"Target" degrees may soon be meaningless

From today's Washington Post:

U-Va. and Harvard were among a large bloc of schools that temporarily suspended their requirements for SAT or ACT scores because the public health emergency prevented many college-bound students from taking the exams. Students could choose whether to send scores to these schools under a policy known as "test-optional."

On Friday, U-Va. President James E. Ryan said the public university will extend its test-optional policy for another two years, covering students who are now sophomores and juniors in high school....

Harvard said Friday it will be test-optional for one more year - covering those who are now high school juniors - and reiterated that those who do not submit scores "will not be disadvantaged in the application process."

UC-Berkeley has taken a more radical step. It removed the SAT and ACT from admission decisions, a policy known as "test-free" or "test-blind." A state court last fall ordered the UC system to apply that policy across all its campuses for this year's applicants. The system's approach to admission testing for coming years is still in some flux, but the UC governing board voted in the spring to phase out the SAT and ACT.

The dirty secret of elite schools is that they aren't particularly difficult. Yes, some specific majors are hard: getting a physics degree at Harvard is no joke. But most reasonably smart people could pass through an easier program and pick up the credential without much difficulty. Hint: look for a major that ends in the word "Studies".

The main reason that elite school maintain their cache is that their graduates are talented. And they're talented not because these schools have some kind of magical educational formula, but because they select smart high school kids via standardized testing. 

It's hard to overstate the significance of this development. Smart kids are distributed unevenly across the population, so an admissions policy focused on high school class ranking, or even worse, extra-curriculars, at the expense of test scores will select dumber students.

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Comments (55)

Jan 30, 2021 - 1:07am

It won't continue to be optional, and the UCs have been working on their own standardized test for a while now so this is the perfect opportunity for them to make the switch. It's optional this year because most kids weren't able to take the tests, nothing more to it.

  • Intern in PE - Other
Jan 30, 2021 - 4:07pm

The new standardized tests are just going to be demographic information and just award the most points to mixed black/indigenous trans 2-spirit kids haha

Jan 30, 2021 - 1:55am

Nah, companies that still care enough about prestige & targets will still care without standardized testing. Most of them ask about SAT/ACT scores anyway during the hiring process; if standardized test scores were the dealbreaker, then they would have long been better off just filtering based on that in the first place and ignoring school names.

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  • Developer in RE - Comm
Jan 30, 2021 - 9:39am

Most of these companies aren't just directly looking for kids with high test scores. They're looking for talent, and the top schools have a lot of talented students. But that won't be the case so much if the schools stop relying on standardized tests (which are better indications of intellectual ability than high school grades, etc.). 

If elite schools ditch the exams, most companies who recruit heavily at these schools will continue to do so. But it will gradually dawn on them that these new classes of analysts don't seem to be as sharp as their predecessors were.

  • Prospect in IB-M&A
Jan 30, 2021 - 9:45am

Not a good take. Firstly, why do you think they select smart high school kids via standardized testing? Standardized testing is a part of the process of selecting students, but it's not the entire process. You're delusional if you think getting a good score on the SAT for top targets (pretty much a 1500+) is extraordinarily difficult. It's not. Secondly, not a whole lot has changed. these schools have gone test-optional, not test-blind. Strong students applying to test-optional schools will still submit their scores because they want to strengthen their applications and they will still be assessed. On the other hand, test-blind schools literally will not even look at or consider your scores in their process if you submit them. The only good schools that are going test-blind are UCLA and Berkeley. So there's literally no legitimate change here. Thirdly, selecting students on the basis of extracurriculars is a very effective method to select students. It allows adcoms to find truly remarkable students that will graduate from those schools and be the "graduates [that] are talented" as you mentioned. 

Jan 30, 2021 - 10:17am

Thirdly, selecting students on the basis of extracurriculars is a very effective method to select students. It allows adcoms to find truly remarkable students that will graduate from those schools and be the "graduates [that] are talented" as you mentioned. 

