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Admission to higher education

By Margaret Adolphus


"This young woman could be one of the brightest applicants in the pool but there are several references to shyness."

"Seems a tad frothy."

"Short with big ears."

The above are all marginal comments made on applications to one of the world's most famous and academically distinguished universities. They were found by the Office of Civil Rights at the federal education department when it investigated Harvard in the 1980s (Gladwell, 2005), and epitomize what many consider poor practice in admissions policy – subjective and ostensibly bearing no relation to academic merit.

University admissions rarely make the headlines (except in cases such as that of Laura Spence, the British schoolgirl who despite excellent academic credentials was refused admission to Oxford). Admissions policies are none the less one of the most important issues for higher education, and indeed for society at large, for several reasons.

In the first place, there has been a worldwide increase in access to higher education, with an estimate of 150 million students in 2025, more than tripling the number in 1975 (Goastellec, 2008). This is linked with a general awareness of the importance of education in equipping the workforce for a knowledge economy. And finally, access to education figures widely on the policy agenda, with a concern for social and ethnic diversity as well as offering chances to those who may have missed out on education the first time round. Part of the function of universities is to help create a more equal and socially just society.

Reviews of admissions policies

For all the reasons stated in Part 1, educational policymakers all over the world have been reviewing admissions policies.

In the UK, an independent review was commissioned in 2003 by the then secretary of state for education and skills from professor Steven Schwartz. A report was published in 2004 (Schwartz, 2004), followed by a further review of practice, which reported in December 2008.

The original Schwartz Report set out five general principles which are still considered the cornerstone of good admissions policies:

  1. Transparency – applicants should be provided with the information necessary to help them make informed choices.
  2. Reliability and validity – methods of assessment should conform to good practice and research.
  3. Selection for merit, potential and diversity.
  4. Barriers must be minimized – particularly in relation to disability, and non-professional qualifications.
  5. A professional approach should be taken towards admissions, with appropriate training for staff, and a move towards centralization.

The review was undertaken by the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme (SPA), which also supports those involved in the admissions process and publishes good practice.

The US has a less centralized educational system, thus making it difficult for a federal department to issue nation-wide guidelines. The debate rages with sufficient intensity, however, for a volume of essays to have been gathered on fairer and better ways of managing the admissions process (Camara and Kimmel, 2005).

The political and economic environment often acts as an impetus to reform. In South Africa, for example, years of apartheid have resulted in a skills deficit and poorly educated sections of the population which has prompted energetic affirmative action policies. The Higher Education Quality Committee initiated a project in 2002 aimed at improving teaching and learning in higher education, with much attention to diversity (Council on Higher Education, 2004).

Singapore is influenced by its position as a regional hub for southeast Asia, providing educational opportunities not only for its own students but also for those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and mainland China. Conscious of the need to provide critical thinkers in a global economy, it has instituted a number of reforms in its universities including a more flexible admissions policy which looks beyond academic achievement and considers extra curricular activities (Mok, 2008).

Criteria for admissions

There is a debate as to what universities are looking for in their admissions: is it students who will be successful on their courses, or in the world at large? Some of the world's elite institutions, such as France's École Normale Supérieure, or Japan's University of Tokyo, look for academic success, whereas the US's Ivy League has justified its selection policy on the basis that it is not just looking for academically bright students, but also prospective leaders.

In many countries objective criteria such as exam grades and university entrance tests are the main means of entry to university. However, many institutions, particularly those who need to discriminate between a wide number of applicants, will also use more subjective, qualitative criteria, such as references, personal statements and essays, work experience, as well as evidence of personal qualities, enquiring mind etc., and evidence of other ability in an athletic or artistic field.


A former director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley has proposed that the objectives of an admissions policy should be to enrol a class of freshmen that is academically bright, that will benefit from learning, contribute to their community, be likely to graduate, reflect the state's ethnic diversity, and become loyal alumni, providing financial support to the organization.

A range of criteria should be used – high-school grades, test scores, and also:

"intellectual curiosity and accomplishment, extraordinary talent, leadership, service to others, motivation, tenacity, and demonstrated ability to overcome hardship" (Laird, 2005: p. 20).

