Kilroy Was Here
September 08, 2004
What Getting Into Harvard Really Means
Gregg Easterbrook sites Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale study that seems to imply the education at Harvard does not significantly add more value to a person's long term income. Regular readers of this blog (Hi, Alder!) know that I've talked about this particular study several times over the last couple of years. So, you might not be surprised by Easterbrook's article.

Matthew Yglesias offers a tentative defense of Harvard, or at least, Harvard's admission process.

Their research indicates that there may be no good reason to attend Harvard if you can, as will usually be the case, get a more attractive financial aid package from a less selective school or else simply find a lower tuition at a public university. Their research most emphatically does not support the conclusion that whether or not you can get admitted to a highly selective college matters. On the contrary, the research indicates that the methods used by the admissions officers at these schools are rather good at identifying persons who are likely to achieve high incomes later in life.

Ah, yes, but then, what characteristics are the Harvard's of the world actually selecting for? Matthew seems to imply that the admissions process somehow distinguishes merit, or at the very least, talent. But is that actually the case?

Well, if you love Malcolm Gladwell articles as much as I do, you'll have remembered reading The New Boy Network way back in May, 2000.

This article profiles another Harvard graduate in his pursuit of a computer programming job right out of college. (He eventually takes a job with the hot company of the time, Tellme.)

You should really read the article; it's very entertaining. But for those who like their blogging boiled down, here's the important paragraphs:

Recently, a comparable experiment was conducted by Frank Bernieri, a psychologist at the University of Toledo. Bernieri, working with one of his graduate students, Neha Gada-Jain, selected two people to act as interviewers, and trained them for six weeks in the proper procedures and techniques of giving an effective job interview. The two then interviewed ninety-eight volunteers, of various ages and backgrounds. The interviews lasted between fifteen and twenty minutes, and afterward each interviewer filled out a six-page, five-part evaluation of the person he'd just talked to. Originally, the intention of the study was to find out whether applicants who had been coached in certain nonverbal behaviors designed to ingratiate themselves with their interviewers--like mimicking the interviewers' physical gestures or posture--would get better ratings than applicants who behaved normally. As it turns out, they didn't. But then another of Bernieri's students, an undergraduate named Tricia Prickett, decided that she wanted to use the interview videotapes and the evaluations that had been collected to test out the adage that "the handshake is everything."

"She took fifteen seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and the interviewer welcomes the person," Bernieri explained. Then, like Ambady, Prickett got a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Once more, against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. "On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview," Bernieri says. "The strength of the correlations was extraordinary."

This research takes Ambady's conclusions one step further. In the Toledo experiment, the interviewers were trained in the art of interviewing. They weren't dashing off a teacher evaluation on their way out the door. They were filling out a formal, detailed questionnaire, of the sort designed to give the most thorough and unbiased account of an interview. And still their ratings weren't all that different from those of people off the street who saw just the greeting.

Now, I'm not sure, but doesn't the Harvard Admissions process have an interview?

So, we're forced to ask the question, what is it that the vaunted Harvard admissions process is really measuring? What is the primary characteristic that it's sifting for? Does it truly measure talent or merit or potential?

Or does it only measure the ability to project talent or merit or potential?

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