When I was in HS, I did not appreciate the importance of extra curriculars and did none.   The schools don't only look at test scores.  I am older than the average person here and I can tell you that my kid's resume was loaded with extra cirriculars and it helped him get into schools. He did not take the SATs, as he just did not want to dedicate the time to preparing for the exam.  He has very good grades with minimal effort but without the extra cirriculars, he would probably not have been accepted into schools. 

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  • Prospect in IB-M&A
Jan 30, 2021 - 11:48am

You have a college aged+ son and you spend your time here shilling for democrats and arguing with anon 19-year-olds? Holy fuck your poor family.

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Jan 30, 2021 - 12:07pm

Dude, I hope you do not have this attitude in real life. Not everyone here is 19. Your are never too old to learn from others. I learned a whole bunch of shit about Spacs yesterday. I strive to improve myself in any way I can.

This is not some random website for kids. There are plenty of investment people on here. There is a reason this is called Wall Street Oasis.

I am not sure why you feel the need to throw digs at me. In my network, that would say more about you than it would about me.

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  • Developer in RE - Comm
Jan 30, 2021 - 12:02pm

You're delusional if you think getting a good score on the SAT for top targets (pretty much a 1500+) is extraordinarily difficult. It's not.

A student who scored above 1500 on the SAT in 2019 was within the top 1% of all high school juniors and seniors in the US (link). So that score is literally extraordinary in the sense of being far beyond an ordinary student's ability. If you know a lot of people who've gotten 1500+, then you've been in a highly non-representative environment that may skew your perception of what is normal.

And that is exactly my point. There really are places where 1500+ scorers are commonplace and many others where they're virtually nonexistent. An admissions policy that increases emphasis on grades and de-emphasizes test scores will pull in a lot more kids who were big fish in small ponds. Whatever the social benefits of this practice, it will produce student bodies that are less academically capable on average.

I don't agree that there is "literally no legitimate change here". UCLA and Berkeley are prominent schools, and they're totally ditching testing. That's a significant change. The others are making less dramatic changes but the trend is clear.

  • Analyst 2 in IB - Gen
Jan 31, 2021 - 9:19pm

being in the top 1% of people who take the test doesn't mean anything because there's a huge selection bias in who actually winds up applying top colleges (or colleges at all). Getting a 35 on the ACT (a 99th+ percentile score) would put you in the bottom 25 percent of Caltech admits and the bottom 50% of MIT admits. It's of course different if you're a URM and having good scores and GPA are good enough to get you in everywhere but if you're an Asian Male a 36 / 1600 and a 4.0 aren't good enough. Take it from me, an asian male with a perfect test score and gpa, and decent extracurriculars that got rejected from every ivy league school I applied to.  

Apr 7, 2021 - 1:47pm

There were so many kids in the high school I went to that get a 1500+and very few kids got into ivys. I think the exact numbers on it were 50-70 kids in my grade who got a 1500+ and 6 who went to an ivy. Grades and SAT score do not matter nearly as much as extracurriculars and now days your ECs need to be amazing in order to get into columbia level schools. For example, I had a private equity internship throughout high school so I was only able to get into an ivy because of that. I had a friend who got a 1590 and had a 4.0 but ended up going to some nontarget stateschool since without good extracurriculars it is impossible to get into a target.

Jan 30, 2021 - 1:19pm

"Target" Degrees May Soon Be Meaningless

Soon ... as in year 2150?

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee

  • Developer in RE - Comm
Jan 30, 2021 - 2:11pm

I said "meaningless", not "worthless". Even if the caliber of their students were to decline dramatically, the cache of these institutions would remain valuable to their alums for a long time.

Honda Civics have a reputation for reliability and are popular for that reason. But if Honda cut costs by using lower-quality parts in its new Civics, it would take a number of years before the general public became aware that Civics weren't good cars anymore. Brands have a lot of sticking power. But it would actually be true, on day one after the switch, that the new Civics rolling off of the line were worse than the old ones. But the new Civics would still benefit from the old reputation, until eventually they didn't.

