Holistic Approach Is Overrated as Admissions Tool, Says Researcher

April 16, 2009

Winston-Salem, N.C. — Many admissions officials insist on the importance of evaluating the “whole student.” That is, considering the talents and potential that grades and standardized-test scores do not reveal.

The trick is that holistic assessment is often unreliable, Scott Highhouse said here this morning at Wake Forest University’s “Rethinking Admissions” conference. Mr. Highhouse, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, cautioned admissions professionals about the limits of holistic evaluations, such as the personal interviews that Wake Forest built into its application process this year.

To make his point, Mr. Highhouse cited several studies that undermine the notion that employers can reliably predict the success of workers they hire. “People just aren’t very predictable,” he said.

So why do many people believe that an “intuitive approach” is better (and fairer) than an analytical one when evaluating candidates for a job? One reason, Mr. Highhouse suggested, was an “erroneous belief in prediction expertise,” or the idea that experts in a given profession can tell who will succeed and who will not. “We know that experts are less accurate than simple formulas based on observables,” he said, “and on-the-job experience does not improve predictions made by professionals in numerous fields.”

Furthermore, research suggests that a staple of the hiring ritual — the personal interview — is an unreliable way to assess an applicant’s potential. Highly structured interviews seem more reliable than informal ones, but they are perhaps more coachable, or “fakeable.”

One social psychologist in the audience asked Mr. Highhouse about the importance of personality traits, such as conscientiousness, that seem to correlate highly with student success.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Mr. Highhouse said. “How to measure conscientiousness in a way that is standardized.”

Mr. Highhouse said he was not necessarily speaking for or against the use of standardized measures, such as the SAT, in admissions. After all, he knew his audience: The subtitle of his presentation was “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.” —Eric Hoover