The problem of discrimination can be exacerbated by the fact that the exam system can simply throw up too many candidates, as in the UK, where so many students get A grades in A-levels that these can no longer be seen as reliable predictors.


Imperial College London, ranked in the world's top ten universities, plans to introduce aptitude tests within the next few years to help select the brighter applicants (it already has them in medical-related subjects) and, from this year, will also impose longer interviews (Paton, 2009).

I shall now look in a little more detail at what these objective and subjective criteria entail.

Objective methods

School grades and university exams play an important part in university entrance all over the world. Australia, for example, selects students on the basis of their overall academic achievement, believing that to be the best predictor of academic success (although many universities also use additional criteria such as employment experience, portfolios, interviews, etc.). In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, the Universities Admission Index provides a percentile ranking of students against their peers, based on exam performance and continuous assessment.

In Egypt, students must pass the thaanawiya amma, or university exam, and a high score will open doors to dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and engineering and to prestigious careers, while low scores lead to no admissions or to fine arts, music education, social science, tourism or archaeology, where there are fewer job opportunities (Holmes, 2008).

Many UK universities have introduced admissions tests, and SPA has produced guidance [see], as well as a list of colleges which use them. Admissions tests are much more common in the US, in the form of the SAT. SATs are standardized tests which examine both general intellectual aptitude in verbal and mathematical reasoning (SAT I) and subject knowledge (SAT II). SAT I has been criticized on the grounds that the "intellectual skills" are ill-defined, to which the response is that they test important critical skills in the use of language and the ability to problem solve (Bollinger, 2005: pp. 5-6), for which the best preparation is wide and critical reading rather than cramming. Another objection is that the tests are unfair to certain groups, as the average varies by race and family background (Laird, 2005: p. 22).

Some selective institutions using quantitative methods use a particular formula. For example, until 1998 the University of Berkeley used grade point average × 1,000 plus SAT I and three SAT II scores; its current policy (as of July 2009 but shortly to be abandoned) is that students should rank in the top 12.5 per cent of California high-school graduates to be eligible. Institutions have also been known to look at the graduating records of entrants from specific high schools.

Subjective methods

The problem with using subjective criteria is that these still need to be fair and transparent. In other words, they need to be shared by all those involved in the selection process and relate to the needs of the course concerned. It's difficult to see how height and ear size relates to course achievement, but shyness might possibly be a barrier for public relations courses! It's therefore important to set out criteria which can inform subjective judgements.

Objective methods such as SAT can also be criticized for just focusing on cognitive skills. Some consider that it is also important to assess non-cognitive skills such as motivation and adaptability. Sedlacek (2005: p. 180ff.) recommends using a range of non-cognitive variables, including:

  • positive self-concept, which indicates strength of character, determination, and independence;
  • realistic self-appraisal and understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses;
  • ability to handle the system, which involves being assertive about any bias, i.e. not accepting it but being prepared to fight for improvement;
  • ability to prioritize long-term over short-term goals, i.e. to plan ahead;
  • availability of a strong support person;
  • experience of leadership and community service.

Such measures are particularly useful in capturing the potential of non-traditional students.

Schmitt et al. (2005) also argue that too much attention to cognitive skills risks missing out on qualities which help make students employable – for example, leadership and interpersonal skills, intellectual interest, the ability to understand knowledge in context, physical and psychological health, and social responsibility.

There have also been attempts to supplement the SAT: for example, the Rainbow Project piloted a test which used open assessment techniques such as storytelling and cartoon captioning to capture "successful intelligence", i.e. the ability to succeed by building on one's strengths and recognizing one's weaknesses (Sternberg, 2005: p. 167).

Interviews constitute an important element in the holistic assessment of candidates, providing the latter with an opportunity to display their communication and analytical skills, as well as their motivation. They should, however, be conducted in accordance with admissions policies, and SPA makes a number of recommendations, for example that at least two interviewers be present, that questions be open-ended, and responses scored against specific criteria on a standardized form (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2008).

Important issues in admissions policy

That applicants should be selected according to fair and reliable criteria is one of the principles of the UK's Schwartz Report, and one of the main concerns of policymakers and universities worldwide. Other issues are transparency, diversity and professionalism.