  • Prospect in IB - Gen
Jan 30, 2021 - 5:23pm

Elite school admissions are bullshit as this thread helps illustrate. Getting a 1500+ SAT is not particularly hard, your high school GPA means nothing (way too easy to game the system), and ECs are super biased towards kids with 1) wealth or 2) connections. Smart but poor kids can rarely do exotic ECs and smart but poorly connected kids can't do research like the kid whose parents are professors. So the most objective differentiator, the essay, is all that's really left and that's just a creative writing exercise. I am fortunate enough to go to an Ivy and think it offers a fantastic education, but anyone who thinks they're somehow superior because they got in is full of shit.

Jan 30, 2021 - 6:17pm

No, the target degree will still mean something. I recently went through the college admission process and there are now many, many different factors that colleges will look at, which is why they call it a "holistic admissions process":

1. First, there's your GPA and your course load. Colleges can immediately know the overall rigor of you school because they've been gathering data for years, if not decades. I mean, even the average person knows that a place like Exeter or Stuy is probably more rigorous than a school in the middle or the inner city or a rural area. Colleges will know this data in greater detail.

2. Then they look at your teacher's recs. It's not enough for the teacher to just say "he's smart" nowadays. The rec letter literally has to be glowing for it to stand out. If your recs are too ordinary, you will have to compensate for that in other areas.

The above two are basic prerequisites (along with good SAT scores (high 1400s to 1600) if colleges keep the testing requirement). The rest is to really make yourself stand out:

3. Colleges will then look for any awards or recognition you earned that indicate you're a genius. I'm talking about the USAMO, IMO medalist type awards. Or maybe you're a nationally ranked debate champion. The kids who win these things are literally the best in the country or even the world because they've gone through an enormous weeding out process. College adcoms like this because their work has already been done for them.

4. Next they would look at your involvement in things outside of school. Maybe you started a non-profit that gained national/state media recognition or maybe you did some high level research with a college professor in a subject you enjoy or maybe you're an entrepreneur and started a functioning company. Basically you need something that is both very interesting and personal but also difficult to achieve.

5. And finally, of course, there's the essays. This is more a chance for you to show some personality and creativity to get the admissions officer to remember you. You could do a mediocre job in all the things above but your memorable essays could make an admission officer's day and he/she may fight for you.

I don't want to scare any high schoolers on this forum. You don't have to do all of these things. You absolutely must have some basic things (good GPA, good recs, good essays) to show that you're a good student and interested in the college. But for the other things, you can pick and choose which activity you want to focus on, whether its the USAMO or a small business you founded.

As you can see, it's a pretty competitive process nowadays to get into a top target school. It's not enough to just have good grades or some club leadership positions anymore. The people who make it through the above are obviously either very driven, very smart, very well-connected, or all of the above. I'm so glad I'm done with the process. On to IB recruiting... 

  • Intern in S&T - FI
Jan 30, 2021 - 6:38pm

From my recruiting experience as a non-target the major advantage for targets is that BB actively recruit and coordinate with OCR. I guess you're correct that no one really cares about the degree itself but I find it hard to believe all of the target alums will stop vouching for their schools. Even more is that recruiters and HR can't turn on a dime and need to still source their talent from somewhere so they just keep going back to the same universities that served them well in the past.

Jan 30, 2021 - 10:11pm

Bro this post is cringe. High school is a joke in terms of EVERY thing. You put in the work (barely any required) and will get your 90s in classes and the 1500 on the sats. Put a little bit more work and you have your ECs and your high 90s grades. Your telling me the next wave of Harvard lawyers are going to be lower caliber because they didn't do an extra text on high school math and English?? Tf is wrong with you.

  • Analyst 1 in IB - Gen
Jan 31, 2021 - 12:17pm

The value of an elite degree will never fully go away but its definitely diminishing. the days of needing and Ivy degree and MBA to have maximum credibility are over. there are many ways to make a name for yourself now whether that be thru getting a following online, starting a business, being excellent at coding, etc. I genuinely think some of these WSB guys like DFV will get scooped up by top HFs and it has nothing to do with their academic credentials. I used to think that going to Wharton with 200k+ in debt would be a clear choice over a good state school with 0 debt. Now, the answer to that is a lot less clear. 

