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The Straits Times

Good Grades Not The Only Ticket To University

Professor Tsui admits that the selection, which will take half a day, is rigorous. But he said the university is serious about looking for students with the five Cs – commitment, consciousness, cognition, creativity and communication” (More Than Good Grades Needed For A Place At UniSIM, Miss Sandra Davie).

The flexibility of the selection process in SIM University (UniSIM) is constructive, and echoes the admission components of the newer universities (More Than Good Grades Needed For A Place At UniSIM, Jan. 6). It recognises that examination results per se do not necessarily reflect a student’s true quality and potential. While one might not be too enthusiastic about UniSIM’s “five Cs” model, for assessors run the risk of pigeon-holing applicants, the school’s four-step model does go beyond the traditional focus on grades.

This should also be a sign for public universities to make higher education more inclusive.

Are grades a truly adequate gauge? How should qualitative endeavours be quantified and compared?

In the National University of Singapore (NUS), undergraduates are admitted based on their “academic standing, course selection and competition among applicants”. If one has performed poorly in a high-stakes assessment, his or her opportunities are severely limited. Other achievements or work experience will only be considered in “exceptional cases”. However, for specialised or competitive courses such as architecture, law, and medicine, individuals would have to go through additional selection tests or interviews.

On the other hand, the application process to the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) includes an essay, interview, co-curricular activities, and other relevant accomplishments. The justification: “we look for who you really are – what inspires you, what are you passionate about, and the values that you hold”. Generally speaking, examinations are a test of one’s competency in rote memorisation and pedantic regurgitation. Hence, such holistic evaluation paints a fairer picture of the person.

Some may deem the comparison to be unfair. After all, SUTD is focused on design education and research, and therefore incoming students have to possess skills or display relevant aptitudes to be suitable for the courses. Courses in NUS may be more steeped in academia and scholastic research. However, admission officers – in NUS for instance – should use existing initiatives as a guide, and instead think about customising appropriate methodologies to choose their prospective undergraduates. Are grades a truly adequate gauge? How should qualitative endeavours be quantified and compared? Results can, and should, still feature. 70 per cent of the weighting can come from that, and the remaining 30 per cent from out-of-the-classroom experiences.

It will become more complicated, but the central tenet is to shake away that rigid obsession with academic abilities. Nonetheless if a department or faculty truly believes that it only needs to use one’s scholastic standing, then it can be explained and justified too.

A good university is a hub for knowledge, and standards should not be compromised. Yet if the admissions process can be calibrated to inject greater diversity, why not? Flexibility in the universities – and its admission process – sets the tone for the rest of the education system; one that is coming to terms with a complex and demanding world where book-smartness is no longer sufficient.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “Good Grades Not The Only Ticket To University

  1. In your view, is the assessment of a person’s non-academic activities meant to /complement/ good grades (i.e. you have two prospective students of the same grades, you then compare non-academic activities), OR is it a /substitute/ of grades (i.e. both non-academic activities and academic activities are factors of admission, and you admit based on a measure of ‘total’ score).

    I do not have much of a problem with the former — and it does work for institutions in the Ivy League, where admissions tutors see many students with superb academic calibre.

    However, you seem to be advocating for the latter (third last paragraph).

    Such a policy would be ill-advised, due to:

    (1) It is impossible to measure across non-academic achievements. Should a champion volleyball player deserve a university spot any more than a bronze medallist in fencing? In your policy, it is very likely that the former will be admitted (gold! first place!) — but he might simply be a bencher during his tournament.

    (2) Given Singapore’s culture, instead of simply encouraging people to pursue non-academic activities, it is very likely that you will encourage reputation whore-ing. In other words, joining top-performing CCAs especially in group-based CCAs like performing arts where individual achievements are harder to assess.

    Posted by vinny | January 6, 2014, 7:51 pm
    • Yup, you’re right. Am advocating for the latter. I’m speaking from a very specific context (primarily the A Levels here), and my view is premised upon the opinion that examinations are not great aggregates of a student’s calibre and abilities.

      I did concede that the process would be more complex and complicated. Your first objection: it’s possible to quantify non-academic achievements (and has been done methinks). Loosely speaking, a gold is like an A, a bronze a C. Almost like grades. You could award points accordingly, and cap if necessary. The example you raise does happen, but in a team spot I think a bencher does deserve credit too.

      Think the second point segues from the bencher example. Quantifying as comparing non-academic accomplishments will be difficult, but not impossible.

      I’m a little torn over the portfolio whore contention. Totally get where you’re coming from. When I first did my CIP / SL it was because I wanted to boost my CV, but over the years the motivation has changed. We oppose the intent, but from a cost-benefit point of view some benefits do emerge (could even outweigh).

      Jin Yao

      P/S: Is this Vinod ah? Haha.

      Posted by guanyinmiao | January 6, 2014, 9:20 pm
      • The idea I was trying to bring across in point (1) — sorry I wasn’t clear — is that it is hard to qualify which ‘Gold’ is more deserving of more merit. Is it harder to get a gold for international chess? Is it harder to get a gold for track and field? How hard is it to get a gold for kite flying?

