be much higher, as will the reputation signal of your eventual degree."

Professors at elite research universities are not chosen based on the quality of their teaching, which no one is trying to seriously measure anyway.

Peter H writes:

"Was it initially an impulse to help out disadvantaged students?"

It was initially an impulse to hurt disadvantaged students and admit more advantaged students. Back in the 1920s, Harvard was having a problem that their admissions (largely based on grades and test scores) was getting them a lot of Jews. So they came up with the idea of putting a lot of value on the activities that elite boarding schools put their students in, and which weren't available to a Jewish kid from the lower east side.

Here's a book on it:

Jay writes:

@ Nathon Smith

I don't think that it is the colleges "valuing" the extracurricular activities much. They're just used as a 3rd or 4th order filtering mechanism in their admissions process. I think Foobarista is exactly right on this. When Harvard gets thousands of perfect SAT/GPA/AP scores, how else are they to decide? This professor sounds incredibly naive, how different could admissions processes be in the UK for Cambridge and the like?

mucgoo writes:


For Oxbridge about 80-90% of applicants have an hour of one to one interviews. Admittedly its only 5 or so applicants per place rather than 15.

Finch writes:

> When Harvard gets thousands of perfect SAT/GPA/AP
> scores, how else are they to decide?

This seems like a market opportunity for a harder test. The SAT can't really distinguish between IQs above 125 or so, so a test could be offered that does.

But I agree with the others above who say that, once they get some minimum standard (which isn't very high), colleges select their classes on factors other than brainpower.

Will writes:

In complete agreement with Taeyoung.

@Nathan Smith - I'd describe it as signaling. Most of these activities don't inherently build successful skills, not as productively as direct focused learning in an area would. I think the admissions process thinks they do signal (correctly or not) that the candidate (i) has a similar background and values to what admissions officers and alumni like (ii) will engage in lots of activities at college, contributing to the image and experience the college wants to project (iii) will be successful (whether due to personality traits or social connections) or active in the community after graduation to the university's reputational benefit.

@Jay - if colleges were primarily concerned about distinguishing between candidates with perfect scores, they have the easy alternative of making the exams harder to get more granularity. Instead, the SAT, for example, has much less granularity at the high end than it did 20 years ago; it reflects the belief that academic achievement should be used to find a pool that is basically capable of doing the work and that personality traits should be used to select the most deserving within that pool. I know nothing about UK admissions, but for example the Asian model is to have a large exam, both more difficult and covering a wider range of subjects than the SAT, and admit the top scores.

Brian writes:
This professor sounds incredibly naive, how different could admissions processes be in the UK for Cambridge and the like?

I don't know if that's sarcasm or not, @Jay.

In the rest of the world, there's a comprehensive, difficult, objective test for college admissions. Some universities write their own (e.g. ENS, X), some use a national test (Cambridge), and some use both (Todai). Extracurricular fluff doesn't matter. Friends and connections rarely matter. Only in a few places like India does race matter the way is does in the USA. The test is the test and that's what decides admissions.

That's the system in the UK, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. It's the system in Japan, China, Red China, and Korea. It's the system in Mexico and India. Only Canada and the USA stand out in choosing so much based on sports, networked elites, obedient cooperation, politics, race, and fluff.

Urstoff writes:

Seems to only matter at elite schools or for students with borderline grades/test scores. An excellent ACT/SAT score paired with good grades will get you into any big state school.

MingoV writes:

The nonsense questions go beyond college applications.

I served on a medical school admissions committee for three years. We had no control over the content of application forms, so the usual 'what are your extracurricular activities', 'what volunteer work have you done', 'what does your Mom think of you' type questions stayed on the form.

Here's what we did with the answers to those types of questions: totally ignored them.

We looked at the quality of the undergrad school, the major, the grades, and the MCAT scores of the applicants. A pass here got the applicant a 20-25 minute interview with a faculty member. We had at least two hours of training before doing a solo interview. These interviews were how we assessed suitability. It's also how we assessed mental health: my first interview (thankfully not solo) was with a blatantly psychotic applicant. I had a later one with a borderline personality disorder applicant who lied through the entire interview. The point is that face-to-face is the only reliable way to assess applicant character. Nonsense questions and letters of recommendation* usually are no help.

A negative letter shows that the applicant is so clueless that he picks someone with a low opinion of him.

liberty writes:

"Every kid has to volunteer at some NGO or another, ideally one dealing with homeless or stray varmints." - Foobarista

Wow, Foobarista, this has to be one of the most disturbing comments I have read in a normally sensible blog comments section. Those who are unfortunate and disadvantaged enough to find themselves homeless are vermin?? Should they be sent to concentration camps??

Andrew Pearson writes:

@Brian - As a current student in the UK I can tell you that what we have is very different to what you seem to believe. We apply for universities well in advance of going there - if you're applying to Oxbridge, then slightly more than a year in advance. (We're also limited to applying to at most 5 universities, and have to apply for them all at the same time using the same papers, which I believe is not the case in the US?) The universities are given a prediction of how well students will do, but ultimately offers tend to be of the form "Get this set of grades in your A-levels and you are guaranteed a place." A-levels are taken in subjects entirely of your own choice, at the very end of secondary school. There are "big central exams" for a small range of subjects - medicine, and I think law - and most people will face interviews but this is in no way universal (except at Oxbridge - no-one gets accepted there without an interview).

'Jay - As such, I can confirm that the same signalling goes on here (though not to the extent that Clark seems to be indicating) - people will suddenly develop interests in sports, music etc a couple of months before they apply for university. I would agree that Clark is being extraordinarily naive.

foobarista writes:

@liberty: you didn't notice the "or". "Stray varmints" was me making fun of animal shelters that have more HS-age volunteers seeking college resume padding than actual animals. "The homeless" was referring to soup kitchens or other homeless volunteer groups, which in my rather expensive area tend to have far more kids seeking resume-padding working for them than actual homeless.

Tom West writes:

Only Canada and the USA stand out in choosing so much based on sports, networked elites, ...

At least in Ontario, the *only* thing the University has is the high school marks and the name of the high school. There's no form, no interview. As a student, you simply click which school/programs you're submitting to (max 3), and a few months later, you get a yes/no letter.

Possibly there's more interaction for out-of-province students.

Enial Cattesi writes:

I don't see any signaling in the quote. Let us rephrase it:
In order to pick cherries you need a ladder so some people buy or build ladders for themselves. Professor Caplan reads about it and says "signaling".

Art Carden writes:

I think it's a combination of things: some people just want to be able to do it all and refuse to accept that they have limitations (I know I do, and it leads to a lot of frustration). The XC filter could also select for the ambitious and entrepreneurial who aren't afraid to work really hard and try new things.

It's natural that a lot of these things are going to go by the wayside as people mature, but there's something to the cynical interpretations, as well.

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