Jan 31, 2021 - 10:17pm

Taking away standardized scores in the name of equality is the most backward ass thing. Getting a good ACT/SAT score is the easiest thing ever. All you need to do is download a few practice tests off the internet and grind a few hours a week to get 2200/34+. It's literally the most wealth-agnostic thing out there. If you're smart and determined, you WILL get a good score. Taking that away only hurts the lower income kids who don't have the time or access to cool extracurriculars like research or internships. This literally does the opposite of what colleges want and helps the wealthy kid with parents who can buy them extracurriculars.

Feb 1, 2021 - 12:49am

I feel like there's a lot of survivorship bias in this thread. Getting a 1500+ score is entirely possible for anyone who is able to effectively study for it, but you can't call it "easy" when less than 1% of the population is able to get such a score. You could say there's selection bias in the sense that the number may be higher for students that really put effort into doing the practice tests every week, but I remember lots of kids from my high school back in the day hit a plateau at like 2150 back when the test was out of 2400, and others hit a plateau at around 2200 and couldn't get anywhere higher no matter how many practice tests they took. 

Apr 5, 2021 - 8:29am

I have no hard data to back this out, only general trends throughout history, so take this with a grain of salt.  

I speculate that removing standardized test scores will only accomplish one thing: preventing students from non-wealthy backgrounds from being able to attend these institutions.  Harvard, Yale, and their ilk, have been around much, much longer than any standardized test, and similarly, they have been dominating the US academic / professional scene regardless of whether they had these tests or not.  

Without the equalizing force of the SAT / ACT (where a 36 from the richest student means exactly the same as a 36 from the poorest, extracurriculars and unique experiences will become the driving force.   For example, the child who's parents could afford to pay for them to travel to 3rd world countries and help minorities (albeit I've heard these trips can be more of a vacation than anything else), will have a bought and paid for "unique experience" that will allow them to have a "wholistic" application showcasing their drive to help the underprivileged.   On the flip side, take the child raised in a trailer park in west virginia.  This child has no chance of going on a trip like that, and likely has parents who are so far removed from how higher education works, the idea of crafting activities simply for the sake of framing and admissions application is alien to them.  At best that kid will volunteer at school, at worst, his / her dad is a dead beat alcoholic who looks down on higher educatino.  

Without the standardized test that links these two children in today's world, one might as well be shown the red carpet, and the other, the exit door.  I hope this "temporary" pause on the tests is truly temporary.

My $.02  

Apr 6, 2021 - 2:52pm

randomguy97

I have no hard data to back this out, only general trends throughout history, so take this with a grain of salt.  

I speculate that removing standardized test scores will only accomplish one thing: preventing students from non-wealthy backgrounds from being able to attend these institutions.  Harvard, Yale, and their ilk, have been around much, much longer than any standardized test, and similarly, they have been dominating the US academic / professional scene regardless of whether they had these tests or not.  

Without the equalizing force of the SAT / ACT (where a 36 from the richest student means exactly the same as a 36 from the poorest, extracurriculars and unique experiences will become the driving force.   For example, the child who's parents could afford to pay for them to travel to 3rd world countries and help minorities (albeit I've heard these trips can be more of a vacation than anything else), will have a bought and paid for "unique experience" that will allow them to have a "wholistic" application showcasing their drive to help the underprivileged.   On the flip side, take the child raised in a trailer park in west virginia.  This child has no chance of going on a trip like that, and likely has parents who are so far removed from how higher education works, the idea of crafting activities simply for the sake of framing and admissions application is alien to them.  At best that kid will volunteer at school, at worst, his / her dad is a dead beat alcoholic who looks down on higher educatino.  

Without the standardized test that links these two children in today's world, one might as well be shown the red carpet, and the other, the exit door.  I hope this "temporary" pause on the tests is truly temporary.

My $.02  

Except there is loads of evidence supporting the fact that wealth correlates to higher SAT scores.  Whether this is because wealthier families can pay for targeted SAT prep, or because they go to better and better funded high schools, or because of one of the other myriad ways in which wealth provides advantages, your take is the opposite of the the reality.