        Is it fair to award 5 points each to a champion swimmer and a champion at kite flying?

        Surely some sports or feats require greater talent, skill and hard work. A ‘Gold’ award is not the same across different activities. For instance, kite flying might be a ‘Band C’ achievement, whereas swimming might be a ‘Band A’ achievement. However, like it or not, in practice it is not possible to group activities into distinct bands of merit. If you DO somehow arbitrarily drop activities into different Bands, you are merely punishing people for pursuing their passion.

        Why should I be punished for loving kite flying?

        Nobody is saying quantifying non-academic achievements is impossible. What is contestable is whether methods to attempt to quantify can even be robust enough to capture the essence of what you are trying to accomplish: understanding a student’s “true” quality and potential.

        Perhaps a better admissions process is, simply, not having formal ways to admit them based on a set of criteria, but doing it more ‘informally’ through appeals and Special Admissions. Which is what our institutions are doing right now.

        (Not Vinod. :P)

        Posted by vinny | January 6, 2014, 10:04 pm
      • I must have understood when you wrote that “[i]t is impossible to measure across non-academic achievements”. My bad.

        I’ll take an example. The NUS Business School uses a 70-30 system for its exchange programme selection: 70 for CAP (results), and the 30 is divided into six categories (leadership, community service, co-curricular activities, business engagement, et cetera), each five points. Yes, it is difficult to quantify and compare across endeavours that require varying degrees of talent, skill, or hard work, but I think the broad, aforementioned categories are reasonable. Fundamentally, the premise is that grades per se should not determine everything.

        Generally speaking some universities, UniSIM and SUTD as explained in the piece, believe that their selection processes are rigorous and appropriate.

        Curiously, the contentions you have against the non-academic achievements can be put to bear on examination results too. Even that, I think, is riddled with subjectivity, but we still do our best to somewhat standardise. How do we compare across the polytechnics, junior colleges, and the international baccalaureate programme? Do we use broad benchmarks? Or quotas? If one was more pedantic (and whimsical), one could also suggest that physics is technically more challenging than history, and that literature is more important than chemistry, for instance (I subscribe to none of these notions, btw).

        Jin Yao

        Posted by guanyinmiao | January 7, 2014, 2:19 am
  2. Of course nobody will dispute that a pure academic approach is flawed for the above reasons you have identified. Yet, while it is flawed, people can largely agree that it is the fairest measure of merit. By introducing a broad brush approach to non-academic assessment, you are introducing MORE ‘unfair’ factors into the system due to the very reasons I have identified.

    I am sure you are no stranger to the broad brush approach (ahem, LEAPS system). You see many people gaming LEAPS through craftily selected CIP, fluffed leadership positions and bull shit awards. Still, at present, the incentive to participate in the LEAPS system is not too exaggerated as it is, after all, a secondary consideration (L1R5 is the deciding factor but LEAPS helps through the deduction of points).

    If you change it such that non-academic matters achievements somehow contribute 30% to admissions, vast majority of JC kids would probably try to apply the same strategies in LEAPS and max out their scores. That’s a fair assumption because CCAs will be no longer something good to have, but rather something that kids MUST have.

    At the end of the day, if everyone’s CCA scores are more or less similar (given that any conscientious student WILL score as much as they could), admissions still boil down to grades, isn’t it? And what do you achieve?

    (1) Superficiality
    (2) Students not pursuing their passions but joining ‘Sure A’ CCAs instead.

    If you truly want to admit students and assess their “true” qualities and potential, isn’t it better to NOT grade their CCA involvements based on some rudimentary rubric but let them explore their interests and passions instead? Consequently, IF they do not get the required grades, you allow them to appeal for Discretionary Admissions to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

    (Case-by-case because you CANNOT measure across different accomplishments by giving it an arbitrary score!)

    What needs to be done is NOT incorporating CCAs somehow into an admissions score. Instead, institutions should increase the amount of spots granted for Discretionary Admissions and encourage people to pursue their passions.

    Posted by vinny | January 7, 2014, 4:28 pm
    • Typing this on my mobile on-the-go, so let me know if I’ve missed a point.

      Fair enough, though my apprehension stems from the perspective that an examination is not (necessarily) the best way to determine if a student should be admitted. But that is a separate question altogether. It is true that the viability of the proportionality system (70-30) – which will create perverse incentives – depends on the students and the schools. Personally to me the intent or motivation, as it is with LEAPS or CIP, is not as important, so long as benefits are generated and moments for introspection are available.

      But you’re right. At UniSIM and SUTD the system probably works quite similarly. Students have to attain a certain grade, before the other accomplishments are factored in. Until a constructive alternative to examinations emerges, it will remain a baseline. Your proposal to expand the discretionary spots – and to render it more transparent – makes more sense at the moment.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | January 7, 2014, 5:10 pm


  1. Pingback: Expanding Universities | guanyinmiao's musings - January 27, 2014

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