Transparency is another key principle of the Schwartz Report: students should have plenty of guidance to help them make the right choice. The admissions policy should also be available to the student: the SPA's guidelines advise that it should be clearly written in user-friendly language, and easy to locate (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2009).

There should also be as much information about the course as possible.


The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the UK's centralized organization for processing admissions for undergraduate courses, provides full profiles of each course, covering course content, the university's facilities, entry requirements and the application process, as well as career options, teaching methods, student support, open days, and advice on writing personal statements.

The Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education recently examined computer science and business administration courses across a number of Arab states, and commended six universities on the clarity of their admissions processes, which provided clear advice to applicants, including information on joining procedures, as well as the structure of the programme and its choices.

In South Africa, the Higher Education Quality Committee recommended that institutions should liaise proactively with students in their local area, and provide guidance on flexible entry routes, the curriculum, and careers.


The whole issue of diversity – ensuring an equitable ethnic composition, offering opportunities to older people who missed out on higher education "first time round", or to those who are socially disadvantaged – is one of the most complex areas of higher education.

On the one hand, equality of opportunity and access is on the political agenda of educational policymakers all over the world. But on the other, all sorts of questions are raised – if you introduce quotas, or criteria that benefit particular groups, how will that appear to those outside the group who are otherwise very well qualified? And if you lower entry requirements for the benefit of other groups, for example, older students who have few qualifications but a lot of life experience, this has resource implications for additional teaching and counselling.

In the US, the desire to have a diverse student body has led some institutions to develop affirmative action policies – only to have these policies undermined by legislative actions. Denied the possibility of using quotas, institutions have to find other ways of meeting diversity goals, such as widening their selection criteria, or making specific efforts to recruit students in particular areas.


The University of California has announced a new admissions policy to take effect in three years' time. The intention is to widen the pool of high-school applicants and make the process more fair. However, it has caused great concern among Asian-American students who presently make up at least 40 per cent of the student body, and who claim that the new policy will discriminate against them. However, officials deny that is the projected result or intent of the proposals, which involve scrapping the requirement to take two SAT subject tests and reducing the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores alone. They claim that the intention is to remove unnecessary barriers and expand the pool of applicants.

Affirmative action is not confined to the US: the Parisian Institute of Political Science has recently implemented a second path of admission for students from schools in what are termed priority education zones (economically disadvantaged areas) (Goastellec, 2008).

In the UK, the Schwartz Report (Schwartz, 2004: p. 11) delicately circumvents the issue, advising institutions to ensure "equality of opportunity within the legal framework", and encourage diversity which "enriches the learning environment" (Schwartz, 2004: p. 7). Its stance however is that higher education should not compensate for educational or social disadvantage, and that it is the duty of universities to seek the brightest and most promising applicants, who should be individually assessed and not treated as members of a group (Schwartz, 2004: p. 54). On the other hand, it urges institutions to look fairly at post-qualification applications and vocational qualifications.

Post-apartheid South Africa is making strenuous efforts to redress past imbalances and use higher education to create equality of opportunity. It is interesting to note that in contrast to the stipulations of the Schwarz Report discussed earlier, the Higher Education Act of 1997 requires that:

"the admissions policy of a public higher education institution must provide for the redress of past inequalities" (Council on Higher Education, 2004: p. 7).

It urges institutions to use both direct and indirect methods to ensure equal representation, refering to "equity-driven enrolment targets", as well as to be flexible about entry requirements, for example recognizing prior learning. It also acknowledges the importance of support resources, and suggests that the threat of drop-out can be countered by:

"comprehensive, sustained, high quality curriculum interventions, which develop students’ general academic and cognitive skills, their language competence and their capacity for self-directed learning, in the context of mainstream learning; thus ensuring such students’ eventual success in HE" (Council on Higher Education, 2004: p. 6).

Vietnam is also making strenuous efforts to re-organize its higher education to achieve greater social equity. In particular, its highly selective university entrance exam (approximately 15 per cent of candidates are accepted) has a different benchmark depending on the candidate's region (mountainous areas, remote areas and poor social backgrounds, country areas, towns and provincial cities, big cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), which acknowledges differences dependent on geography.