Universities want kids with a diversity of experiences to provide a more enriching campus life, is what I'm sure the school's justification would be.  They just need to make sure that that includes people who didn't have access to the same extracurriculars as someone who did.  Your West Virginia trailer park high school student might have needed to work evenings in high school at a 7-11; that should be valid extracurricular activity.  Sitting around getting high isn't, regardless of socio-economic status.  Obviously this isn't the case, and students are selected on how much their families give and what they can be expected to give to the university endowment.  But the idea that valuing extracurricular activities is more weighted towards the wealthy than standardized scores in general has little to no backing.

  • Intern in PE - Other
Apr 6, 2021 - 12:49pm

God you're a moron, can speak from personal experience and my friends that your claim isn't true. 

Edit: I feel like I should clarify that I am refuting your second point on work ethic being "hardwired into you". 

Apr 6, 2021 - 1:16pm

Developer in RE - Comm

From today's Washington Post:

The dirty secret of elite schools is that they aren't particularly difficult. Yes, some specific majors are hard: getting a physics degree at Harvard is no joke. But most reasonably smart people could pass through an easier program and pick up the credential without much difficulty. Hint: look for a major that ends in the word "Studies".

The main reason that elite school maintain their cache is that their graduates are talented. And they're talented not because these schools have some kind of magical educational formula, but because they select smart high school kids via standardized testing. 

It's hard to overstate the significance of this development. Smart kids are distributed unevenly across the population, so an admissions policy focused on high school class ranking, or even worse, extra-curriculars, at the expense of test scores will select dumber students.

Yeah man, Harvard, UVA, and Berkeley are now obsolete because they gave students who couldn't access/afford standardized testing the chance to apply in the middle of a pandemic.

Worth noting that testing is OPTIONAL, not IRRELEVANT. I'm under the impression it still helps your application if you perform well on the test and submit your score.

Seriously, which nontarget did you go to? 

Apr 6, 2021 - 1:28pm

Although sat's are becoming obsolete I'd say this is quite the opposite- acceptance rates are plummeting, and student profiles are only getting stronger and stronger.

Look at Johns Hopkins 2025 accepted student profile, they boast accepting published nat geo writers, marine biologists, engineers who have done groundbreaking work on neurological conditions. Their acceptance went from 7% last year to 5%, about a 25% reduction

I think a target degree isn't gonna be less useful, just less common, possibly making it more useful in the end. But this is all speculation, idk nuthin

Apr 6, 2021 - 4:35pm

You're missing the point. That may be a better way to do college admissions, but by eliminating the standardized testing, you're eliminating the guaranty that the pool of applicants during on-campus recruiting is comprised basically of geniuses. The elite employers recruit at elite schools because the applicant pool to the jobs is truly brilliant. 

Array

  • 2
Apr 6, 2021 - 1:33pm

As a "target" university graduate, I'd say that these places are only worth full freight if you're ~70% sure you want MBB, IBD, and other opps that still highly prize pedigree. Even then, please realize that the odds don't favor you breaking into an elite firm. Out of my class, like 1/3 went to info sessions, maybe 20 OCI first round interview slots per firm, and ~3-4 offers (after Super Day). Getting into a SA program is critical and if you don't land full time offer by the end of senior year, breaking in is analogous to a sailor chasing a speedboat while treading water. I don't even know if MBB will hire people after undergrad w/o MBA.

If you're wealthy or on fin aid, then go to the best university you can, but otherwise, I'd go to flagship state U and put the difference into grad program, investments etc.

  • Analyst 1 in AM - Equities
Apr 7, 2021 - 11:11am

I disagree. I think had you attended a random no-name state-school, you would have recognized the immense value that a target degree provides for someone. 

I'll give an example. My uncle is a total fucking loser. But he attended Princeton and then HBS. He has job-hopped so many times and has been fired. Nevertheless, he is still able to work at F100 tech companies almost entirely because he is a good talker and because of the degrees attached. Myself and the rest of my family are convinced that had he attended no-name institution he wouldn't be able to land any of these roles. 

Apr 7, 2021 - 10:00am
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