It happens every spring. High
across the country anxiously grope in their
mailboxes for letters from
colleges—exulting if the envelope is a fat one
stuffed with acceptance details, despairing if it`s a
thin one containing a one-page rejection.
In his "Economic
Scene" column in the April 14th
New York Times,
Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, co-author of
The Winner-Take-All Society,
explains why college applicants` annual April Agony gets
worse each year:
steep rise in overall earnings inequality over the last
three decades has occurred in virtually every industry
and occupation… For every starting analyst`s position
J. P. Morgan, for example, the firm receives mail
sacks full of applications. Employers in this situation
seldom find time to interview applicants who did not
graduate from an
elite university. Ambitious high school students
have responded by applying in record numbers to the
nation`s most selective universities. But there is no
greater number of slots in these institutions than
But what makes an “elite
university” elite? Is it because they do a better
job of educating students?
Oddly enough, nobody seems terribly
interested in finding out. It`s extremely rare for
anybody to test college seniors to find out how much
more than they know than when they were freshmen. This
indifference is typical at all levels of the
Ironically, our pretence that we
empirical egalitarianism leads to educational
elitism of the crassest kind.
Because we are supposed to assume
in public that all men are created equal, it follows,
quasi-logically, that if Harvard graduates are smart
(which they generally are), that can only be because
Harvard made them smart (which is
very seldom the case).
In reality, of course, universities
are ranked primarily on the grades and SAT or ACT scores
that their students achieved in
The fame of their grad schools and even the
successes of their hired
basketball gladiators seem to matter more to their
reputations than documented evidence, assuming any
exists, of the effectiveness of their undergraduate
So, why do employers care
about which college applicants attended? Mostly because
it`s evidence of an applicant`s
SAT score—along with high school grades—which in
turn is correlated with his IQ. What college you go to
permanently signifies your position in the IQ strata.
This is why high school students
and their parents are so frenzied over college
admissions: it really does
go on your Permanent Record.
One consequence is that many kids
strive to get into colleges where the average IQ is a
little higher than their own. In his NYT article,
Frank points out:
according to one study, applicants typically seek an
institution whose average combined SAT score is roughly
100 points higher than their own."
In other words, high school seniors
would like their resumes to suggest they are about a
standard deviation smarter than they really are.
Why not one or two standard
deviations (200 or 400 points out of 1600 on the
pre-2005 SAT)? Because getting into a college that`s
too far over your head can lead to flunking out—which
also looks bad on your resume.
For example, when I was a high
school senior, I almost applied to Cal Tech. But I
eventually realized that, if they were stupid enough to
let me in, I wouldn`t have any idea what anybody was
talking about. (Outside of science-engineering colleges,
however, famous private colleges tend to be easier to
stay in than top public universities.)
Because girls mature more quickly than
boys, the current overwhelming emphasis on high school
performance hurts males. The system is also biased in
favor of upper middle class kids whose highly-competent
parents can help them jump through all the hoops. The
process seems to mold young people into the
well-organized but shallow and unappealing careerists
who predominate in
David Brooks` profiles of today`s elite college
Obviously, this is also a screwy,
Rube Goldberg way for companies to evaluate job
prospects. The consequent lousy hiring decisions cost
all Americans in lower overall prosperity.
When a 28-year old, for instance,
applies for a job, why should a company care so much
about how he did on an IQ-type SAT test a decade before?
Why not just give him a new
test—perhaps one fine-tuned to the
needs of the job?
Many companies still do use written
tests—because they are so useful. Consumer packaged
goods giant Procter & Gamble, long famous for the
quality of its employees, paid a large amount of money
to have their
problem solving test validated. The NFL encourages
all college football players hoping to be drafted to
12-minute Wonderlic IQ test. (For average IQs by
Other firms insist that their
managers conduct personal interviews that are IQ tests
Fear of discrimination lawsuits is
why Microsoft famously uses
IQ-type questions in interviews—such as "Estimate
how many gas stations there are in the US"—instead
of using written tests, even though Bill Gates is
obsessive about IQ.
This is no secret. Rich Karlgaard,
former editor of Forbes ASAP,
reminisced in the Wall Street Journal about a
journey he took with Gates in 1993:
that trip, I must have heard Mr. Gates mention `IQ` a
hundred times. The obsession with smarts is embedded
deep in Mr. Gates`s thinking and long ago was
institutionalized at Microsoft. Apply for a job and
you`ll face an oral grilling that probes for IQ. It is
oral and informal because of
Griggs v. Duke Power, the 1971 Supreme Court
ruling that banished written IQ tests and `tests of an
abstract nature` from job applications. But Microsoft
knows what it wants. It wants IQ. And Microsoft always
has been savvy at getting what it wants."
(Whenever I mention how much Gates
values high IQ employees, somebody objects that
Microsoft`s software is lousy so his workers must not be
very smart. But that assumes that Gates wanted
Microserfs to deliver good software. I suspect that
he just wanted them to make him the richest man in the
world. If they had to foist buggy software on the public
to do it, well, that was a price Bill was willing to
Griggs leads to some bizarre
corporate customs worthy of
When I was at Dun & Bradstreet, I
was once told to hire a computer programmer. Not being a
professional code writer myself, I asked the Human
Resources department for D&B`s official programmer`s
test. They told me that they didn`t have any
written tests for fear of
civil rights bias lawsuits. I was free to ask job
hunters questions orally. But I absolutely couldn`t
write them down.
Written exams more likely to be
biased than oral interviews? To assume that, you have to
Supreme Court justice!
Another problem with oral
examinations: their small sample size of questions.
Interviewers don`t generally have time to ask enough
questions to get a statistically-significant picture of
how smart the applicant is.
For example, when I was getting an
MBA, the famous consulting firm McKinsey called me in
for an interview. I figured a secretary would set me
down in an unused office and give me a half dozen case
studies to write up over a couple of hours.
But, instead, everything was done
orally. A McKinsey partner`s` time is money, so Mr. Big
only had time to outline for me just one client`s
problem and ask me what the key insight would be.
I got the wrong answer. That was
the end of my
brilliant McKinsey career.
Perhaps I really wasn`t smart
enough to be a McKinsey consultant. But I like to think
that a longer written test would have provided them with
a more accurate assessment.
In contrast, I was eventually hired
by a small, fast-growing marketing research firm. One of
the founders was a college professor, so when I showed
up for an interview, the HR department had me first
spend two hours taking the professor`s quite difficult
Advanced Marketing Research 301 final exam.
A few years later, when the company
grew large enough to show up on the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission`s radar, it
had to stop using the test.
The quality of new hires was never
the same again.
All these irrationalities stem from
the fact that our society is
a) obsessed with IQ (as any advanced technological
culture has to be); and
terrified of the topic that we aren`t supposed to
discuss it in print.
It`s time we grew up and talked honestly
about the facts of life.
And, as a consequence, end the
April Agony we inflict on the young—those least able to
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and