Just as important for access is looking at an applicant's individual circumstances, rather than purely the group to which they belong. The Schwarz Report urged universities to look at "contextual factors", although without a clear indication of what these might be, other than "additional responsibilities at home or at work", and "interrupted schooling". From the other side of the Atlantic, Laird also mentions context rather more explicitly:

"Given the huge disparities in opportunities offered to American youngsters, it is crucial to assess a student's achievements against her or his circumstances. That does not mean just language history, family income, and parental education levels, especially in the evaluation of standardized test scores, although these three items are fundamentally important. It means understanding as much as possible about the individual student's circumstances as well as her family, school, and community circumstances. And it does not mean automatically rewarding applicants who have faced difficult circumstances. It means measuring their achievements against those circumstances. It means acknowledging the qualities of responsibility and dependability in a student who cares for younger siblings every day after school as much as for the student who is a leader in school activities" (Laird, 2005: pp. 24-25).


Many countries – for example, Egypt, South Africa and Vietnam – have a centralized admissions system, which either sets the criteria or controls the process. This can help towards fairness, as in the case of Vietnam, where the government can adjudicate between regions, or South Africa, where there has been a proposal to rationalize the admissions process by centralizing it, although individual institutions could set their own criteria and numbers of places on programmes.

In practice, however, many institutions will set their own policies, nagged by central government policymaking, but above all driven by their own mission. There is a move in the UK, however, towards centralization within institutions, advocated by the Schwartz Report (2004) and by the SPA. The latter advises that there should be a body with overall responsibility for admissions, ensuring that the policy is in line with institutional guidelines, and taking care of assessment methods used, review of policy, etc. (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, 2009).

References and further information


Bollinger, L.C. (2005), "Competition in Higher Education and Admissions Testing," in Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, available at [accessed July 15 2009].

Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds) (2005), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ.

Council on Higher Education (2004), Improving Teaching & Learning Resources (ITL) – No. 3: Access & Admissions, CHE, South Africa, available at [accessed July 10 2009].

Gladwell, M. (2005), "Getting in – The social logic of Ivy League admissions", New Yorker, October 10, available at [accessed June 8 2009].

Goastellec, G. (2008), "Changes in access to higher education: From worldwide constraints to common patterns of reform?", in Baker, D.P. and Wiseman, A.W. (Eds), The Worldwide Transformation of Higher Education, Vol. 9 of the book series International Perspectives on Education and Society, pp. 1-26.

Holmes, M.T.E. (2008), "Higher education reform in Egypt: preparing graduates for Egypt's changing political economy", Education, Business and Society: Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 175-185.

Laird, R. (2005), "What is it we think we are trying to fix and how should we fix it? A view from the admissions office", in Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, available at [accessed July 13 2009].

Mok, K.H. (2008), "Singapore's global education hub ambitions: university governance change and transnational higher education", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 22 No. 6, pp. 527-546.

Paton, G. (2009), "Students face university entrance test in row over 'easy' A-levels", The Daily Telegraph, June 5, available at… [accessed July 13 2009].

Schmitt, N., Oswald, F.L. and Gillespie, M.A. (2005), "Broadening the performance domain in the prediction of academic success", in Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, available at [accessed July 13 2009].

Schwartz, S. (2004), Fair Admissions to Higher Education:Recommendations for Good Practice, Department of Education and Skills Publications, Nottingham, available at [accessed June 8 2009].

Sedlacek, W.E. (2005), "The case for noncognitive measures", in Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, available at [accessed July 13 2009].

Sternberg, R.J. (2005), "Augmenting the SAT through assessments of analytical, practical, and creative skills", in Camara, W.J. and Kimmel, E.W. (Eds), Choosing Students: Higher Education Admissions Tools for the 21st Century, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, [accessed July 13 2009].

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (2008), "Interviewing applicants for admission to undergraduate university and college courses or programmes: good practice statement", available at [accessed June 10 2009].

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (2009), "Admissions policies: guidance for higher education providers – 4th draft", available at [accessed June 10 2009].

Further information

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions

This is a UK organization which supports good practice in admissions. There is full information about the Schwartz Report and Review, as well as useful papers on issues such as conducting interviews, and admissions tests.